Baby foot and adult foot placed sole-to-sole with text: What Makes an Idea High Concept?

Last week, Jeff Lyons shared his insights with us into how to make every story idea the best it can be. Whether our story idea is for a meaningful story or an entertaining situation, he offered tips on how to strengthen our concept.

This week he’s back with another detailed post. Yay!

Today he’s delving into the tricky description of high concept. Many agents and editors say they prefer high-concept stories, but what does that mean?

Jeff shares seven qualities that will help us identify high-concept ideas. As he explains, high-concept stories don’t need to have every one of those qualities, but the more they have, the more high-concept they tend to be. In addition, he offers several insights into how a better understanding of high concept can help us improve—and pitch!—our story.

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*

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High Concept—It Actually Means Something!

by Jeff Lyons

As writers, we have all come up against the agent, publisher, studio hack, or fellow writer who, when asked to give feedback on our story retorts, “Yeah, good idea, but … it needs to pop more. There’s no high concept.”

Sigh. And what the heck does that mean? What are you supposed to do with that?

People throw this phrase around like the definition is common knowledge. But when asked to explain their sorry selves, these same people only deliver clichés, like:

  • It’s your story’s hook
  • It’s what’s fun about your story
  • It’s your story’s heart
  • It’s your story as a movie one-sheet
  • It’s the essence of your premise
  • And so on …

All of these have some truth to them. All of these speak to the idea of a high concept, but none of them really explain the darn thing. “High concept” has become a term d’art that everyone uses and that no one really understands.

Why Are High-Concept Ideas So Valued?

After much hair pulling, moaning, and sleepless nights analyzing this idea, I have stumbled upon an elegant construct that I think will both define the term accurately, but also give writers a tool for testing their ideas to quickly see if there is a high-concept component present.

High concept applies to any idea: motorcycle design, toothpaste, cooking, comic books, novels, movies, the list is endless. High concept is about essence; that visceral thing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go.

From a writing perspective, a story idea that is high concept captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, gets them asking “what if,” and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word. High concept drives the commercial book business, as well as the film and television industries.

The 7 Qualities of a High-Concept Idea™:

A high-concept idea has the following seven qualities:

  • High level of entertainment value
  • High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than originality)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
  • Sparks a “what if” question
    (Excerpted from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success. Focal Press, 2015)

Let’s look at each of these to get a better idea of what they mean:

Quality #1: High-level of Entertainment Value

This can be elusive. Defining “entertainment value” is like trying to define pornography; it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Simply put, you know if something is entertaining, or not, if it holds your attention and sparks your imagination. If you are distracted easily from the idea or interested purely on an intellectual basis, then it is safe to say that the idea may be interesting, engaging, and curious, but not entertaining.

Quality #2: High Degree of Originality

What does it mean to be original? Some common words associated with originality are: fresh, new, innovative, novel (no, not a book).

Think of originality as approach-centric. The idea may be centered in a familiar context, but the approach (original take) offered to get to that familiar context has never been used before, for example:

Frankenstein (1994, TriStar Pictures):
Familiar idea: Evil monster terrorizes the humans.
Original take: The monster and humans switch moral ground and the humans terrorize the monster.

Toute une Vie (And Now My Love, 1974, AVCO Embassy Pictures):
Familiar idea: Boy meets girl.
Original take: We see all the generations that led to the boy and girl being born, their love affairs, lives, and all the things they experience that make them who they become as adults; the lovers don’t meet until the end of the movie, rather than the beginning.

So, originality is more about finding new ways to present the familiar, rather than inventing something new from scratch.

Quality #3: High Level of Uniqueness

Whereas originality is about approach and fresh perspective, uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind, first time, and incomparable. Being original can also involve uniqueness, but being unique transcends even originality.

Finnegans Wake (novel, James Joyce):
Conventional Context: Episodic, slice-of-life vignettes of HCP, ALP and other characters.
Unique take: One-of-a-kind writing style never before used in modern fiction.

Sallie Gardner at the Gallop (1880, Eadweard Muybridge):
Conventional Context: No precedent!
Unique take: Believed to be the first motion picture exhibition anywhere.

Quality #4: Highly Visual

High-concept ideas have a visual quality about them that is palpable. When you read or hear about a high-concept idea, your mind starts conjuring images and you literally see the idea unfold in your mind.

This is why high-concept books make such good films when adapted. Books with cinematic imagery are almost always high-concept stories.

Quality #5: Possesses a Clear Emotional Focus

Like imagery, high-concept ideas spark emotion, but not just any emotion—a root emotion. There are seven root emotions: anger, fear, hurt, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, shame, and helplessness.

There is no wishy-washy emotional engagement of the reader. The involvement is strong, immediate, and intense.

Quality #6: Possesses Mass Audience Appeal

The idea appeals to an audience beyond friends and family. The target market is broad, diverse, and large.

Some ideas are very niche, appealing to a specific demographic, but this is usually a large demographic. High-concept ideas are popular ideas, mass ideas, and often trendy ideas.

Quality #7: Usually Born from a “What If” Question

What if dinosaurs were cloned (Jurassic Park)? What if women stopped giving birth (Children of Men)? What if Martians invaded the Earth (War of the Worlds)?

High-concept ideas are often posed first with a “what if” scenario and then the hook becomes clear. The hook is that part of the high concept that grabs the reader. It is often the one piece of the idea that is the original concept or the unique element.

