Your Novel Needs a Second Story

One of the keys of a successful novel is often the presence of two (sometimes more) major storylines. Unfortunately, as a book doctor/novel editor, I often see manuscripts-in-progress that are just too stingy in this regard.

I recently read a review of a movie that addressed this very point. Reviewing the movie Warm Bodies, Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “But too often [this movie] also badly needed a second big idea to move its [primary] story off the track we expect it to take from the start.”

To put it bluntly, a single storyline, even if well-written from beginning to end, will be thin, predictable, and a little boring. You want the structure of your novel to be less like a one-story ranch house and more like Downton Abbey.

Okay, maybe if you can’t populate it with so many storylines (after all, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a brilliant and experienced writer, winner of the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, etc.). But at least try to build a functional second story, a place we can go to experience something different than we do on the first floor of your novel’s house.


In How To Write Your Best Story, I argue that two stories offer a terrific way to create originality and depth:

In a 1968 article in The Writer, “Thoughts on Plots,” Joan Aiken pointed out that it takes two ideas, colliding, to spark a story.

“I shall always remember H.E. Bates [English, 1905–1974], that master of the short story form, saying that besides inspiration and a lot of sheer hard labor, a story requires, for its germination, at least two separate ideas which, fusing together, begin to work and ferment and presently produce a plot. This tallies with my own experience. . . .”

Many stories have been told, but unique intersections of any two ideas will be more original. Take a story of a dragon in a cave. Then take a story of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. Both have been told. But the combination of the two? Less likely.

Think of the number of ideas you might generate by watching a traffic intersection where two busy streets come together. At the intersection, you’ll not just see more traffic, but you’ll now have the likelihood of interesting episodes as people face more decisions, have to deal with crossing traffic, and end up in surprise situations and, yes, collisions.

These collisions are crucial to an interesting novel. To return to Downton Abbey, think of the interest generated by the intersections of the storylines of the “upstairs” aristocracy and the “downstairs” servants.

Phyllis Whitney, romance novelist, liked to write stories that involved occupations. The occupation was one story; the romantic suspense tale was the other.

Consider whodunits such as the Egyptian archeologist mysteries by Elizabeth Peters or the National Park ranger mysteries by Nevada Barr, and any number of similar series. The details of professional practices are interesting in themselves, and they always contribute substantially to the story of the mystery investigation.

Or, as Franny Billingsley realized in writing her Horn Book Award–winning novel, The Folk Keeper, she needed to give her protagonist not just a desire to motivate her, but also a job to keep her active and interesting and out doing things and finding out things she otherwise wouldn’t. Billingsley, by the way, has been called “one of the great prose stylists of the field.” — Kirkus

I also often cite the Harry Potter books (the first ones I liked, the latter ones less so), for the way they combined several storylines: the big struggle of good vs. evil as Voldemort tries to rise to ascendancy through nefarious means, and the school-year stories of kids, classes, professors, highjink, friendships, romances, and all that entailed. Those are two well-developed storylines. Most importantly, they intersect throughout the novels and give the novels their uniqueness.

One more tip: When I advise writers, I often suggest that the biggest storyline they might initially think of as “primary” is often best presented as the second, slower-to-develop story. In the concept of your novel as a house, the first floor is the most public floor, the place of daily routine and busy activities. The second floor is the place where hidden dreams and loves and desires find their place.

To use a literary example of this, consider how the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird uses several storylines. One is the summer life of the young girl Scout Finch and her brother Jem in the sleepy  town of Maycomb, Alabama. One summer, Jem and Scout become friends with a boy named Dill, and the trio explores the neighborhood and acts out stories together, including ones involving a spooky nearby house owned by a Nathan Radley and his mysterious brother, Boo, a recluse.

This all goes along as the frontline story, but eventually, the big second story grows and sets in, swelling to epic proportions, as Scout’s father, Atticus, is drawn to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. This sets in motion the full sweep of the second story.

While the racial-relations story might have been the initial impetus that caused this novel to come into existence and is the “big” story of the book, the childhood story of Scout is really the one that carries the novel from beginning to end.

In the end, what is really important and transcendent? The way the two stories interact.

The message: construct your novel well. To entertain your readers, present them with at least two full stories, and let those lines intersect in ways that each might fuel the fire of the other story, and in so doing, offer some fresh surprises to your readers.

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

Writers, how patient are you? Do you really listen to what your stories are trying to say before you try to tell them to others?

Do you give your stories enough time to grow creatively, to blossom into their fullest form?

