The Bar is Set Low – Very Low

I am lucky to coach some very talented new writers. They all come to me with an idea for a story and their main question is always the same: “Is this story any good?”

The fact is that any story can use improvement. What I offer is structure: both in the form of the story and in getting it done. I use lessons from mythology, screenwriting, psychology, and a little project management to help beginning writers create a novel in 6 months.

The Novel That Convinced Me It Was Possible

In 2005 I joined a mystery book club. We were to read a book a month and share what was great – or not so great – about the book. The first book was Lisa Jackson’s Fatal Burn. It’s not what you think. You might think that I was so bowled over that I was inspired to reach the same literary heights as Ms. Jackson. After all, this was a New York Times Best Selling title – so it must be good, right?

My epiphany came when I read the climactic scene where the heroine realizes that it was her father – the local fire chief – who was responsible for the rash of fires in her town. It was his dark secret revealed when she listed her and her siblings in birth order: Aaron, Robert, Shea, Oliver, Neville, and Shannon. If you take the first letter of each name it spells “ARSONS.”

Clearly this is the most ridiculous plot point in the history of fiction. What if the mother had died in childbirth after three children? That would spell “ARS.” What if the mother wanted more children and named the last two Isaac and Charles? That would be the height of irony: an arsonist with children’s names (mis)spelling “ARSONIC.”

That was the moment I realized that I, or in fact anyone, could write a novel and sell it on the open market. If you have even a basic competency to write prose, you can write a best selling novel – because the bar is set so incredibly low.

Even Pulitzer Prize Winners Write Crap

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. It weighs in at over 750 pages and  tells the story of a young man’s life from age 12 (when his mother is killed) to nearly 30. When Theo loses his mother to a terrorist bomb in a museum, he steals a precious painting of a goldfinch and keeps it hidden for nearly 20 years.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but of course these are my opinions. One man’s crap is another man’s fine dining. But I have objective reasons for claiming The Goldfinch is crap. First of all it’s unnecessarily long. If ever a work could be accused of purple prose, The Goldfinch is a leading contender. The story lingers far too long on scenes that ultimately have no purpose in the story.

But the final straw for me was the climactic ending. Our hero is despondent over the loss of his painting and is holed up in a hotel room. He becomes so miserable that he contemplates suicide – which is a difficult thing to write in a FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE. How in the world do you write anything after the gun goes off if the main character is dead? Worse than that, if the story is told in the first person, past tense, then how in the world is he relating the story to you after having killed himself? As a ghost? So you KNOW he is not going to kill himself.

Finally, though, just as the hero is about to pull the trigger, his friend barges in and EXPLAINS the climax of the story. That is: “while I was gone, I returned the painting to the authorities, all the bad guys who are out to kill us are in jail, and we got a big reward.” In other words, all the action happens OFF PAGE to a SECONDARY CHARACTER while the hero was WALLOWING IN SELF-PITY. If I thought Fatal Burn had the worst plot point in history, then this is the single worst ending ever – and it won the highest literary praise on the planet.

In any story with a main character: the hero provides the climactic action. You must SHOW not TELL the action. These are two of the primary rules of storytelling.

Who Needs a Hero?

I am coaching a young man writing a dystopian zombie young adult novel. My advice is to create a main character the reader can follow from beginning to the end and give him an inner problem to solve. Think about Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner. But he balked. He read Charlie Higson’s The Enemy in which the main character is killed off at the midpoint and a new character takes up the role of the hero.

This is heresy of the highest order. You don’t kill your main character in the middle of the action. Of course there are well-known stories where important characters are killed off (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones). But even in ensembles there are lead characters you want to follow through to the end. Yet The Enemy breaks this rule and still is #90 in its category on Amazon.com.

Know Your Audience

How can these books make such obvious mistakes and still attract a readership? What is it these authors know that the rest of us don’t?

It’s simpler than it seems: these authors reached their audience. Such books as E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight are, by most measures, terrible pieces of literature. And yet they are blockbusters. All of these writers have found what readers are looking for. Jackson knows her readers don’t need logical plot lines as long as she provides enough suspense and action. Tartt focused on style rather than plot and appealed to readers who like deep characters and deep descriptions. Higson knows his readers relate to first-person shoot-em-up zombie video games – so he gave them that in print.

What is Success?

There are rules to good storytelling. Some people bristle when I use the word “rules.” (Others prefer “guidelines.”) But I think we should all learn the rules of good storytelling, practice them, master them, then learn to break them.

At Agile Writers, the very first thing we do before writing our books is write a Story Abstract. In it, we choose our genre, reader’s age, gender, and educational level. Simply put, we define our audience. We begin our writing journey by thinking about who is going to read our book. We put our reader first.

Success, then, is not necessarily measured in book sales, high praise, or adherence to the rules. But in reaching your audience. If your audience is 100,000 people and you sell 100,000 books you’ll be successful. But if your audience is only 100 readers and you reach them – then you’ve succeeded. And the best way to reach your audience is to first know who they are.

So remember, the bar for so-called quality is set very low. You don’t need the best story idea, plot points, or even literary prowess. What you need is a passion for your story, a well-defined audience, and a plan to complete. You bring the passion, we’ll bring the plan.

Continued Success!

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The Problem With Star Wars

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Star Wars has been a phenomenally popular movie franchise. The original Star Wars came out in 1977 and was an instant success. But when I first watched it, I was not impressed. My first impression was that it was the King Arthur legend in outer space. Even at the age of 14 I had expectations of my science fiction adventures. We all have a sense of a good story when we see one. But when I first saw Star Wars, there were things missing. Let’s look at one of the flaws of Star Wars and why the film has endured despite it.