In the three examples just given, each of them has a clear hook that leads to a high-concept premise line (the “premise line” will be the subject of a later post).

What’s Required for a Story to Be High Concept?

When a story has one or more of these qualities, then it can say it is high concept. The more the merrier.

High concept is not a single trait or quality, it is a continuum of qualities that every story has; some more, some less.

In that sense, every story is high concept to some degree, the question is: where is it on the continuum? The fewer the qualities, the “weaker” the high concept, the more of them, the “stronger” the high concept.

When the idea of high concept is put in the context of these seven qualities, it becomes easier to see that commercial film/TV ideas, or literary ideas, often have a clear line of demarcation from “noncommercial” content. That line is the high concept.

How Does Knowing the “Degree” of High Concept Help Us?

“So, what?” you ask. “It is what it is—right? Why does it matter that I know the degree of high concept of my story?” Fair question.

Knowing where your story falls on the continuum can help you target the right audience for your book, reinforce your confidence in the story itself about potential commercial strengths, and help pinpoint areas in the writing you may want to shore up or rewrite to strengthen the high concept even more.

For novelists, however, knowing the degree of high concept can be invaluable in helping to respond to vague submission requirements from publishers or agents.

It can’t hurt you if in your query letter you tell them you’re responding to their request for a high-concept piece, and then proceed to define each of the qualities present in the story. Because the reality is that even though editors, publishers, and even agents might request high-concept stories, they are all hard-pressed to define the term themselves—thus the vague guidelines in submission requirements.

How impressed do you think they will be if you help them out and tell them what high concept means for your story in your query? I think, very.

All of these reasons are useful in their own right for mastering the idea of the high concept, but there is another major reason why knowing the meaning of high concept is critical for writers: the log line.

The Log Line: What Does It Have to Do with High Concept?

Novelists are more and more hearing this term from agents and editors, but it is still more of a movie/TV term than a publishing phrase. Even so, log lines are helpful to include in query letters as they are a great tool for grabbing the interest of the person reading your query.

Once again, however, there is mass confusion among writers as to the meaning and function of the log line, not just with novelists, but also with screenwriters. So, along with high concept, it helps to know this term d’art as well.

When you get an idea for a story, two things happen:

  • an image drops into your head, and
  • an emotion, related to that image, fills you.

Every time you get excited about a new story, if you stop and witness what happens inside yourself, you will see both these things happen; they always happen.

The log line is an attempt to grab that exact moment of the dropping and represent that image-emotion in a short, powerful sentence. After all, that image-emotion sparked your imagination as a writer enough to get you to commit to developing the story, so if you can express that image-emotion in a sentence, then it will excite someone else’s imagination as well.

Grabbing someone else’s imagination is the first step to making a sale, or getting a meeting—no small thing.

In essence, the log line is your story’s high concept stated in a short sentence. Here are some examples:

  • A monster shark terrorizes a small coastal town [Jaws, Peter Benchley]
  • A cop battles uber-thieves when they take over an office building. [Nothing Lasts Forever, Roderick Thorp (film: Die Hard)]
  • A young boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. [Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling]
  • A man saves a pregnant woman in a world where women no longer give birth. [Children of Men, P.D. James]

None of these tell you about a hero or heroine, none of them give you any idea about the journey to be traveled, there is no clue about what happens at the end, but they do grab you and get you wondering “what if.”

With each of these you can see the image-emotion configuration, and it grabs you. That’s the job of the log line—and the high concept.

In conclusion, know that high concept means something, and knowing its meaning can help you write, position, and sell your stories regardless if you are writing screenplays, short stories, novels, or making a new toothpaste. High concept is part of story-development craft, and if you master it, then you will have one more powerful tool in your storytelling toolbox.

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Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.

He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.comTwitter @storygeeks

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Thank you, Jeff! As you said, we always hear the phrase “high concept story,” but no one seems to be able to define it. So it’s great to have a more tangible explanation for what that phrase means.

Not every story is high concept, but as Jeff points out, if we understand the qualities that go into a high-concept idea, we can develop those aspects within our story. Personally, I found that some of those qualities resonated more with me, possibly because they echo a quality I already strive for in my stories.

For example, I appreciated Jeff’s description for #2: Originality. I write romance, which is always a familiar idea: a couple meets and falls in love. Yet what makes many romances special and stand out comes down to its original approach for that concept.

The further along we can nudge our story on that high-concept continuum, the easier time we—and our readers—will have telling others about our story. As Jeff said, if we can grab the imagination of others with our story idea or log line, we’ve made the first step to making a sale. *smile*

Have you heard the phrase high concept before, and did you have a clear understanding of what the phrase means? Does Jeff’s list of qualities make sense and help you understand what goes into a high-concept story? Which quality resonates most strongly with you? Do any of your story ideas have a strong high concept, or are you still not sure? Do you have any questions for Jeff?

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Girl falling off a slide with text: Branding? Hang on to Your Sanity

Yesterday, Jenny Hansen—my friend and occasional guest poster here—published an interesting article over at Writers in the Storm, her group blog. Due to her love of tech stuff, she’s sharing “hacks” for how to build a strong online brand. *smile*

She shared insights on what authors can blog about, as well as several techniques to help us identify who we are. In addition, she pointed out that we want to pick just a couple of social media platforms to engage with, as we can’t keep up with it all.

