How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

Advertisements

2 comments on “How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

  1. […] How to Bake a Cake–or a Story « Speaking to the Eyes […]

  2. […] spreads that come up. To a certain extent, it feels inauthentic. Part of that can be explained with last week’s post about plot vs concept. I’m not sure much will come out of it in terms of actual writing. If I […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s