I read a lot of blogs and group chats about self-publishing. One of the biggest problems I see is the impatience of aspiring novelists to write, finish, and get published. (One of the stranger phenomena in speedy, don’t-look-back writing is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month; it encourages writers to create a 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month. Yikes!) Especially in the fantasy field, I run into plenty of newbie authors who have written a trilogy, zooming ahead to sequels full of plot twists and further adventures . . . before having fully contemplated and completed the potential of their first (and most important, career-wise) novel.

In contrast, accomplished authors recommend the importance of taking time to reflect, to work through a series of drafts, to put work aside for a time, to come back later to revise. They know that this passage of time involves actively listening to what a story is trying to say, to seek the hidden door to the treasure cave that lies hidden in the shrubbery of early drafts.

Why do the best authors often talk about reaching a watershed moment in the course of writing a novel – a state of mind in which the characters of the work-in-progress start to “talk back” to the author, resisting being pushed into pigeon-holes or, conversely, resisting something not in their “true nature” or self-interests?

This is the point when you’re dreaming about the work, when you’re thinking in the back of your mind about it as you’re doing mindless, repetitious work like washing the dishes or going for a walk, when the brilliant solution comes unbidden and you have to scribble it down on an old napkin found in your car’s glove compartment.

I’ve quoted this before, in How To Write Your Best Story and a few other places:

“When I’m really writing, I’m listening. . . . [Listening] takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow.”
– Newbery Medal–winner Madeleine L’Engle

To listen, you need to allow the quiet time to do it. I recently read a brief piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by psychotherapist Philip Chard on the dangers of “hurry sickness”:

So one of the casualties of hurry sickness is the [lost] opportunity to contemplate, to apply one’s quiet attention to some experience or idea or to one’s sense of self and life purpose. Contemplative introspection . . . is an ancient and proven practice that supports emotional balance and mental clarity.

Historically, it was the preferred method for making important decisions, as well as for nurturing greater self-understanding. When someone had to figure something out or clarify their identity or sense of purpose, she or he would be cloistered away from distractions, often in a natural setting, where it was possible to fully focus on the issue at hand. Think of Jesus in the desert or Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Do you have to figure something out or clarify something in your fiction? Do you have a (metaphorical) tree you can go and sit under?

Sometimes you need to sit in silence and not do anything. Here’s some wisdom from an Inuit elder named Majuak, from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing a native practice of creative contemplation called karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in Rasmussen’s 1932 book The Eagle’s Gift.

In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals for the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale.

And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young – ay, down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.

[I encountered this wonderful passage in Bob Kanegis’ blog, Storyteller’s Campfire: Thoughts on Living a Storied Life]

Maybe your story could be better. Have you asked it?

As Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton wrote: “Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.” For writers, the real significance of your story might lie hidden in the quiet cracks – in unspoken thoughts, in missing passages, in unrealized potential. The plot is the noise, but inner nature of the story is what you need to listen for and draw out into the open.

Do you need a fresh song to catch a great whale? Yes.

To find a fresh song and to be a good writer, you might need to take a little time to silence the “hurry sickness” and listen.

Six Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek?

Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.

If you’re a writer, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Even if they don’t magically transform you into a writer whose work develops a worldwide cult-like following, as did Professor Tolkien’s . . . nonetheless, attention to these principles will improve your writing.

1. Keep those scraps of ideas.

A familiar story to those who follow Tolkien’s biography is that The Hobbit “began” many years before its publication in 1937 when, in a moment of odd inspiration, Tolkien jotted down an strange phrase that popped into his mind. It would become the opening line of The Hobbit:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

He scribbled it on the back of a page from a student’s exam booklet (a free source of scratch paper that Tolkien like to use). Of course, he had no idea of what a hobbit was. Nobody did. But Tolkien realized that the curious phrase held some form of delight for him.

The key: Be observant. When you encounter an intriguing item, save it. Record those snippets. Cut out those tales of the weird and stick them in a file.

And keep them.

Snippets are lovely phrases. Curious thoughts. Interesting observations. Overhead bits of memorable conversation. Strange sightings.

Anne Rice admitted she has awakened at night to scribble half-dreamt ideas on her room’s wallpaper to make sure she recalled them in the morning. Others keep a small notebook with them to jot down daily thoughts and random phrases.

Novelist Susan Henderson, in a post on her website LitPark, once wrote:

Write down every idea before it’s gone. Use the backs of envelopes and gas receipts if you’re driving. On one of those slips is your breakout story:
. . .
“Mother dances salsa in front of the mirror in a stolen dress.”
. . .
If you don’t write it down, you’ll waste [that] gift.