That last item is a fantastic point that I want to dig deeper into today because it’s so easy in this business to overdo things. Add in a pinch of self-doubt about all the ways we might fail, and we’re pretty much doomed to struggle. *sigh*

When we first hear a writing tip—like “cut your darlings” or “avoid backstory”—we might be tempted to take that advice to the extreme. We might think our darlings are anything we like or anything we cling to.

Uh, we might like it because it’s good, and we might cling to it because it’s necessary for the story. So cutting everything that “darlings” might apply to? Bad idea.

Same with backstory—too much backstory or backstory inserted in the wrong place can be bad for our story’s pacing. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with backstory that answers essential questions for readers.

That same tendency to veer to the extreme can apply in all sorts of writing/publishing situations. Especially if we experience self-doubt, we’re likely to struggle to find the right balance.

We might…:

  • rigidly stick to our story outline, ignoring other ideas while we draft (Drafting Stage)
  • cut too much description for pacing reasons, leaving readers with no way to anchor our talking-head characters within a blank void (Self-Editing Stage)
  • change our story to accommodate every feedback suggestion from beta readers and editors (potentially losing the story we wanted to tell in the process) (Revision Stage)
  • pay for the top cover designer in our genre (even though we can’t afford it) because we fear we’ll fail if we compromise on any aspect of publishing (Publishing Stage)
  • invest in fancy swag or top-notch advertising to establish our brand (Branding Stage)

Of course, we could come up with virtually unlimited examples for each of those stages, but today I want to talk more about how we can overdo our branding efforts…

What Counts as Our Branding Efforts?

As I’ve mentioned here before, our brand is simply what others think of us and our work. Our brand encompasses everything from our genre and voice to who we are as a person: funny, geeky, helpful, knowledgeable, serious, snarky, politically active, parent, knitter, artistic, edgy, etc.

So our branding efforts includes our actual writing that we purposely send out into the world as well as other things we do that allow people to get to know us:

  • our avatar
  • our bios (on our website and social media)
  • our website and/or blog
  • our social media usage (which sites we use and how active we are)
  • our social media posts/tweets
  • our book covers and blurbs
  • our advertising/swag/promotions
  • our newsletter,  etc.

Or as I’ve discussed before:

“Our brand is how we and our stories relate to others. Or more accurately, it’s how others relate to us and our stories.

Do our stories make our readers feel good or frustrated, enlightened or disappointed? Do our social media updates make us seem friendly or whiny, helpful or self-absorbed? Do our blog posts make us seem informal or formal, amusingly crazy or crazy-crazy?

Who we are—our attitude and our worldview—comes through in everything we do, and once we understand that, we’ll realize that we don’t have to build a brand. The only thing we have to do is show who we are.”

The more conscious we are of what we’re putting out in the world, the more we control our brand.  Every blog post or comment, every Facebook status update, and every tweet tells others what’s important to us and how we think—and more importantly, allows others to relate to us.

How Can We Overdo Our Branding Efforts?

Many of us start new projects with loads of enthusiasm. We get a new story idea, and we want to drop everything to work on it. We learn a new editing insight, and we want to go through our writing (again) on a search-and-destroy mission.

The same thing can happen in the realm of branding efforts. We might…

  • hear advice about how such-and-such place is the place to advertise and feel pressured to come up with the money
  • think we have to promote a certain way or follow all the advice (have a blog!) to be successful
  • assume we have to be engaged on every social media platform, because our potential readers could be anywhere

But as Jenny pointed out in her post above, building a brand takes time. Inundating social media or conforming to an advertising plan that makes us uncomfortable isn’t likely to work.

Whatever we’re going to do for branding is going to be a marathon not a sprint, and that means short-term solutions might not be the best direction for us to take. So I want to add a step to how we can figure out the right balance for our branding efforts…

Keep the Long-Term in Mind When Building Our Brand

Yes, we might be able to afford a one-time advertising spree, but what about long-term? Remember that even McDonald’s—already known the world over—still advertises. Why? Because people tend to forget whatever’s not right in front of them.

A one-time advertising spree might get us a bunch of new sales, but those sales are likely to drop off over time. Are we okay with that decline? Or do we need a plan to maintain that sales momentum for as long as possible?

For social media, we might be able to keep up with six platforms in the short-term, but what about the long-term? Will that level of engagement still allow us enough time to write?

For blogging, we might want to start off our new blog with posts every day of the week, but that’s not going to work long-term unless we’re okay with transitioning into a blogger-who-writes rather than a writer-who-blogs. Author Anne R. Allen often talks about her slow-blogging (posting once a week) style for this reason.

In other words, short-term efforts are perfectly fine—as long as we know it’s short-term. We often make sacrifices for the short-term that we couldn’t keep up over the long-term, and getting back to “normal” after that extraordinary effort is the plan.

That works. Whatever we do, we should either go in with a plan for it to only be a short-term effort, or we should be able to maintain that level of effort for the long-term.

Why Should We Think Long-Term?

It may seem obvious why the long-term is important to think about. After all, we’re probably familiar with burnout.

Maybe we’ve participated in NaNoWriMo and gotten tons of words in…and then struggled to get any words on the page for the next two months. *raises hand* Or maybe our day job required us to put in extra hours for a big project…that dragged on and on.

