This post, by Larry Brooks, originally appeared on his Storyfix site.
Also known as, “The Attack of the Whopper Coincidences.”
Or, “Four Plot Points and a Funeral.”
Or, “Dancing with the Deus ex Machina.”
A good story is very much like a romance. Not terms of genre – what you’re about to read applies to all genres – but in the sense that the relationship between concept and execution, as well as writer and reader, is a love story.
It’s about initial attraction and chemistry. Gratification, fascination, and soon, a deeper meaning and purpose.
It always starts out so… well.
Then, ultimately, it becomes about something else, too. Like, living together. The pursuit of harmony. Always the intention, rarely the case. Because the deeper you go, the harder it gets. The deeper you go together, the more it relies on work instead of the hormones that got you into this.
And that’s where the wheels come off in many stories. But you don’t see these stories… because they don’t get published. Not matter how sexy the original idea.
There are so many ways to mess up a great idea.
The first is to actually try to turn an idea into a story… before you turn it into a compelling concept. Maybe your idea arrived fully cooked as a viable concept, but that rarely happens (which begs the question, can you tell the difference?).
You can plan or you can pants, but the search for story is an inevitable part of the romance between you and your original idea. Skip that courtship phase and you’re likely to end up with a broken heart.
A story is never built on a single idea.
Launched, perhaps, but the ensuing exposition is nothing if not a series of subsequent and subordinated narrative ideas – decisions – along the way.
Each one is a chance to make or break the whole dramatic enchilada. Thus…
The second realm of story death comes with the inevitable challenge of making those ideas work. It’s a qualitative thing, the very essence of art (and you thought art was the sum of all those pretty sentences)… the difference between superstar authors and the rest of us.
This is where so many writers trip up, falling victim to the siren song of the original idea (which, you soon realize, was only in it for the money from that first sizzling glance across a crowded room…).
The mechanics of exposition can kill your concept.
Because this is where writers get desperate. They are in a corner (one into which they have written themselves) and they know it… so they jump the shark. They change lanes from credible to unlikely, from necessary to eye rolling.
Happens all the time. I know this because I read unpublished stories for a living. And I’m here to tell you, it’s a deal killer.
An effective story needs to change along the way to the climax.
It needs to evolve. Hidden things need to be unearthed. Old assumptions need to be overturned. Surprises need a door through which to enter the narrative.
Your hero needs to discover things. Find out stuff.
This is the machine of your story. The backbone of dramatic exposition. Every story is a machine, and it is the concept that defines the scope of what the machine needs to accomplish along the way.
Each story beat is a connection, a weight-bearing moment of forward-motion.
And too often, writers make those connections using the prize from a Crackerjack box or a page from an old comic book instead of a finely calibrated fire-forged, finely milled, ingenious steel bolt welded solidly, logically into place.