Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.
That’s a risky headline, for sure. But it’s defensible–even if you don’t agree–which means it belongs in the list of top ten writing learning tools any way you care to cut it.
There’s learning through study. It begins at square one and it’s always there no matter where we are on the writing road. You’re reading Ollin’s blog, so by definition you’re learning through study.
But that’s not it. Critical, non-negotiable, absolutely… but the learning gets better from there.
Then there’s learning by doing. Putting what you’ve read into play. Practicing, getting into the game. You can’t reach the destination without parking yourself in this realm. Doing is what it’s all about.
But that’s not it, either. Some writers study and practice and generate manuscripts for decades without ever coming close to reaching their dream.
For them, and for all of us, there’s something close to a magic pill to help us close that gap. For many, it’s the missing ingredient that elevates them to a new level.
There’s another realm of learning. An “in-between” level.
In my view–and my experience–what I’m about to describe is the most powerful learning realm of all. You can’t start with it… you have to have wrapped your head around the basic fundamentals of storytelling to an extent that you know it when you see it.
Even better, you’ll know it’s missing or misused when you see that, too.
I’m not talking about recognizing if a story is good or not… any reader can make that particular call. No, I’m talking about why.
If you were in a car and it suddenly stalled out and started spewing smoke, would you know why? Would you even know where to look? Could you fix it?
A mechanic could. A mechanic knows it when they see it. They know why.
Most of the time, readers don’t know why something works or not. They just feel the consequences of it.
As writers, we need to turn ourselves into the mechanics of our craft.
An Analogy To Help Clarify My Point
I’m a closet pilot. I’ve read up on it. I took ground school when I was 15 (I borrowed my father’s Jeppesen self-guided certified ground school course and aced the final exam, all without setting foot in an airplane). I’ve even flown a few small airplanes while sitting next to a real pilot with trembling hands.
In the secret vault of my most guilty of conceits and self-deceptions, I believe I know how to fly. If a pilot suddenly blacked out and nobody else waved a license, I could step in and get the airplane safely on the ground.
That’s my fantasy and I’m stickin’ to it.
This is, analogously, the same as someone who has read a lot of novels over the years, has even taken a writing workshop or two, and in their secret heart of hearts believe they can write a novel that works. That they could do better.
To both the analogy and the reality… maybe.
But probably not. We already know it’s harder than it looks.
But Here’s The Middle Ground, Where It Actually Can Work
This is where the real learning happens, quicker and faster than anything you can get from a book or a workshop, or even as a result of your own efforts.
When I’m flying (in coach, not the cockpit), I know what’s behind every moment of the taxi, takeoff, cruise and descent. I know when and why the flaps go up and down. The gear. The power settings. The approach patterns.
It was all in the book. My head is wrapped around the fundamentals, the engineering, the execution.
When something departs from normal, I recognize it right away. Could I fix it? Fly us through the approaching Haboob to safety? Honestly? Of course not. But I guarantee you I know more about what’s gone wrong, and/or what the pilot must accomplish, than the guy on the aisle who’s suddenly crying like frightened child.
Writers who have graduated ground school–who truly understand the architectural fundamentals of story structure, the rhythm of character arc, thematic and sub-textual power, the nuance of voice–are empowered to recognized it when they see it. And learn from it.
The opportunity to read the unpublished, unfinished, unvetted work of other writers isn’t easy to arrange.
It’s not in bookstores… those stories have been vetted and polished by professionals. You’ll be able to see what works, which is a very good thing, but that’s only half of the potential upside.
But being able to see what’s broken–and why–is even better. That’s where the gold is.
The more you know about story architecture, the more valuable this experience becomes. Because every time you see it done right, done brilliantly, you learn. And every time you see it executed at a less than stellar level, you not only notice, you’ll understand why the story isn’t working.
And that, fellow writers, is the golden goose, the steroid injection, of learning how to write killer novels and screenplays.
Larry Brooks is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” from Writers Digest Books. He also runs Storyfix.com, where he’s offering a new Peer Review Page where authors can submit their work (up to 5000 words) and other writers can offer their feedback.