In cases like that, recovering our equilibrium after a short-term effort can set us back. Or as what happens far too often in the writing world—it can make us give up.

We might question whether all the effort was worth it and not even want to transition to our long-term plan. Rather than transitioning from 20 social media posts/tweets a day to kick off our branding efforts to the 5 a day of our long-term plan, we might be so sick of social media that we stop all together.

Plenty of authors give up writing after releasing their first couple of books and not reaching the success they’d hoped for. So it’s not a stretch to understand how branding efforts (often not something we love to begin with) results in giving up as well.

The more we dislike whatever we’re doing for branding, the faster we’re likely to get sick of it. Whereas, if we’re thinking about what we can tolerate long-term, we’re more likely going to be able to keep up our efforts.

But there’s a second reason why it’s important to think long-term:

Our life and our career will only get busier.

No matter how busy we are now, with juggling drafting, editing, beta readers, contest entries, queries, submissions, etc., it gets worse. Sorry. *smile*

The deadlines get harder (and less forgiving) as we move along the publishing path. We have to add more to-do items for promotion, book signings, reaching out to reviewers, etc. We’re expected to do more to stay in the spotlight—posting interviews, buy links, and teasing future books. Not to mention that we have to add in tracking sales, results of promotional pushes, and taxes.

(Let’s not even get started on all the extra jobs self-published authors do in addition to the usual. *sigh*)

In other words, if we start out overextending ourselves the slightest bit, we’ll struggle that much sooner as our responsibilities increase.

Finding the Right Balance Is Not Easy

Believe me, I thought I’d found a sustainable level of involvement. I’ve only ever blogged twice a week. I’m only active on Twitter and Facebook (and even in those places, my activity level varied). And I’d set my promotion and sales goals low.

But… Life happens.

I’ve struggled with a never-ending series of health issues this past year or so, from nerve damage in my feet, vision problems, and several surgeries to deal with an antibiotic-resistant infection in my jawbone. Now for the last two months, I’ve been suffering from yet another issue that they’re still trying to diagnose.

(My doctor’s current theory is that it’s another antibiotic-resistant infection—this one in my digestive tract. Oh yay! He’s ordered 11 tests to check for all. the. things. *smile*)

My inner elbow is black and blue from all the tests, and until this issue is solved, we can’t proceed on my mouth surgery. Ugh. This feels like whining to me, but really it’s just the factual list of crap I’ve been dealing with. Fun!

Life can throw us for a loop sometimes. That’s why we need some slack in our expectations and commitments. That’s why we don’t want “overextended” to be our new normal.

Sometimes we’ll need to adjust—and then readjust—what we’re capable of. Sometimes we’ll need more help. (Yes, guest posts are especially welcome for the foreseeable future! *grin*) And sometimes we’ll have to cut back.

Even if we don’t experience big “life happens” messes like I am right now (*fingers crossed* for all of you!), the simple addition of responsibilities as our career grows and evolves can strain our ability to keep up.

Of course we can start off with high expectations and engagement, but my point is that for our sanity’s sake, we need to recognize that we’re allowed to change our approach to branding just as much as we might change our drafting process as we better learn what works or doesn’t work for us.

With luck, we might even be able to make our branding efforts more efficient, keeping the ideas that produce results and dropping those that don’t. And no matter what, we’re allowed to prioritize our sanity too. *smile*

Do you hate thinking about branding stuff? What could you do short-term for branding that you might not be able to do long-term? Do you think long-term when setting expectations? Have you experienced any increases in busyness as your career grew? How did you deal with that increase (cut back, change expectations, etc.)?

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Five gold stars with text: Making Our Story the Best It Can Be

Some stories tell an engaging tale that’s entertaining but doesn’t necessarily feel deep or significant to our life. Other stories make us feel like we’re changed simply by reading them.

There’s nothing wrong with either type of story. Sometimes we might want to read an entertaining story and don’t care whether we’ve learned anything by the telling. Other times, we want to feel deeply connected to a story or we want something more enlightening.

That’s okay. We’re allowed to have moods and preferences. *smile*

And regardless of stereotypes, we can find stories at either end of this spectrum within every genre. Yes, some romances are “fluffy”—where obstacles are overcome in a straightforward manner without any lessons for our lives—but plenty of others include insights into the human condition. “Fluffy” mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction stories exist too, as well as those with more complexity.

Again, that’s okay. Just as readers are allowed to have preferences, authors are as well. Sometimes we might want to write a “just for fun” story, and other times we might want to write stories with more meaning or depth.

To provide insights on our options, Jeff Lyons is here today to share the difference between meaningful stories and entertaining situations.

(Obviously the latter can also result in successful books, but he’s using those terms to differentiate what makes certain stories more significant.)

He shares five components of stories and compares them to five components of situations. With that knowledge, we’ll have a better understanding of how to make our idea the best it can be—no matter what type it is.

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*

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Stories vs. Situations:
How to Know Your Story Will Work in any Genre

by Jeff Lyons

If I were to ask you, “Do you know what a story is,” you would probably feel a little put out. After all, you’ve probably been writing stories for a long time. In fact, you might even make your living from writing stories. Honestly, he’s asking me that? The cheek!

