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How to Tell a Good Story


A Scene is the Smallest Unit of Story


I was working on a scene in my novel-in-progress this week that wasn’t going anywhere. It was flat, dull, lifeless. Everything was happening in the scene that I wanted to happen, but it was just sort of sat there.
I dove in to try to fix it, and realized that the way I approached the fix is a tool many of you could put in your author’s toolkit, too.  It starts with the awareness that a scene is the smallest unit of story.
What does that mean?
First you have to know that a story is about change. At the very heart of it, when you strip everything else away, that’s all it is – a way of tracing a change in someone. They started out as one thing and ended up another.

  • They were a person who didn’t believe in love and ended up in love.
  • They were a person who took their mother for granted and ended up taking everyone else for granted, too.
  • They were a person who never felt heard and thought the way to being heard was to become an actress and realized that they were wrong.

The change can be big and dramatic or small and nuanced, but if you don’t have change, you don’t have story. (Note that this definition of story applies to memoir, too. And actually it applies to non-fiction of every kind but the change is taking place in the reader themselves, not the characters on the page. They go from not knowing how to lose weight to having a plan for healthy eating. They go from not understanding how to do well as a manager to being a good manager.)


Every scene of your story is a tiny slice of that arc of change. Therefore in every scene, something has to change.


In the scene I was working on, I brought one character on stage to make the other doubt her ability to write the story she has to write. She is a TV writer named Ruby and she is my protagonist. She is up against a pressing and very emotionally resonant deadline because her writing partner, who is her lover and her best friend, has been in a terrible accident. They were days away from doing an 11th hour rewrite on the finale of their hit TV show, and she doubts her ability to write without him. The guy I brought on stage to provoke her is a big movie producer named Jason, and he was the guy who hired her partner but did not hire her.
I thought I had the ingredients for a great scene because here is an antagonist, a truth-teller, someone who can rattle Ruby.
But the scene was flat because although it provided an external bit of “drama” it didn’t allow Ruby to move, to grow, to react. There was no consequence to her action – no dominos falling against each other. Nothing, in other words, was changing. So I knew I had to make something happen.
I dove back into the scene and here's what I asked myself:
What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause Ruby to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
The answer was that Ruby would learn something about Henry from Jason that she didn’t know – something worse than what she imagined had happened, something that would give her no choice but to take some kind of action. (And action, remember, can be a decision, a shift in mindset, a commitment… it doesn’t just have to be a sword-fight or meteors falling on Kansas.)
No sooner has I asked the question, then the answer came to me:  Ruby would go into the scene believing that Jason was the bad guy – he had hired Henry without Ruby. In the midst of the scene, Jason would tell her that, in fact, Henry had applied for the job. He had wanted to write without Ruby. It had been his idea. Ruby would exit the scene knowing that Henry had taken action to write without her – which would make her angry enough to want to prove to him and to herself and to the whole world that she could write without him. So instead of hemming and hawing and doubting, now she’s on fire.
Boom! Story deepened by a mile, scene made resonant, story moved forward.
Ask yourself the same questions of every scene you write -- What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause my protagonist to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
Odds are good this will shake out an answer that will move your story forward.  

To read the revised scene CLICK HERE



A Little Lesson in Why

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

(Warning: spoiler alert for Batman v Superman fans.)

Readers of this newsletter know that I am constantly hammering away at the fact that you have to ask why about everything you are writing – why are you motivated to write this particular book, why you want to make the point you are making, why your ideal reader should care, why your characters do what they do, want what they want, and struggle the way they must struggle.

I do this because readers come for the why, and it’s the why that gives story its emotional power. Without it, your writing will be flat and unable to draw the reader in. It’s easy to know the what of the world – we see it every day as we go about our lives. It’s almost relatively easy to know the how of the world – biology gives us that, and chemistry and physics and medicine and economists. By the why? That’s what we’re all desperately trying to figure out all the time and that’s what stories allow us: a chance to see why people do what they do.

Last night I saw Batman v Superman -- not my usual choice in movies but my daughter and her boyfriend are visiting and he’s a big fan, so off we all went.

These superhero’s stories are entirely built on why.  Batman and Superman’s why stories are well known and straightforward – one lost the love of his parents early on, the other gained love he never thought he would have.

The one I didn’t know much about was Wonder Woman. She is introduced in this movie, and in the LA Times yesterday there was an interview with Gal Gadot, the actress who plays her. The interviewer asks Gadot about a battle scene in which she smiles before going in for the kill. Here is her reply, in which she is recalling a conversation with director Zach Snyder:


“After we did that take, Zack came to me and he said, "Did you just have a smirk?" I said "Yeah." And he asked, "Why? I think I like it, but why?" "Well if he's gonna mess with her, then she's gonna mess with him. And she knows she's gonna win." At the end of the day Wonder Woman is a peace seeker. But when fight arrives, she can fight. She's a warrior and she enjoys the adrenaline of the fight.


Even in comics come to life, in a superhero movie where the strokes are painted broadly, why is at the heart of everything.

It was one smile, one smirk, but the director stopped everything to understand it, and the actress had a deeply thought-out why.  It wasn’t random, it wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t an afterthought: it was the story itself.




The Drama of Story

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a world premier of a play at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It was staged in a tiny little theater in the round – just 250 seats, with no seat more than 5 rows from the stage – and the premise of the play is that it takes place during a semi-final tennis match at the US Open.

