By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 28, 2014
Here’s another chunk from my slowly evolving book, THE STORY GRID: What Good Editors Know, soon to be published by Black Irish Books.
How does one know when a story isn’t working?
That is, if you decided to become a literary agent tomorrow, how could you figure out if a story has a chance to be acquired by a publishing company or be optioned for a movie deal? I know. I know. Money isn’t everything. The story may work for the writer’s immediate family or for a select group of kind friends. But that liberal definition of “working” is not what dreams are made of, nor is it capable of providing enough income for a family of five.
I’m talking about the kind of story that will sell for enough money to live for at least two years so that you’ll be able to finance the writing of your next book. That may be $20,000 or $2,000,000 depending upon your standard of living. A story that results in a contract and a check.
After more than ten thousand hours of publishing books, reading submissions and being pitched both fiction and nonfiction, here is just one of the criteria I use to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I simply track the story’s progressive complications…the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist.
How do I do that?
Take this pitch as an example:
An ambitious actor/lawyer/chef/programmer graduates from Julliard/Harvard/Culinary Institute of America/MIT and looks for meaningful work. After months of rejections, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer decides to take a side job while continuing to look for what will ultimately make him happy.
The inciting incident of the story arrives (at long last) when he gets a part time job as assistant to a casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. As he works for the casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he is exposed to all of the best new projects in Hollywood/Washington/New York/Silicon Valley and even gets to help out by being a reader during auditions/doing paralegal work/sous cheffing/writing code. The casting director/judge/ Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine notices his talent and decides to promote him.
By dint of hard work the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer gets the big job the rewards that come with it—status and money. But after a while, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer grows weary of the big Hollywood grind/legal profession/food work/writing code and decides to go back to his first love, the theater/pro bono work/artisanal cheese making/new app innovation. He then auditions/takes up a cause/makes cheese/devises a new app that no one takes seriously let alone buys into. Until, at last, he gets a small time director/not for profit/cheese monger/software company to take on his life’s work. The performance/cause/cheese debut/app launches, but to little acclaim. The actor/lawyer/chef/programmer loses his shirt on the project, but learns a lot about himself. He decides that his happiness is dependent on his relationships and not the fantasies of finding meaning through work. The End.
And yes, the above is indicative of the kind of material that floods literary agencies and publishing houses. A very talented prose stylist could actually make the above rather entertaining too. And he’d also be able to hide behind a pseudo-genre like “literary slice of life” to boot. But no matter the writerly artifice, this story doesn’t work. It may prove commercially viable depending upon the tenor of the times, but it will never last as a work of art. Let’s assume the writer is not a celebrity or the hottest young thing to come out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So extenuating commercial potentialities are not in play here. That is, the literary agent can’t sell the story based on just the identity of the writer. She has to sell it on its story.
Beyond the fact that there is no clear antagonist in the above, other than some vague hinted sense that the lead character is having “inner turmoil.” And the fact that the inciting incident—getting a job—is a flaccid cliché. [There are a great many novels/screenplays that deal with mini-plot inner slice of life conflict with soft inciting incidents that do work. Madame Bovary/Lost in Translation anyone?] The fatal flaw of the above story is that the difficulties and successes that the protagonist must contend with (the conflicts) do not escalate. They remain boringly similar from derivative scene to derivative scene and from derivative act to derivative act.
If you had to assign a number from 1 to 10 for each complication in this and its anxiety/conflict level, and tracked the numbers from beginning to end, the result would look something like this…and I’m being generous:
(3) Quest to find meaningful work
(4) Not finding meaningful work
(3) Finding a part time job instead
(2) Having success at part time job
(3) Getting promoted at part time job
(3) Finding more success at job
(4) Leaving job to get back to quest for meaning
(6) Getting the big break
(3) Resigning oneself to meaningless work, for the sake of meaningful relationships
You’ll see just by following the numbers (2,3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 3) that the story just kind of slogs along. It goes back over the same old complications too. The stakes are boring as Hell.
The lead character faces rejection when looking for work until he decides to lower his standards and accept a lesser status job. While at the menial job he gets the break of a lifetime and successfully takes advantage of it. Then he becomes disillusioned by his success and decides to shuck the entire career and start afresh. Then he goes back to trying to get work in his old career and faces yet more rejection. At last he gets a big break that turns out to be disappointing and then goes back to settle for something in between his dream and punching the clock.
It’s not surprising that the above “story” sounds like the banal professional choices we all make at one or more times in our lives. But just regurgitating dull universal experience does not make for cathartic reading or viewing.
And inevitably if an editor were to tactfully point out that the story seems a bit undercooked and that the writer should think about committing to a genre or mixing two or more genres to ground some finer focused idea/theme…well you probably know how that usually ends. The editor would get a terse reply back. Thanks for reading, but that’s not the way I work…I don’t believe in formulaic genre hackwork.
But every now and then, an editor will find a pro, someone open enough (or desperate enough) to get back to basics. A writer interested in creating an inciting incident at level 10 with conflict/complications that progress from 11 to 100 by story’s end.
