There’s a lot of writing advice out there from a lot of people who have experience in screenwriting or novel writing and such like - people who know what they are talking about because they’ve been there and done it. There are usually two problems with most of it:
i) It’s hard to apply. The advice, sound in itself, makes perfect sense while you’re reading it, but when you come to apply it to a piece of writing of your own, it’s still difficult to know exactly where to start.
ii) It doesn’t go deep enough. This explains i). The reason that new writers have trouble applying old writers’ advice is that the advice doesn’t go right down to the fundamentals of what makes a character or a story work. It begins to explain things from the outside rather than from the inside. Writing advice, even from the best writers, usually tells you what has been done, rather than how to do it. If you had built a house and wanted to explain to someone else how to do it, you would start with the idea of the house and work forward, through all the necessary and vital stages of putting the house together, not by standing outside and describing the roof, the walls and the windows. Sure, you can get a pretty good idea of what a house looks like from the outside view - but to build one you need to start differently.
It’s like that with writing. By all means, read great writers' advice about what made them great, but you’ll rarely find one who tells you about the process rather than the product. Below is a distillation of ten pieces of actual writing advice from successful writers and what they miss:
1. The first question you’re often asked to answer is ‘Whose story is it?’
The answer given is ‘the character you are most interested in’. And inevitably what follows is the corollary ‘the one the audience empathises most with’. One story = one protagonist, you’re told. That all makes sense, of course. So what’s missing? No one tells you how to make a character interesting, or why audiences or readers empathise with some characters but not with others. In other words, the underlying construction blueprints for characters that work are just assumed. If you’re a ‘good writer’, it is thought, then you will just know how to do this, like a magical ability.
2. Then we get into the standard follow-up question: ‘What emotional state are they in when your story starts?’
Here’s some controversial news: the emotional state of a protagonist at the beginning of a story has almost nothing to do with whether or not that character or that story will be successful.
That might be hard to believe, but if you’ll quickly scan the protagonist from a dozen stories with which you are familiar, you’ll find that the protagonist’s starting emotion often doesn’t have very much to do with what happens later. Sometimes, yes - but it’s not an essential starting point.
3. Now there begins the sequence which has been described elsewhere in great detail. It starts with the question: ‘What does the hero want?’
The idea is that the protagonist of a story is desiring something throughout the tale, and the tale ends when he or she either gets it or doesn’t get it. This is the beginning of what's called the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and you can read about it elsewhere. There isn’t much wrong with this idea. You can examine any successful story and see this happening. However, how to create that desire and how to present it to the reader or audience is usually missing.
Whatever the protagonist is seeking is worth working on to make a tale successful. Defining it is central to the success of any story. But it doesn’t end there: working out how this thing, whatever it is, fits into other aspects of the story is also key.
The thing that the protagonist of a story seeks can drive both that character and the plot forward like magic, but only if handled in a certain way - and there’s even a precise and specific mechanism within most successful tales which specifically helps with that. And it’s not the thing called the ‘inciting incident’.
4. You’re probably familiar with the idea of the ‘inciting incident’, the event at the start of the story that, when the protagonist finds out about it, puts them in motion. It’s common for the next piece of writing advice to be about that.
While there are hundreds of books that talk about this and give plenty of examples, no one that I know of explains the mechanics behind it, or how the ‘inciting incident’ works with various other mechanisms to be part of a cohesive theory of stories. You are just expected to assume that there is such a thing and that you had better have one.
5. The antagonist is normally defined in most story advice as the person who is trying to stop the protagonist from getting what they want.
You’re advised that a sole, smart, highly motivated antagonist, who is personified in some way even if they’re not human, is someone you need. Very few people ask ‘Why?’
The truth is that antagonists are useful in fiction because they do something else, or threaten to, which makes the story work. What that is, and how it fits in with the protagonist at an intimate level, is explained in How Stories Really Work in some detail, along with the cohesive theory of stories which answers most of these other points too.
Common advice tells you, quite rightly, that your story will start drifting without an antagonist. What exactly it is that drifts, why it drifts, and what it takes to stop it drifting, however, isn’t usually explored.
6. There is much talk of what a protagonist will lose if they don't achieve a particular objective.
This is commonly known as the 'stakes'. What is at risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose and how does that affect the wider picture? However, the three levels of loss and how they interact are never outlined. Mess these levels up, even while maintaining a sense of impending loss for the hero, and your story won’t come together at all.
8. You’ll read a great deal - almost an overwhelming amount - about the ‘three act structure’ and how to plan to have ‘big story twists’ at the end of Acts 1 and 2.
But what exactly is a ‘big story twist’? What is it that you’re meant to be ‘twisting’ exactly, and why is this effective when placed at certain points in the story? Understand the answers to those questions, and stories fall apart in front of you - and when something falls apart, you can usually see how it’s made and put it together again.
Conventional advice tells you that ‘Act 1 and Act 2 should end with impact which propels us energetically into the next section of a story’. But what is impacting with what? And what exactly is being ‘propelled energetically’?
Twists are often described as moments when ‘the protagonist learns surprising new information’ or ‘finds something that affects them emotionally’ or ‘events that increase urgency’. These all have some truth about them and can be spotted fairly easily in most stories. But what exactly does an ‘emotional state’ consist of in an invented character? How real do these ‘emotions’ have to be to create an effect on the reader or audience?
These questions largely go unanswered by the advisors out there.
9. Relating to that last point, protagonists are supposed to ‘develop emotionally’. What does that mean as they approach the end of the story? And what are you supposed to do about it?
Of course a hero can and should ‘grow emotionally’ over the course of a story, but when you sit down at your desk and start to look at exactly how to do that, you may find that you start to feel a little confused. That’s because the actual tools for creating this thing called ‘emotional growth’ in a creature that only exists on paper or in cyberspace, as a product of your imagination, have not been placed in your hands.
Not at least until How Stories Really Work came along.
10. Then we get to the end of the story where the hero is supposed to make (you’ll read) some tremendous choice which changes everything for them.
How tremendous? Has anyone measured this ‘tremendousness of change’ factor? Just how big does it have to be?
There are levels of change in stories, just as there are in life. Skilful writers know how to construct these things so that they interlink and come together in the climax of a tale. But it would help to know what those levels are and what they had to do with character development.
The answers to all of this and more is given in How Stories Really Work. There you’ll find the outline of a theory of stories which not only places workable tools in your hands but sheds some light on why they all work.