I drive with a pen between my teeth, holding the paper against the steering wheel when I write. Never mind the honking. I roll the windows up or the hundreds of story ideas littering the passenger seat will blow onto the highway, and then someone else might write my breakout story.

2. Master the trick of particularity.

In talks for writers, I’ve often praised the beginning paragraphs of The Hobbit. They reveal two aspects of brilliant technique. First, although the hobbit is one of Tolkien’s great artistic inventions, he chose to start by describing not a hobbit but a hobbit’s dwelling. We quickly come to know a lot about hobbits as we go in the front door, down the hall, and into the hobbit’s cozy den of comfort.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.

Besides the choice of what to describe, notice the specificity of the small number of details. We see the round door “like a porthole, painted green,” the yellow knob in the “exact middle.”We go down the hall with its inviting pegs on the wall. These are the tricks of fiction. The author chooses a small number of details, and somehow, this convinces us that there is a “real” place (albeit in a fictional world of a book) with believable characters doing things of importance. The odder or more precise the detail, the more convincing.

Dorothy Sayers, scholar and mystery writer, in discussing Dante’s The Inferno, calls this “the trick of particularity.” Dante mastered it, she says, as did other great writers. Why is there a lamppost in the woods in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia when the Penvensie children arrive for the first time? And why do we soon spy a faun carrying an umbrella? Something about it offers a concreteness to the scene. And we start to see it in our mind’s eye.

Fantasy writers are by no means the only ones to use the trick of particularity. It’s just that in fantasy it’s so noticeable because so much of it is implausible, like the glow of a dragon’s fiery breath in a deep cave, as a small hobbit creeps forward, closer and closer to the sound of its breath:

“a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping in the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring.”
. . .
There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.

Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.

3. A Journey is a Marvelous Device.

“To a story-teller a journey is a marvelous device. It provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he has in mind may be strung . . . .”

So wrote Tolkien in a letter (included in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter).

Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings make full use of The Journey as a central device, as have countless other novels, from Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels to C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to more recent works like Life of Pi.

Other novels use the journey metaphorically as a trip through a distinct segment of time. For instance, Dickens used the device in A Christmas Carol, as we “travel” through Scrooge’s past. It is the core scheme of coming-of-age novels like David Copperfield and of the Harry Potter novels, following students of magic through their years at Hogwarts.

The Hero’s Journey is the mythical form of this. Christopher Vogler and others have written of the fictional applications to popular books and movies.

The structure allows both writer and reader to stay on course, following a natural thread that becomes more familiar and emotionally rich for readers, as we travel along, following the steps of the journey being taken.

The inevitable structure of a journey (beginning, middle, and end) becomes departure, travel, and arrival. This plot aid can help a writer think more about the other elements of story: the character of those on the journey, the purpose of it, the revelations & surprises encountered on the way, and the transformation gained by journey’s end.

Tolkien’s subtitle of The HobbitThere and Back Again – is not as mundane as it might seen. It is a four-word summary of a grand adventure.

4. How does the story sound?

Many great writers, from Roald Dahl to Richard Adams (author of Watership Down), honed their storytelling skills and developed ideas by first telling versions of their stories out loud. In addition to telling bedtime stories to his four kids, in 1920, Tolkien began his wonderful Father Christmas Letters, annual illustrated missives delivered, complete with hand-drawn postage stamps, and read aloud to them when they were young, telling of recent escapades at the North Pole. Likewise, Lewis Carroll (Charles Hodgson) first spun Alice’s trip into Wonderland to entertain kids on a boating excursion.

In such tellings, ideas are field-tested, ideas played out, and writing cadences are refined.

Master writing instructor Peter Elbow has suggested that reading one’s work aloud is one of the most powerful tools to improve a work. The spurious word, the awkward phrase, cannot be hidden in a reading, even if you read aloud and alone in a room. It “gives you the vicarious experience of being someone else” hearing the words for the first time; it “brings the sense of audience back into your act of writing.” This, Elbow says, “is a great source of power.”

Susan Orlean agreed, saying that reading your work out loud is “the single best tool for self-editing.”

Try reading Tolkien’s description of Smaug the dragon out loud. You’ll hear what a gift it is for the mouth and ear.

Naturally, learning to tell stories first orally is a great way to start a writing career. But if you didn’t start that way, you can catch up now. Pick a page from your draft and read it out loud. And be sure to have your red pen of revision handy.

5. Take your time.

In today’s world, we often feel a rush to write, submit, get published, or self-publish if no agent or editor steps forward quickly enough. But Tolkien’s experience suggests that truly great works benefit from time.