“Story” is a common term’d art in the world of creative writing—everyone knows what a story is, right? You would think so, but, alas, this is not the case. So don’t be offended by my question, because what we’re about to discuss is something that is not taught in writing classes, MFA programs, or written about in most writing-craft, how-to books.

Knowing how to tell that you have a story, and that it can survive the long story development process from beginning to end, is not some random bit of knowledge you pick up off the grass. It is skill that can be learned, like riding a bike. And once learned, it can lift your storytelling craft to a level of mastery that will save you time, money, and months of frustration writing yourself into literary corners and blind alleys.

To appreciate the power of what I am about to describe, we must first begin with two obvious questions: what do I mean when I use the term “a story,” and if something is not a story, then what is that “something else”?

What Is a Story?

When I ask groups of writers (novelists or screenwriters) to define this most basic storytelling idea, “what is a story,” I get as many definitions as there are people in the room.

The responses are always generic and canned:

  • A story is a narrative.
  • A story is the sequential beats of what happens in a story.
  • A story is your plot.
  • A story is what your characters do.
  • A story is a narration of events coming to some conclusion.

All of these (and there are many others) have some ring of truth to them, and for the most part suffice when it comes to answering the question “what is a story.” But, none of these definitions define the thing itself in a way that has meaning and significance for storytellers.

So, here is a working definition of a story that captures the essence of the thing:

A story is the combination and interplay of character and plot
that is a metaphor for a human experience
leading to emotional change.

Essentially, what this is saying is that if you are writing something that involves an individual carrying out actions on the page that combine to create a personal experience of emotional change, and that experience conveys some insight into the human condition, then you have a story.

Given this definition, it then follows that a story possesses five identifiable components.

The Five Components of a Story

  1. A story reveals something about the human condition, or makes a statement about what it means to be human.
  2. A story tests personal character, over and over, to reveal deeper character.
  3. A story has subplots that are dramatic and thematic reflections of the journey of the protagonist, and that open windows into character and motivation.
  4. A story ends in a different emotional space than it began.
  5. A story is driven by a strong moral component motivating the protagonist through the middle of the story, resulting in dramatically interconnected scene writing.

This list of bullets is not arbitrary, or pulled out of some hat, like a rabbit by a magician. No, these components derive from story structure itself. That’s why they are real and possess the full force of drama (or comedy).

Every story has a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story, it’s something else.

If you have these five components clearly identified in your writing, then you can have confidence you have a story, and not that “something else.” You can be confident that there is an underlying foundation supporting your writing that will emerge as you write, and that will support your entire writing process.

Understand Those Components to Understand Story Craft

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the topic of story structure and its critical role in the story development process (see my book Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press), but knowing how to identify a story—before you start writing—is invaluable to novelists struggling with any new story idea, or an old idea that is “going nowhere.”

This is the craft skill I alluded to earlier. This is that bit of story wisdom that for some comes automatically, elegantly, without thought—as talent—but that for the rest of us comes as learned craft.

Regardless of how it comes, as a gift from the gods, or as hard-earned mastery, this knowledge can make all the difference between getting lost in the story woods, and writing reams of meandering pages, versus staying focused, directed, and intentional in your writing.

What If Our Story Idea Doesn’t Include Those Components?

What do you do, however, when you write a story only to discover that those five story components are weak, or missing? You love your idea, but don’t want to abandon it.

This is the other side of this story vs. no-story coin. Remember, all stories have a structure. If they don’t, then they’re not stories. They’re something else—that “something else” is a called a situation.

This is, in fact, what most genre writers (horror, police procedural, detective, mystery, romance, etc.) are creating when they think they are writing stories. Situations are parts of stories, they are not stories themselves. But, they can still be compelling, fun, entertaining, and wonderfully engaging.

How can you tell if you have a situation? Like stories, situations have five identifiable components.

The 5 Components of a Situation

  1. A situation is a problem, puzzle, or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
  2. A situation does not reveal character; it mainly tests a character’s problem-solving skills.
  3. A situation’s plot twists ratchet up the puzzle or mystery (stakes), but rarely open character windows.
  4. A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space, especially for the protagonist.
  5. A situation has no, or a very weak, moral component, leading often to episodic writing.

A situation is all about the puzzle, mystery, or problem to be solved. Look at any police procedural TV show, or mystery novel (Agatha Christie, Sherlock Homes, etc.), or most monster movies, they are all about one question:

How quickly and cleverly can the protagonist get out of the pickle they are in and solve the problem?

Let’s take a classic (and my favorite) set-up: the twenty-something kids caught in a cabin in the woods with the monster/slasher/alien outside trying to get in to eat/slash/probe them. The only questions are:

  • How many kids are going to be eaten/killed/probed?
  • How bloody is it going to get?
  • Who will survive?

That’s it. Nobody is going to have a big revelatory moment where they realize they have to change their life to be a better person.

There will be no moments where we get profound insights into the inner workings of the protagonist (assuming there is a main character). And any twists or plot complications will be all about ratcheting up the tension of the problem/puzzle, not pushing characters to some behavioral edge where we see who they really are as people.

The only change in the emotional space will be one of moving from happy-go-lucky (opening), to terror-filled (middle), to relief at surviving (end). In other words, the hero or heroine will end the adventure in the same emotional place inside themselves as they started.

The Most Important Difference: A False Belief

The most important differentiator of all is that there is no, or a very weak, moral component to the situation.

