Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?
What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted? When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?
More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.
It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects.
STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber?
JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.
And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for free. So what’s the problem?
College does you wrong
You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.
I have a degree in journalism from a good j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting and speaking. They don’t really teach you how to write or speak. They throw you into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle.
Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.
Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.
Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.
Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound.These programs are good. So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism dining on Top Ramen or selling insurance?
Correct is not spectacular
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.
Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.
Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.
Who reads this stuff for fun? Authors of Serious Literature take it as a badge of honor if their book is hard to read (“the text is challenging”) and a miserable experience for the reader because they’re miserable stories about angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.
You’d have to pay me to read 99 percent of literary novels. Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Literary Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? Only if I’ve got serious hankering for Juliette Binoche.
The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.
The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, or watch the movie you write, when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.
Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears?
Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation?
Why read some boring newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and tank top?
The inverted pyramid MUST DIE
Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages. I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.
It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.
The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.
The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.
It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.
I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.” First person. What they saw, felt, smelled, touched.
Early novels were disguised as journals. First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.
The dog was yellow
When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 or 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I’d win awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 100 of them should be pretty good and a half-dozen should be great.
A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain. That man — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.
That story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days. Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Not THAT much prettier.
It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.
If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”
The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be copy the editors could chop if they were short on space. It’d be something like, “The dog was yellow.”
To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.
College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling. And it’s the hardest thing any writer does.
Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices
I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about men in kilts or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.
Storytelling and structure is the hard part.
The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go. What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.
I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine doesn’t work — or is completely missing – your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.
Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.
It’s why novelists who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag if you handed them a sharpened pencil sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.
Clive Cussler may have an ugly, bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Lexus has a lawnmower engine. Put in backwards.
Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They can draw the blueprints. And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability.
Yet all three succeed despite the vast differences in writing skill because all three of them possess an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.
Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yes. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.
Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.
Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.
Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.
It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel
Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.
You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. Bullshit. Indie movies with no budget can be great. Budget has nothing to do with it, not when your average TV shows has great special effects these days.
B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.
Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.
Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back.
This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.
Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.
Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring. Oh, another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat guys with no shirts waving meat cleavers.
After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy.
B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.
If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.
Don’t shout at your audience
Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.
Here’s a great example. This candidate is a huge believer in shouting, to show how much he believes in the cause. It only makes you believe he’s angry and nuts.
The structure for 99 percent of speeches is wrong. We just got through a long primary. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no building to a climax. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear about policies and programs. Instead, he talked about people and specific things. He told a story.
Barack Obama is quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery. But he and his speechwriters care about the bones of a speech. They understand setups and payoffs. They care about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. His speeches build to a climax and a call to action. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Hell, you can put them to music.
Velocity and power
No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.
This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years. You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.
The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.
The bigger the trip, the better the story.
Little jumps don’t work.
This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.
Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.
Non-jumps don’t work, either.
If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”
Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.
Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.
Take the audience somewhere
For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.
If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.
Together to alone. Democracy to dictatorship. Life to death.
If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.
Alone to together. Dictatorship to revolution and democracy. Hopelessness to hope.
Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen 5.4 bazillion TV ads about drunk driving. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Fine, the ending has to be down. It’s not a happy topic. OK, then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:
At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.
That’s a lot more moving than a bunch of statistics and a lecture. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics don’t.
Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.
Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.
All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in those 200 words. You know something bad is going to happen.
Emotion matters most
Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.
People want to FEEL something.
Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room — or even two minutes at a podium. And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.
Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s not a fair fight. No villain has a shot.
The only books on writing worth a damn, I found, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure.
With a screenplay of 15,000 words, you can’t use pretty words to hide flaws in the blueprints. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Asking questions (Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?) without answering them. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.
Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now
Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.
THE MATRIX was amazing. The sequels were terrible. Why? They didn’t suffer from a lack of amazing special effects. Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew.
The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems. The first movie had a down beginning and up ending. The last two movies were flat and boring.
I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.
Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the sucking of the second and third movies all the more painful.
Let’s fix it. Right here, right now. Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus. The real villain is whoever the hell controls the robots and keeps humans as slaves and batteries.
Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.
Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the damn war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.
You’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.
The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.
Take things apart and put them back together
You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car matters a helluva lot less than the engine that makes it go. Focus on the engine. Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.
Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.
Circle the setups and payoffs. Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending? Does the writer talk about ideas like freedom or justice — or real people with names and families?
You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.
Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.
Slaying sacred cows
Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are COMPLETELY INSANE, and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.
I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write — something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken — I see them hold their baby over the recycle barrel and let go.
It makes an awful sound. I don’t want to hear that sound.
I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.
Writing doesn’t have to be painful.
It should be fast.
It should be fun.
And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.
Other crazy posts about writing and storytelling. Read them. DO IT NOW.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.