Tolkien took much time. He returned years later to that scrap of paper to wonder what a hobbit might look like, what it might do, and why. He wrote and revised. He considered the back-story. He wrote background myths, and language, and poems and songs that the characters might sing. He drew maps. He drew illustrations. And he fussed over everything. In The Lord of the Rings, he charted the separate travels of groups of characters, and wondered if he had gotten it all right, so that the phase of the moon that one party was looking at on a given night was the same as that which another party saw elsewhere on the same night.

And, as Tolkien scholar Dr. John D. Rateliff noted, after long study of Tolkien’s manuscript drafts: Tolkien revised. And revised. And each time he did, the work got better.

Success lies in the skill of those revisions. Writing is rewriting. A manuscript can get better, with sufficient time to set it aside, rethink key passages, connect more dots, build the back-story, and deepen the thematic elements. One of the best things you can do is to set a piece aside to let it cool, before returning to revise with a fresher eye and ear.

6. Assemble a great writers group.

Tolkien was not a solitary genius. He spent much time in the company of fellow writers. At Oxford, he assembled frequently with an informal group called The Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others of notable scholarship and creative ability. They read from their works in progress and talked and smoked and drank in sessions in Lewis’s chic-shabby rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford. They discussed literature over pints at the favorite pub.

A great book on The Inklings is The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. In it, author Diana Pavlac Glyer shows how the Inklings worked and how much they influenced each other’s prose.

You may not easily assemble so lofty a group. But the better the writers you can associate with, and the deeper that literary friendship can become, the more chance you have to challenge yourself to produce better drafts, to read in public, to listen to yourself and others, to revise, and to help and encourage your friends. You can lift each other to higher achievements. The key is to find the best. Keep the groups small and informal. Better to find a good friend or two than to go to large gatherings of people you don’t really know or trust for their literary vision. There is no advantage to numbers. Quality rules, in friends and colleagues.

Write like Tolkien.

These six points of advice are not random ideas. They are key approaches to improving your writing. I have often pressed these thoughts to the attention of emerging writers, looking for advice.

I guess I could simplify those points and say, “Just write like Tolkien.”

As we say here in the American Midwest when we really believe something is true (and I could imagine hobbits saying something like it): “You could do worse.”

[This article is by Philip Martin, author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now also available for Kindle) and How To Write Your Best Story, and director of Great Lakes Literary and the Blue Zoo Writers site.]

The Cat Sat on the Mat – John le Carré on Plotting

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, the British author of espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Russia House; The Tailor of Panama; The Constant Gardener, and many others.

He worked briefly for British intelligence, MI5 and MI6, in the 1950s and 1960s. As he tells on his website: “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”

From a 1997 interview with Cornwell in the Paris Review with George Plimpton, the author said that after teaching (at Eton):

In all I don’t suppose that I spooked around for more than seven or eight years . . . but that was my little university for the purposes that I needed later to write. I think that if I’d gone to sea at that time I would have written about the sea. If I’d gone into advertising or stockbroking, that would have been my stuff.

It was from there that I began abstracting and peopling my other world, my alternative, private world, which became my patch, and it became a Tolkien-like operation, except that none of my characters have hair between their toes.

He says he starts a book with character:

I’ve never been able to write a book without one very strong character in my rucksack.

The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.

What happens next? Plimpton asked.

The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within.

They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict.

“The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.

In another interview with Cornwell/John le Carré in the New York Times, the interviewer asked:

Q. Is it true that you once compared writing your novels to making a jam roll? You open the pastry out, spread the jam and then roll it up.

A. . . . I think as a rough principle I always begin with one character and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. . . . “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat”  is a story.

And I have a sense of atmosphere, the environment in which I want to set them, and a sense of how the ending will be. From there the story takes over by itself.

But the layer cake you refer to – yes, I like to lead the story forward . . . on a whole variety of levels, and try to make all these levels then converge and pay off at the end.

A central character, a conflict over who’s sitting on whose mat, and a jelly roll/layer cake of a story . . . it’s a recipe for great fiction.

Are You a Plotter or a Plunger?

To plot or not to plot? My advice: It’s wise to make a plan before you embark on a long journey. (Especially for the crazy road trip known as NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, November’s annual caffeine-fueled, group-dare exercise soon to be undertaken yet again by thousands of avid writers.)