Moral component is a complex topic, again outside the scope of this article, but what it means is that the protagonist is driven from the inside by some basic belief about him-herself, which is essentially wrong, but that is coloring all their actions outside themselves in the story world. They are acting badly, because of this characterological blind spot, and this is what they heal and change in the end.

Every story has this; every situation does not. This one element alone is enough to help you quickly identify a situation from a story.

Does your protagonist have a flaw that is screwing up their lives, that they would have anyway, regardless of the threat of being eaten/killed/probed?

Many Examples Fall Inbetween

There is, however, one gray-area worth mentioning. This is what I call the “basically good person caught in the no-win scenario” scenario.

In the film world, some good examples of this are: Gravity (2013, Warner Bros.), The Martian (2015, Twentieth Century Fox), Taken (2008, EuropaCorp.), Godzilla (2014, Warner Bros.)—there are many others.

These are all situations masquerading as stories, but they fall into this gray area; a little bit story, a little bit situation.

The differentiator that pushes them over the story line into a situation is that the heroes and heroines in all these “stories” are all focused on surviving the problem/disaster/predicament they are facing, not working out some deep-seeded flaw that is mucking up everyone’s lives around them.

They are basically good people, thrust by circumstance (not of their own making) into fighting a losing battle, even though they may win in the end. And this is what saves the story day; we root for them because they are getting crushed and find the will to live, or make some horrible choice that saves others.

They don’t really change, they’ve always been good, and they end the story the same way, just beat up and a bit worse for the wear—but alive. And all of these movies were huge at the box office; great successes financially and with audiences.

Situations Are Not “Bad”

The fact is, movie/TV audiences love situations, and readers love them in fiction. The caveat here is that to be successful on the screen, or in print, situations must overcome their story weaknesses, and this means doing three things:

  • be fun,
  • be entertaining, and
  • be engaging.

They may not have anything to say about the human condition, and the protagonist may just be a leaf on the wind of fate, motivated only by a will to live and not by some twisted moral flaw they have to overcome in the end, but that’s alright as long as the audience has fun, is engaged, and is entertained.

Stories have to do these three things as well, but stories have the advantage of having a compelling human story driving the drama or comedy, on top of being fun, entertaining, and engaging.

But, if you have a situation and you don’t want to let it go, then your responsibility as a writer is to make it the best situation you can make it (from a reader-engagement perspective). Stories are not better than situations, they are simply more complex.

So, write stories that will bring readers to tears, or bust their guts laughing, and teach them what it means to be human along the way; or write a situation that will make them bite off their nails, and scream out loud in excitement, unwilling to stop reading for fear of missing what’s next.

Whichever you choose, do it consciously, be a conscious writer. Learn your craft to know a story from a situation, because when you do, whatever you write will be stronger, and audiences will come back for more.

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Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.

He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.comTwitter @storygeeks

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Thank you, Jeff! Here on my blog, we’ve talked about story structure, false beliefs, and character arcs a lot, but I like how your different perspective on those elements helps emphasize what they mean to the depth of our stories.

I often say that stories are about change. On some level, situations are about plot-change and stories are about character-change.

Both approaches are valid, and I’m sure we can think of countless successful examples of each. Yet many writing articles focus on character arcs to the extent that plot-focused authors might fear that they’re doomed to fail. So I’m glad to be able to share Jeff’s insights to help explain how they’re different and each supposed to work.

As Jeff said, there’s nothing wrong with writing situations. The point is that no matter what we write, we should do so with intention and purpose to make it as good as it can be. *smile*

Do you understand the difference Jeff is making here between stories and situations? Do you agree or disagree with the distinction? Do you tend to write stories or situations? Does this help you understand how to make your chosen idea better (no matter what form it takes)? Do you have any questions for Jeff?

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Writing Craft: Balancing Rules and Voice

by Jami Gold on March 16, 2017

in Writing Stuff

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Many aspects of writing are subjective, so we often need to discuss how to find the right balance. One reader’s too little can be another reader’s too much.

To that end, I’ve written and guest-hosted several posts about balancing different elements of our writing, such as balancing backstory, description, emotions, and plot obstacles, as well as how to balance our writing elements overall.

A recent comment on one of my older posts brought up another element that we also need to balance: the rules of writing versus our writing voice.

Specifically, Anne Kaelber asked:

“How do I balance between Margie’s anaphora and Jefferson’s echoing words?”

Anaphora is a rhetorical device, one of several taught by writing instructor Margie Lawson. Like many rhetorical devices, anaphora uses repetition to create an impact:

  • Anaphora: Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more phrases or sentences in a row:
    “He’d never believe her. He’d never trust her. He’d never love her again.”
  • Alliteration: Using words with similar beginning sounds close together:
    “Her heart hammered.”
  • Epistrophe: The opposite of anaphora, repeating the end of phrase:
    “She would die. He would die. They’d all die.”
  • Anadiplosis: Repeating the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next, as exemplified by Yoda:
    “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
  • Amplification: Repeating a word or phrase within a sentence while adding more detail:
    “Love—true love—is what brings us together today.”
  • Epizeuxis: Repeating one word to make it more important:
    “Our day at the beach was fun, fun, fun.”
  • Commoratio: Repeating an idea with different words:
    “She was doomed. Finished. Dead.”