The Elements of Good Storytelling

At Agile Writers, we follow the basic pattern of the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Hero starts out in his ordinary world
  • Something happens that upsets the hero’s world
  • And he is cast into an unfamiliar world
  • Where he makes new friends, enemies, and overcomes trials
  • After overcoming a major crisis
  • The hero returns to his ordinary world, with a lesson learned.

What Star Wars is Lacking

Star Wars follows this pattern nearly to a tee. However, one thing lacking is the lesson learned. What is it that Luke understands about the universe that he didn’t understand at the beginning?

Luke starts out with what we call a “Missing Inner Quality.” He lacks confidence. In the end, he acquires this confidence when he trusts in the Force. So we have to ask ourselves, is this the message of this film? Is this the lesson learned?

If so, then the lesson learned is that we should all trust in the Force to resolve our issues. But the Force is a fictional element of a fictional galaxy, long ago and far away. This is not a message that any of us can use.

Alternatively, you might argue that the point of Star Wars is that we should trust in some higher power. But that doesn’t really seem to be the message that George Lucas was attempting to impart. We don’t really see Luke or any other character giving praise and credit to the higher power. Using the Force in the final scenes of the film is merely the device that signifies Luke has overcome his lack of confidence and has found a new confidence in the Force.

Why Star Wars is Popular

What Star Wars does right is the use of archetypes in story telling. These are fundamental character types that all humans seem to recognize intrinsically. The archetypes Star Wars employs are:

  • The young hero (Luke)
  • The damsel in distress (Leia)
  • The comic sidekicks (R2D2 & C3PO)
  • The rascal (Han)
  • The mentor (Obi Wan)
  • The villain (Darth Vader)

When we see these elements combined in the right ways, we are instantly engrossed in the story. You can see them employed over and over again in storytelling. Look at The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and The Matrix.

When George Lucas created his story, he consulted Joseph Campbell on the use of these mythical archetypes. He got this right. He got it so right that he was able to build an empire from this one story, and overcome a critical flaw.

The Serial and Roller Coaster Rides

Lucas based the structure of Star Wars, in part, on the serial movie shorts of his youth. Serials like Flash Gordon, for example, were episodic and often began with a recap of previous episodes. So, also, does Star Wars begin with an opening scroll.

These action/adventure stories were designed to thrill and excite young movie goers. They weren’t meant to teach a deep lesson. The idea was to pull the viewer in and keep them coming  back for more in subsequent releases. As such, they are very much roller coaster rides.

At Agile Writers, I warn writers away from writing roller coaster rides. When you begin your story, you are entering into a contract with the reader. That contract is that you promise if the reader hangs in there with you, you will deliver a story with a point to it. If the reader gets to the end of the story and there is no point, they will wonder why they spent the time and money on your story.

Have a Message

Roller coaster rides are fun. They are nice once in a while. However, as a beginning writer, I advise you to have a message to impart upon your reader. You have an opinion about the world we live in. You have a unique perspective about this world. Draw upon your unique experiences to craft a story that imparts a message to your readers that will enrich and engage them. That is the ultimate point of story.

Non Standard Plots: A Dog’s Purpose

At Agile Writers we adhere to The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We also take lessons from movie plots and combine them into the Agile Writer Method.

The Hero’s Journey has a standard pattern. The hero starts out in a familiar world where things are pretty static. Then something happens that upsets the hero’s world and he is thrust into unfamiliar territory. He must learn the rules of this “Special World” and overcome some great obstacle and return to the “Ordinary World” with the lessons learned.

The vast majority of story plots follow this pattern. But it’s not necessarily the only pattern. Sometimes writers break the mold of the hero’s journey to tell a compelling story using a different device to good effect.

One example I like to use is 2011’s War Horse – a Stephen Spielberg film. In it we’re introduced to a horse who is bought by a farmer at auction at the start of World War I. The horse is a thoroughbred – built for racing. But the farmer uses the horse to plow the fields. The horse demonstrates great heart in her work. Ultimately, the farmer is forced to sell the horse to the English cavalry. The horse is then owned by a captain who runs into a German infantry troupe and is killed. The horse then changes hands again and is used to pull cannons for the German artillery. The horse escapes and befriends a young French girl whose father works for the resistance. Finally, after the war is over, the horse returns to the farm only to find that it is overrun by cars, jeeps, and buses.

This pattern is the “anthology” story. The horse is not really the hero of the story. The horse is merely a.token that is passed from mini-story to mini-story to give the movie continuity. The horse doesn’t learn any lessons. But we’re witness to the loss of innocence of Europe and the transition from an agrarian society to a technological one. The world is changed, not our hero.

A similar device is used to good storytelling effect again in A Dog’s Purpose. In it, a dog, Bailey, is born, dies, and is reborn over and over. In each life the dog learns something new. And all through the multiple lives, Bailey has experiences that teach him how to be the best dog he can be.

It’s hard to watch a good dog die. Especially over and over again. While the story is cloying and tugs at the heart strings, the anthology pattern is used to good effect here. The message this movie wants to push home is “be present and happy in the moment – like good dogs do.” It does it by following one dog’s spirit through multiple reincarnations.

Not every story is a hero’s journey. At Agile Writers, we adhere to this pattern because most stories can be told to great effect using it. There are times, however, when other patterns, like the anthology pattern, may suit your needs better. Choose the pattern that serves your story best.