You’ve heard, perhaps, the famous statement by novelist E.L. Doctorow:

Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

The NaNoWriMo crowd might chant that as a daily mantra. But be warned. It’s a bit of an overstatement, the catchy quote that gets circulated and easily misunderstood. Yes, a rare few writers get inspired to sit down and write well in a “Wonderland” way.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But in truth, most good writers working seriously on a novel have a pretty good sense of where they are heading before they get in the metaphorical car. They just don’t zoom around at night looking for random things to be surprised by as they drive by. A good novel is not the product of drive-by plotting.

It’s just a mistaken assumption that you can make it up as you go; it certainly decreases the chances that it will turn out well.

Better is the approach of John Irving, a story-centric, plot-driven, eminently successful American novelist. In his afterword to Last Night in Twisted River (2009), Irving describes his writing process:

Endings not only matter to me; endings are where I begin a novel or a screenplay. . . . From the last sentence, I work my way back to where the story begins. This constitutes a kind of road map in reverse. That process — of working my way backward through the plot, from the last sentence to the first — usually takes a year or eighteen months, sometimes longer . . .

In a 1986 interview with John Irving in the Paris Review:


How do you begin a book?


Not until I know as much as I can stand to know without putting anything down on paper. Henry Robbins, my late editor at E. P. Dutton, called this my enema theory: keep from writing the book as long as you can, make yourself not begin, store it up. This is an advantage in historical novels. Setting Free the Bears and The Cider House Rules, for example. I had to learn so much before I could begin those books; I had to gather so much information, take so many notes, see, witness, observe, study—whatever—that when I finally was able to begin writing, I knew everything that was going to happen, in advance. [. . .]

The authority of the storyteller’s voice—of mine, anyway—comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.


Have any of your novels changed drastically as you created them?


Along the way accidents happen, detours get taken—the accidents turn out to be some of the best things. But these are not “divine” accidents; I don’t believe in those. I believe you have constructive accidents en route through a novel only because you have mapped a clear way. If you have confidence that you have a clear direction to take, you always have confidence to explore other ways; if they prove to be mere digressions, you’ll recognize that and make the necessary revisions.

The more you know about a book, the freer you can be to fool around. The less you know, the tighter you get.

Of course, plunging in might seem more fun than plotting. At first. But just think of all the roadside attractions and scenic views and other points of interest you’d likely miss that could have been included in a better-planned journey.

In general, the more experienced writers do tend to use plotting methods.

If you want a slim, simple but effective book with some good technique for plotting, I can recommend Fill-in-the-Blank Plotting by Linda George. It combines the key elements of the Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act Structure in an easy-to-use methodology.

Let me know if there are other plotting methods or books that you recommend.

Simplicity and Good Storytelling

“Once upon a time” is such a simple beginning. Yet so effective.
Is this a contradiction? No . . . not if you understand that true simplicity is not easy.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

(He is paraphrasing Einstein, who said: “the simplicity on this side of complexity was easy; but the simplicity on the other side of complexity took real thought and effort.”)

To add a thought from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)”

The most enduring story can be simple in many aspects. Consider a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both use the seeming simplicity of childhood to tell a powerful story about one of the most complex subjects in American culture: racism (the human causes and consequences).

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. . . . When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
– from To Kill a Mockingbird

I recall writing a short story in high school. When I got it back, my teacher noted he was duly impressed with my use of language, allusion, imagery, etc. But he didn’t understand the ending. I had failed to make it clear enough. I thought it was so obvious, the crowing glory of my tale . . . but a very intelligent reader was baffled. Good story? Not really.

Perfect sincerity and transparency make a great part of beauty, as in dewdrops, lakes, and diamonds.
– Henry David Thoreau

I remember when I drove a car. As a kid, I had grown up with long cross-country trips in the family automobile to visit my grandparents in California. My dad was a smooth, calm, masterful driver. So when I first got behind a wheel as a teen, then, I must have thought driving was exceedingly simple. When I encountered my first curve, I naturally tried to be as smooth as my dad, taking the turn with a slow, imperceptible nudge of the steering wheel.

Next thing I knew I was careering on the shoulder of the road. It took a powerful yank on the wheel to over-correct and swing me wildly back onto the road, where I swerved madly for a few long seconds.

Hmmm. Seems like my old man actually had a lot experience behind his smooth driving ability. He saw each curve in the road ahead and made many little preparatory adjustments unknown to us passengers . . . and so we flew through every curve like our car was predestined to follow the road.

I had just learned that the appearance of simplicity can involve a lot of skill.

Many emerging writers are like I was when first learning to drive. They try to look cool and calm, then they hit that curve in their story’s plot and end up careening back and forth. Or they zoom about from the start, hoping to impress us like a teenager trying to impress a date with a flashy car.