Echoes are when we repeat the same word, sentence structure, or imagery/idea too many times, which was one of the top five problems Jefferson Smith found in his Immerse or Die challenge.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had feedback point out when your characters grin or nod too many times on a page, so we understand some aspect of the rule about avoiding word echoes. Yet rhetorical devices are a great way to differentiate our voice.

How can we balance the rules of writing and the uniqueness of our voice? Let’s take a look…

Step #1: Understand the Reason for the Writing “Rule”

I put “rule” in quotes, because the rules we’re familiar with are usually more of guidelines than break-this-and-you’ll-fail rules. However, even as guidelines, they still exist for a reason.

Often, what creates the sense of lazy writing is when authors either don’t know a writing rule (such as littering commas about willy-nilly) or they break rules without thought of the cost. For example, one common writing rule is: avoid adverbs.

First of all, that’s a silly “rule” because a list of adverbs goes beyond the “-ly” ending words we tend to think of first. Adverbs also encompass words that describe when (after, before, tomorrow, etc.) and where (inside, outside, downstairs, there, etc.). In other words, we couldn’t write a story without adverbs. *smile*

That said, the “rule” is useful for reminding us to be cautious with how adverbs—those that end with an “-ly” such as: quickly, carefully, quietly, etc.

In many cases, those verb-adverb combinations could be replaced with a stronger verb that encompasses both ideas:

  • walked quickly vs. rushed
  • sneaked carefully vs. tiptoed
  • said quietly vs. whispered

As long as we understand the reason for the rule, we could make a conscious decision to keep an -ly adverb. Maybe we can’t think of a stronger verb that fits, or maybe we like the rhythm better with the adverb.

Writing “Rule”: Avoid Echoes

In the case of echoes, Jefferson Smith pointed out why the “rule” exists. Repeating words, sentence structures, or ideas/imagery too many times (especially too close together) tends to call attention to itself.

Several sentences too close together all starting with “But” will be noticeable. Ditto for repeating gesture crutches, such as nodding, grinning, frowning, sighing, smiling, etc. Unintended alliteration is similarly bad, as it can be distracting.

“Calling attention to itself” can take other forms as well. Several sentences in a row all following the same structure can “sound” repetitive, rhythm-wise. For example:

  • Compound sentences (such as “x, but y.”):
    She punched, but he ducked. Then she threw a right hook, but he weaved.
  • Introductory phrases/clauses:
    After she was done, she… As her fate unraveled, she… In case she lost, she…

Using the same description or imagery every time an idea is mentioned in the story also screams lazy writing. If we’re describing our heroine’s hair in multiple scenes, the descriptions should be different each time and not use the same words, such as “her cornsilk tresses.”

(True story: One author I’ve read uses the same phrases to describe every one of their heroines in every book, right down to the words describing their slim waists. That’s lazy writing.)

Step #2: Decide Whether the “Rule” Applies

Only we know the story we want to write. We have to find the right approach for our voice, genre, characters, tone, and style—for our story.

Most “rules” aren’t an always/never statement. As I mentioned above, in the right situation, we could come up with reasons to include adverbs. In other words, it’s okay to know the reason for a rule and consciously decide that our reason to ignore the rule supersedes the original reasoning.

For example, we might know that clichés weaken writing. However, we might choose to have a character speak in clichés anyway because we want the reader’s impression to be that the character is a bit cliché themselves.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to break a writing rule about avoiding information dumps if our goal was to create a faster pace. Similarly, we wouldn’t want to break a writing rule about using a deep point of view if our goal was to make our readers feel like the story was happening to them. The point is to match our choices with our goals.

If we’re more successful at creating the reader impression we want by breaking a rule than by following it, we’d be smart to break that rule. If we followed every rule—from avoiding sentence fragments to never including extraneous words—we’d strangle our voice.

Writing Voice: Use Rhetorical Devices

That brings us to some of the reasons why we’d ignore the “rule” against creating echoes. We might want to call attention to a section of our writing.

We might decide the repetition is good for:

  • our voice
  • our character’s voice
  • emotional impact
  • rhythm, etc.

Sometimes we want alliteration or one of the other rhetorical devices. Or maybe we want to make an element of our story seem more important. Writing a certain way on purpose isn’t a problem.

There’s nothing wrong with repeating an element of our writing if we decide it creates the emphasis we want. The key is to consciously make that decision. Writing with purpose is how we avoid the mistakes of lazy writing.

Step #3: Decide for Each Instance Separately

Just because we decide to break a rule in one section of our story doesn’t mean we should break it every time. Including an adverb in a specific sentence for rhythm doesn’t change the fact that adverbs often are a sign of lazy writing, so we shouldn’t start keeping every adverb from our draft.

Just because sentence fragments can be used in well-crafted writing doesn’t mean every sentence should be a fragment. We need to analyze each occurrence to decide if it’s meeting our goals for reader impression.

Balancing Writing Rules and Writing Voice

In the case of repetitive words or phrases, such as what Anne asked about, we need to decide whether the repetition helps or hurts our writing. Repetition calls attention to itself, so if we’re trying to emphasize something, repetition might be the perfect technique—sometimes.

