Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If You Can't Describe Your Story, There Probably Isn't A Story

I talk about this all of the time in writing classes when we discuss thesis statements. If you can't sum up your paper in a single sentence, then there is a pretty good chance the paper has some problems. This isn't anything original. I heard a talk show host say the same thing with callers. She required callers to state their question in a single sentence. If, however, someone started chiming in with comments such as "I have to give you a little back story" or "let me explain something first" she would cut them off. The issue was simple. They didn't know what their problem was.

I relate this same thought when I read query letters or listen to pitches. The majority of the time (I'm talking 99% here), when I have an author who can't get to the point about what their story is about, the story does have huge issues. There is no purpose, no theme, no central story arc and probably a lot of unneccessary details being thrown in. Simply put, what has happened is the author has just started writing and ended up with something. When they talk to critique partners, the story is often seen out of context, or work is done to individual scenes, but the continuity of the story is simply not there.

The same goes for what the author says about their story. When I ask, "so, what is your story about?" and all the author can do is tell me a setting, or the type of characters, this explains a lot. The author didn't tell me about the story, they told me about something that should be in the background. For example, if I asked someone what GONE WITH THE WIND was about, and the author said "This is a Civil War story set in the south to show the impact of the war on families" then they missed the mark. The story is about Scarlett. That is what needs to be brought to the forefront.

I think I mentioned this before, but I did a workshop with a writing chapter and we were talking about summing up their books for query letters. Most authors cringed when I said we would be doing this. Like most authors they all complained about how hard it was. What was discovered though, was the process of summing up the story wasn't tough, it was the fact that the majority of the authors in the room had stories that didn't have a focus. They had manuscripts, characters and story elements, but no real story.

So, where do we start with this process? If we are writing a query letter or pitching to an editor, when do we start? BEFORE you write the story. Sorry to say this, but this is one more reason why you should be plotting stories.

Oh, and let me add one more note. Not being able to tell your story can not be blamed on your anxiety over writing a query or pitching to someone. That anxiety is coming from you 100% and the fact that, again, in most of the cases, your brain is saying to you, "what do you think you are doing? You don't have a story to tell so let me just make a few things up and hope for the best." Probably not the best approach to take.



  1. Wonderful post--and a great reminder since I'm brainstorming a new story right now.

  2. You're absolutely right,Scott. Thanks for the post!

  3. Right, right, right. That's why I decided to go back over my manuscript and try to outline what was happening chapter by chapter and why it was happening. I'm learning a lot about my characters as I do this and my end result will be a much better story! Good reminder-I know you've said this before but it needed to be said again!!!

  4. So true. I've learned the hard way that I better have a clear idea of the story before I spend weeks writing chapters that go nowhere.

    Bonnie Ferrante

  5. I have to agree with you. I'm a big fan of Stephen King's book called On Writing. His approach is to "find an artifact" and start digging (writing). I've been doing this for a long time. Just starting with a small inspiration and going from there. BUT lately I've completely found the benefit of plotting and getting a good idea of where I'm going before I put my pen to paper. . .Not to say Stephen King's approach isn't valid. I'm just not as huge a writing genius as he is.

  6. I've found that writing the blurb that would go in the query letter (if I pitched it) or on the back cover (if I self-pubbed it) helps catch some plotting issues in advance. :)

  7. Wonderful post, and a great reminder to hone the story until you have an "elevator pitch" for it--that one or two sentence (short sentences) method of telling your story.