But great stories often have a much more direct route, with a smooth flow that seems as natural as a creek following a stream-bed that seems to have always existed.

Oscar Wilde said, “Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.”

He might as well have said: “A good story is not complex. We are complex.” Therein lies the crux of it. A good storyteller needs to learn when to let a story carry itself forward, when to get out of the way. And by doing so, to let readers fill in some part of the complexity from their own rich experiences.

In short, simplicity is not a beginning stage, something you graduate from. It is may well be the goal.

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.
– George Sand

What if your literary story were more simple, more sincere, more transparent in some way?

Would it be worse . . . or better?

Ivan Doig – the Connection of Place and Imagination

If you are an emerging writer, note: A strong sense of place is a real key to developing the richly delicious details that good fiction needs.

Here’s a quote that hits the nail on the head about the role of a sense of place from the website of a great writer, Ivan Doig.

One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a “Western” writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate “region,” the true home, for a writer.

Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude.

If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.
Ivan Doig, from “A Note to My Readers”

There is a close, fundamental connection between the limited boundaries of place and the expansiveness of big themes. They go hand in hand in great works of fiction.

“Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression” . . . does that describe your literary stories?

A Wild and Overflowing Thing – How Important Is a Plot to a Novel?

Hey, I’m not disparaging the helpfulness of a good plot. It may be the skeleton of a novel; it connects each piece to the next.

(Sing along: “The shin-bone’s connected to the knee-bone, the knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone . . .”)

But one of the reasons I wrote How To Write Your Best Story was a strong feeling that plot isn’t why we read a novel.

Plot is generally not the basis of why I, as an editor, decide to acquire a novel for publication. And it’s not why readers buy a novel. For one thing, the plot isn’t something that we understand until later in the work, as things begin to connect. It’s like the skeleton of a person . . . it’s good it’s there (and its absence would be a problem!), but it’s not what attracts us to the person.

A number of influential writers have pointed out that plot isn’t as important as story. One was the late Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries (1993). The Stone Diaries won both the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S. and the Governor General’s Award in Canada, and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She won many other honors, and has been called one of the “most distinguished and honoured of all writers in the Canadian literary tradition.” (Not surprisingly, Shields was also an avid reader of Jane Austen, and eventually wrote a biography of Austen.)

Shields wrote an article, “Framing the Structure of a Novel,” published in The Writer magazine (July 1998). In it, she talks about her ideas for the structure of a novel, which she describes as “a wild and overflowing thing.” But . . . “yet its chaotic offerings are, when I look closely, attached to a finely stretched wire of authorly intention that reaches from the first page to the last.”

But she wasn’t convinced that the “wire of authorly intention” needed to be the conflict/solution kind of plot.

As she matured as an author, she came to believe that a good novel needed more of daily life, and more of the storytelling that real people do.

The old conflict/solution set-up feels too easy for me, too manipulative, and too often leading to what seems no more than a photo opportunity for people in crisis.

The structure of these kinds of novels could be diagrammed on a blackboard, a gently inclined line representing the rising action, then a sudden escalatory peak, followed by a steep plunge which demonstrated the denouement and then the resolution. I remember feeling quite worshipful in the presence of that ascending line. The novel as boxed kit, as scientific demonstration, and furthermore it was teachable.

It wasn’t until I had been teaching literature for several years and passing on these inscribed truths to others that I started to lose faith. The diagram, which I had by then drawn on the blackboard perhaps fifty or sixty times, began one day to look like nothing so much as a bent spatula, and yet my students, hunched over the seminar table, were dutifully copying this absurd image into their notes.

Suddenly, I wasn’t interested in the problem-solution story I had grown up with.  (. . .) None of this seemed applicable to the lives of women, nor to most of the men I knew, whose stories had more to do with the texture of daily life and the spirit of community than with personal battles, goals, mountaintops, and prizes.

About that time, I had started to pay attention to the way women, sitting around a table, for instance, tell each other stories. I noticed that women tended to deal in the episodic, to suppress what was smoothly linear, to set up digressions, little side stories which were not really digressions at all but integral parts of the story.

She goes on to question Chekhov’s dictum:

I wanted wallpaper in my novels, cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers, and I abandoned Chekhov’s dictum that if there is a rifle hanging over the fireplace, it must go off before the story ends. A rifle could hang over a fireplace for countless other reasons. For atmosphere, to give texture, to comment on the owner of the house, to ignite a scene with its presence, not its ammunition.
. . .
In short, I want to write novels that were both tighter and looser.