Progressive complications move stories forward, never backward. They do so by making life more and more difficult (in positive as well as negative ways) for your lead character. In other words, you cannot have your protagonist stare down the same dilemma in Act III or Act II that the character already faced in Act I. You must progressively move from one dilemma to a more trying dilemma to a bigger problem to an even bigger problem etc.
The payoff is when the lead character is faced with the limits of human experience—life and death. Cool Hand Luke, Sophie’s Choice, Network, Unforgiven, Gates of Fire…walk us to the precipice of human experience and allow us to peer into the abyss. And we don’t have to leave our comfortable seats to do it, either. That’s called art.
So how can you be sure that your story does the same?
Ask yourself the simple question…how difficult would it be for my character to reverse his decision? Could he go back to his old life without any repercussions? A few repercussions? Or is there no turning back?
You’ve hit the POINT OF NO RETURN when no matter what decision the character makes, he will be irrevocably changed by the experience. If he does one thing, he’ll put himself in great danger (either physically or psychologically) and if he doesn’t, he’ll be tormented by his inaction.
The trick to remember when evaluating the reversibility factor is how difficult will it be for the character to go back in time if they make a certain decision. That is, can they make a decision and not have it affect their worldview? Can they go back to the way things used to be and not suffer any discontent or trauma?
If you re-read the example of the generic submission above, you’ll see that no decision that the character makes will change them irrevocably. They can head back in time any time they’d like and not have their worldview changed in any way.
How do you know if you are falling into this same trap? That is, how do you know if you are progressively complicating the life of your character?
I suggest going back to the grading concept above and use the power of ten. Evaluate the difficulty for the character to reverse their decision in each and every scene that you write. With 10 being absolutely irreversible to 1 being an easy switch back. By the way, if your character isn’t making any decision in a scene, it’s not a scene. It’s goofing around. Cut it or revise.
Here’s an example from a masterpiece:
Thomas Harris’ THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS begins with his protagonist Clarice Starling getting a job offer. Does she want to interview Hannibal Lecter, the most notorious serial killer in history?
How’s that for an Inciting Incident? It’s a job offer (snooze) but the job is so outrageous we’re sucked right in. Harris takes something mundane and cliché and creates something fresh. And this is chapter one, an irresistible beginning hook to his story.
Starling can say yes or no.
If she says yes, how difficult will her decision be to reverse? That is, would Starling be able to say yes and then think about it a little and then come back and say…”well on second thought, I don’t think I want to do that.” What effect on her worldview would that reversal have? Very little beyond a little embarrassment for chickening out (and really how much would anyone really blame her for not wanting to get in a room with Hannibal Lecter?)
Starling would have no difficulty reversing the decision. She’d go back to being an FBI trainee. No sweat.
Maybe a 2 on the reversibility scale of 10? 1 even.
Now later on, just about midway through the novel in chapter 27 (there are 61 chapters/scenes in the book), Starling gets the famous prid pro quo from Hannibal Lecter. He’ll help her out with the case to save a young woman from the clutches of the serial killer Buffalo Bill. That is, if she lets him probe her brain with his incisive questions about her childhood. How hard is it for her to reverse this decision?
No matter what choice she makes, she will never be able to go back to where she started. This moment in the novel, again just about halfway through, marks THE POINT OF NO RETURN. The case has now become deeply personal for Starling. And the story has the reader by the throat because of Starling’s desperate ambition and need to please her boss. Her inner turmoil is so strong that she can’t even see that she’s being used.
It’s impossible for her to go back to the way her life once was after Lecter’s ultimatum. It’s irreversible. Once she lets Lecter into her mind, there is absolutely no way she’ll ever get him out of there. But if she doesn’t do this deal, then another human being will die.
Did Thomas Harris move from “yes I’ll take the job and interview Hannibal Lecter” to the brilliant prid pro quo moment quickly? Did he go from a degree of reversibility of 1 in the first scene in his book to 10 in second scene? Of course not.
If you track the progressive complications in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS from chapter to chapter, you’ll see just how brilliantly Harris boiled his frog. You know that if you dump a frog into boiling water, the frog will leap out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and slowly simmer the water until boiling, the frog will stay in that pot until he dies.
The same is true for a reader. You must grab and then dip them into a cool and inviting narrative with an irresistible inciting incident. Then you need to slowly turn up the heat or the reader will get uncomfortable and get out of your story. Not too fast and not too slow.
This is the concept behind progressive complications.
When he created Hannibal Lecter’s quid pro quo and then had the foresight to drop it at midpoint of the novel, the unspoken promise Harris gives to us as readers is “I’m going all the way…to the limits of what this woman will be able to experience…right to the edge of death.”
And boy did he pay off that promise.
That should be the goal of every story you tell.
Hook ‘em with a killer inciting incident, build the heat with progressive complications, and payoff with a cathartic climax and resolution. The form is simple. Executing it is not.