Even when we have a great reason, we still don’t want to overdo it. I’ve mentioned before that I have to cut several anaphora examples from every story because it’s my favorite technique. *smile*

Anaphora works well for emphasizing emotional impact. So if we’re saving that technique for when we really need extra emotional oomph (no more than a few times per novel), we’re probably in the clear.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and tend to include anaphora every chapter? Well… Some of those will have to go. *grin*

Finding the Right Balance between Writing Rules and Voice

The trick is to think about our goals for reader impression and ensure our voice techniques accomplish what we want. As with so many aspects of writing, we likely won’t get the balance right during drafting, and that’s okay.

For some writing rules that we struggle with in edits, we might be better off drilling into ourselves to try to follow the rule right from our first draft. Or we might need extra help from our editor to get it right.

For other rules, we might find it easier to fix the issues later. As an example, it’s often easier for me to cut repetition than to add voice, so my best bet is to encourage my voice as much as possible during drafting and worry about the right balance with writing rules later.

Either way, we can question our reasons, decide for each instance, and use feedback from our beta readers and editors to find the right balance for the story we want to tell. The best story will flow naturally, without our voice feeling like we’re trying to hard or like we’re suffocating our unique style. *smile*

Have you ever felt like the writing “rules” restrained your voice? What did you decide to do—follow the rule or your voice? What rules do you think shouldn’t be broken? What rules do you tend to break? How have you found the right balance between rules and voice?

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3 Steps to Raise Our Story’s Stakes

by Jami Gold on March 14, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Writers Helping Writers: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold

In my first post as a Resident Writing Coach over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site, I shared encouragement for approaching a big revision. Even when it seems like everything needs work, the elements of our stories—from goals and stakes to pacing and obstacles—all interconnect, so the fixes we make to one element are likely to improve the others as well.

Now that it’s my turn for another coaching article at WHW, I figured I’d dig deeper into one of those story elements and talk about how we can fix issues. This time around, we’re talking about stakes.

Stakes Help Readers Care

Last week, I mentioned that story structure has a reader purpose as well as a story purpose. Similarly, I’ve written about how stakes—the consequences for the characters if they fail to reach their goals—also have a reader purpose in addition to the story purpose:

“The more readers care about seeing whether our characters succeed or witnessing our characters’ reactions to those consequences, the more likely readers will continue to turn pages.”

In that earlier post, I explored how we can make readers care about stakes, even if they’re not life-and-death. The key is creating a connection between readers and the character and making the stakes feel personal to the characters.

Stakes Need to Increase throughout a Story

If there aren’t any stakes, there’s no reason for characters to take risks, because one outcome will be just as good as another. No stakes means characters don’t have to make sacrifices. No stakes also means that readers have nothing to root for.

In other words, if there are no stakes, it’s a lot harder to have an engaging story. *smile*

But the stakes also need to change during a story. When stakes increase, the tension of a story increases as well. The pacing and narrative drive of a story are sustained. There’s a bigger sense of a story arc when the risks the character takes with each choice grow over time.

That’s where the typical advice comes in to “raise the stakes” over the course of a story. By raising the stakes, we’re forcing the characters to face bigger threats and obstacles, which then force them to make choices that bring them closer to the ultimate showdown with the main conflict.

But how exactly are we supposed to raise the stakes of our story?

  • Is it just about bigger consequences to our protagonist?
  • What if they’re worried more about others—does that not count?
  • How do we determine the consequences?
  • If a character’s goal is minor (such a wanting to pick up coffee on their way to work), are our consequences doomed to be inconsequential too?
  • What about subplots—do those need to have huge consequences too, so our stakes are always increasing?
  • Does every scene have to increase the stakes?

Come join me at WHW, and let’s take a look at three steps for making sure our story has strong stakes—and answer those questions… *smile*

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program
What Does It Mean to “Raise the Stakes”?

Do you struggle with including stakes in your story? What about making sure they increase over the course of the story? How do you make sure you’re raising the stakes in your story? Do you think stakes that increase help drive the story’s narrative and strengthen the tension and pacing of the story? Do you have any questions about stakes?

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Story Structure: What’s the Purpose…for Readers?

March 9, 2017 Writing Stuff
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Ever wonder how many writing “rules” have a reason beyond “because I said so”? Story structure exists not just because it makes our story stronger, but also because the story beats help communicate with readers–and understanding how can help us write and revise our story.

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Brain Science: Right Brain vs. Left Brain vs. Creativity

March 7, 2017 Writing Stuff
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Ever heard of the left-brain versus right-brain dichotomy—our logical, language-focused left brain versus our creative and artistic right brain? What does that mean for authors, with our need for creativity and language? Let’s dig deeper into this brain science…

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Story Immersion: What Pulls You In?

March 2, 2017 Writing Stuff
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When I first joined Goodreads, their account form asked me: “What Kind of Books Do You Like to Read?” My answer to that question helped me realize that I love becoming immersed in a story, the sense that we’re not just reading words on a page. But what creates story immersion?

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Faking It: Making Our Actions Count

February 28, 2017 Random Musings
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We’ve probably all heard the phrase: Fake it until you make it. Faking it isn’t always easy, but the effort of faking it can push us forward. Over time, we’ll often discover we’re not faking it anymore. What would be even better, though, was if faking it wasn’t as hard, right?

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Are There Story Elements You Avoid Writing?

February 23, 2017 Writing Stuff
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The stories we write are affected by our worldview, but that’s not the only thing that might make us avoid writing about certain elements. By looking at the other reasons we might have, we can decide whether our avoidance makes sense or points out an opportunity to improve.

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