Shields also was an accomplished poet, with the poet’s skill in observing the world. But much of her insight, she said, came from being a mother:

I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of a personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. My children gave this other window on the world.”
[A Reader’s Guide to The Stone Diaries by BookClubs Canada, 2008]

Authors like Shields help us see that a good novel is like a good person. As a richly told and complex story, it has a personality and inner nature that is far more meaningful than the plot that has created it . . . just as we are more than the series of events we’ve lived through.

The Role of the Story’s Reader

It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
—Italo Calvino (in the fictional voice of Marco Polo), in Invisible Cities

Calvino is expressing something very important about stories. They do not live in the head or the voice of the teller (or the writer). Good stories are shared.

A good story is one that the recipient is interested in. You don’t force-feed a story, you offer it. It is the listener (or reader) that causes it to have a real life.

Otherwise, it’s the age-old question of a tree falling in the forest: does is make a sound?

Calvino emphasizes how important it is to entice the reader’s ear, to pay homage to its role in the equation. The world of story is jointly entered by reader and writer. A story may begin with the writer, but exists then in the reader’s head. That becomes its true home.

As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:

Crick! Crack!

This phrase may not be familiar to you. It is the traditional beginning of a story in certain parts of the Caribbean.

To indicate their readiness to hear the story, the audience is supposed to respond:

Break my back!

It’s a bit mysterious . . . perhaps intentionally, like a magical incantation. The purpose is simply to join teller and listeners, to give notice that the real world is about to be left behind and the world of story entered.

The version more familiar to many of us is that sing-song phrase: Once Upon a Time. Although it requires no verbal response, it also signals a beginning, a crossing from one world to an imaginary one, a joining of teller and listener in the wondrous realm of story.

Good writers think about their audiences. A lot. They strive to understand them deeply, and they care about what will capture their attention.

Maybe beginning writers worry too much about shaping their own voice. (Surely they worry too much about whether they like their own writing.) But that’s not the issue at all.

Yes, a distinct “voice” is a good thing for a writer, don’t get me wrong. Calvino isn’t saying not to have a voice. He is saying that, contrary to what the writer’s ego may desire, it’s not exactly what “commands” the story. The effective voice offers stories that resonate with his/her listeners. The best writers look for that intersection between what they want to say and what their readers need to hear . . . or what will benefit their lives in some fashion.

Stories live in your readers’ ears. Never forget that.

6-Word Stories Aren’t Really Stories. Sorry, Mr. Hemingway.

Contrary to what some like to claim . . . 6-word “stories” aren’t really stories.


The myth began, I believe, with a blithe (and clearly inaccurate) statement by Ernest Hemingway that this 6-word “story” was possibly “his best prose ever”:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Okay, that’s interesting. It’s a concept. It’s a start of a good story.

But it’s not a story on its own.

What happens after that? The 6-word purveyor has offered a clever prompt. The reader of those six words then fills in more of the story. A lot more. I.e., the reader uses this little emotional springboard to become the real storyteller.

(Or not. Just as likely, the reader is intrigued, amused by the cleverness, flashes on a image or two, and goes on without being in contact with a real story.)

Hey, it’s a cute way to get us thinking about effective prose and brevity. I have no problem with the 6-word challenge as a fun and intriguing exercise. Fine with me if Hemingway wants to cite it as a good example of what a few well-chosen words can unleash in the imagination. It’s just not a story.

(It’s been suggested this was in response to a bar bet. Sure enough, it has all the depth of things said while leaning on a bar after a few drinks and only a cocktail napkin to write on. Lots of emotion and sincerity, not so much a showcase of the complete craft of literary storytelling. Good thing Hemingway went back to his flat and wrote some real stories.)

Wired Magazine did a 6-word story writing exercise in 2006, based on the Hemingway bit, asking famous science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers to submit 6-word “stories.” The results are a lot of fun. Here are a few examples:

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
Orson Scott Card

Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.
David Brin

Heaven falls. Details at eleven.
Robert Jordan

Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.
Margaret Atwood

Intriguing? Surely.
Creative? Very!
Fun for the writers? You bet!

Stories? No.

A story simply needs to do more. It needs to offer more, provide more substance.

What’s the shortest possible story? Is that a useful question? A story is as long as it needs to be to fulfill its promise.

But if someone sat down with a promise to share a story, and said, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” and walked away . . . I’d feel cheated. If I went to a page in a book expecting a story, and read “Heaven falls. Details at eleven” and that was it, I’d be annoyed. I’d hope the author wasn’t paid in full for writing a story.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – Sense of Place

A good story has a richly imagined setting that is visual, interesting, and contributes to the story, just like a character would.

Unfortunately, too many beginning writers have a place that can only be called sadly generic. It is hastily sketched, with few concrete details, and those that are provided tend to be stereotypical.

Place helps explain who we are and why we are different from others. Pay as close attention to it as you would to a beloved character. If drawn fully, the place will bend your characters to it with its great gravitational force. It will move your characters to action; it will fuel their passions; it will silence them with reverie. Such is the river in The Wind in the Willows, seen by moonrise in this beautiful passage:

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows widespread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day. . . .
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

The same magical spell of place is found in Redwall series of Brian Jacques, in his descriptions of the great halls, kitchens, and wine cellars of Redwall Abbey; the paths of Mossflower Woods; and the exotic places beyond.

It was about an hour after dawn when Trimp [a hedgehog] opened her eyes. . . . Feigning sleep, the hedgehog maid peeped out from under her blanket, savouring the day. Downstream looked like a long winding green hall, with alder, bird cherry and weeping willow trees practically forming an arch over the sundappled stream, which was bordered by bright flowering clubrush, sedge and twayblade. Blue and pearly grey, the firesmoke hovered, making gentle swirls between sunshine and shadow in diagonal shafts. Snatches of murmured conversation between early risers were muted in the background, with the sweet odors of smouldering peat and glowing pinebark on the fire. Trimp wished that she could stay like this forever, happy amongst true friends, in tranquil summer woodlands by a stream.
The Legend of Luke, Brian Jacques

Beginning writers too often either ignore a sense of place, or perhaps they avoid it. Incorrectly, they fear that a generic setting will somehow draw in more readers with its commonness.

But it’s the specificity found in a given place – the details of the environs of Lake Wobegon or Mitford or Middle Earth – that give a work of fiction a compelling sense of reality.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

Anton Chekhov, Master Storyteller

In developing my concept of three essential elements of literary storytelling, just published in How To Write Your Best Story (Crickhollow Books, 2011), I did a lot of consideration of why we are drawn to the work of famous writers, past and present.

While there are plenty of ways to analyze (and over-analyze) great work, my goal was to put my finger on a simple approach to storytelling skills that the emering writer could use immediately and effectively . . . to better understand the nature of a good story and how to write one.

One of the literary luminaries I turned to was Anton Chekhov, a Russian writer considered to be one of the greatest short-story writers of all time.

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was a master storyteller, a beacon to those who followed his glittering lead, such as Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver (two writers who considered Chekhov one of the greatest influences on their own work).

Here is the beginning of Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” (Yes, it begins with an evocative description of place, an approach dear to my heart, as you may know by now. Weather, no less.)

The whole sky had been overcast with rain-clouds from early morning; it was a still day, not hot, but heavy, as it is in grey dull weather . . . when one expects rain and it does not come. Ivan Ivanovitch, the veterinary surgeon, and Burkin, the high-school teacher, were already tired from walking, and the fields seemed to them endless.

Then, Chekhov delivers a compelling line:

“Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn,” said Burkin, “you were about to tell me a story.”

Ivan Ivanovitch begins to tell his story – “Yes, I meant to tell you about my brother” – but just as he lights a pipe, the rain begins . . . and we have to wait as the duo tromp to a nearby farm, wash up, and retire to the drawing room.

And only when the lamp was lighted in the big drawing-room upstairs, and Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch, attired in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, were sitting in arm-chairs; . . . and when lovely Pelagea [a beautiful maid-servant], stepping noiselessly on the carpet and smiling softly, handed tea and jam on a tray – only then Ivan Ivanovitch began on his story. . . .

The hook has been baited. We all sink into comfy arm-chairs in the mind’s parlor . . . and wait for the story.

At first, the story (about Ivan’s eccentric brother whose goal in life is to own a farm with gooseberry bushes) seems to be just an odd tale about a goofy person. By the end, though, Chekhov brings it home to a core human issue: what is needed for a person to be happy?

How is happiness earned?

And to what extent is it ever truly deserved?

Chekhov’s storytelling technique strikes with delightful efficiency the three elements I believe are essential to a good story:

  1. a curious starting point,
  2. what happens,
  3. at the end, an arrival at some rewarding point of meaning that the story holds or interesting ideas it spawns . . . not necessarily a moral, but why the tale has stuck in the head, why it is worthy of telling.

These three elements are at the heart of How To Write Your Best Story, a slim volume I wrote to explore in a practical way the time-tested storytelling techniques that great authors use (and that you can use too!) to turn their works into bestselling books, to win major literary prizes, and to delight generations of devoted readers.