Think about that for a minute – a tennis match, played on a tiny stage with audience members on every side. How on earth could that even work?

The Last Match by Anne Zeigler not only worked, it was riveting and moving – and it was a master-class in what stories are really about and what it takes to tell a good one.

Here are four key lessons reinforced by the play:

1. There are two levels to every story.

The first level is plot – in this case, the tennis match. This is what happens, what transpires, what we see at first glance. If someone were to ask me what The Last Match was about, I would probably say, “A tennis match.” That was the frame of the piece – the shape of it. I would, however, be missing the whole point, and if you are writing a memoir or a novel (and in many cases a self-help/how-to book) and you are only focusing on the plot you would be missing the whole point, too.

The second level is the real story – the why underneath the what of the plot. Why do the characters do what they do, why do they care about what is happening, why does it matter to them – and why, by extension, should we (the reader/viewer) care? This is where the true power of story lies. Zeigler clearly knows this in her bones – because on the stage made to look like a tennis court, she brought to life all the desire and rage and fear and yearning of two tennis stars who both want to win.

Why they each want to win is what it was all about.

2. We bring our past selves onto the stage of every story.

It’s so easy to think of any narrative as chronological – a straightforward shot from here to there – but that is, again, to only focus on the plot and to miss the heart of the thing.

Story – which as we just saw, unfolds on a different level – is often not chronological in the least. Since story is about a character’s inner struggle to  make meaning of certain events, it naturally involves their entire past, and it often loops around on itself and back again like a Mobius strip.

In The Last Match, Zeigler made this truth manifest.

One tennis star, Russian phenom Sergei Sergeyev, is a young upstart trying to fulfill the destiny of his great promise by beating the man who had been his idol as a child. He was battling the demons of insomnia and abandonment – things that had plagued him since his parents died in a car crash on the way to see him play. He was battling a demanding girlfriend who we couldn’t quite understand why anyone would bother with (why, why, why?) until we saw exactly why he would.

The other tennis star was the aging legend Tim Porter, thinking about when  to call it quits, trying to hang onto his glory, trying to quell the fear he knows he will feel if he gives up his identity as a tennis star. He was battling the demons of expectation and responsibility, now that he was (after a painful journey of infertility and loss) a new father – expectations of himself, of his son, and of his wife, and responsibility for his family’s financial and spiritual wellbeing.

So much hung in the balance for these two tennis players, and because we were let inside the consequences of the match, the audience came to care for both of them immensely.

All of this was done through some brilliant staging – the two men’s significant others marching, leaping, and slouching onto the tennis court/set to re-enact key scenes from their lives, to bring key questions and answers into the players’ minds.

This is exactly the way memory works – intruding, arriving unbidden, flashing across the stage of our lives.

Yes, the plot moves forward in time, but the story spins around it as it goes.

 3. Nothing is neutral

One of the most powerful elements of The Last Match was the way that Zeigler had the two tennis players literally playing off each other, like improvisers – where one actor starts a conversation and another picks it up and runs with it, crafting their own tale from the raw material he was given.

Tim Porter would be in the midst of a memory and Sergei Sergeyev would be sitting on a chair on the “sidelines” with his head bent and covered by a towel until that part of the story was done -- UNLESS a Tim Porter memory triggered something in Sergei, either literally, because they shared the same memory, or conceptually. If this happened, Sergei would leap up and take over, telling his own tale. It was a little like a relay race, with the baton being handed back and forth between the players, and it was dazzling as the audience was taken deeper and deeper into each man’s story.

Similarly, events in the tennis match itself triggered thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. These events included interactions with the crowd, the referee, and the other player, glances at the women in the stands (who sat in the theater aisles as if the players’ boxes), a wrenched back, a won point, a lost game.

So you had these two actors who on one level looked as though they were playing a simple game of tennis, but who on another level, were being plunged into darkness, lifted to heights of joy, and made to struggle with the most seminal moments of their lives.

The key concept for all of us here who are trying to write good books is triggered.

Things in a life (if you are writing memoir) or a novel (if you are writing fiction) or an argument (if you are writing non-fiction) trigger thoughts, ideas, opinions and memories. And by things, I mean events in the plot, other characters, dialogue, decisions – everything. Nothing is neutral to you or mein our real lives – so why should things be neutral in the books we write?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. Everything has the potential to trigger a deeper dive into a character’s life, into your own life, or into the argument you are trying to make to your reader.

Writers often struggle mightily with how to fold flashbacks and backstory into their work. They think of it as a separate thing – something you stop the story to drop in. Backstory and flashbacks, however, are the story. They are the heart of the story. They are how we get to the why that we (the reader) are desperately tracking as the plot unfolds.

If you think about flashbacks and backstory exactly the way I am describing the playwright did – as opportunities to add meaning and power to your story – you will find that they have a place on every page, in small and large ways.

4. Lessons about story are everywhere.

I learn so much about story every day – by reading the newspaper (okay, three of them), reading books, reading blogs, going to the movies, going to plays. It's all a chance to understand story better – to feel how it works, to know how to wield its power. And every once and awhile, you come away absolutely dazzled – which is what happened to me with this play.

Make sure you are consuming stories while you are trying to write them. It makes you a good literary citizen, for one thing, and it will teach you so much of what you need to know.




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What Harrison Ford and Stand Up Comedians Can Teach Us About Flashbacks

At the start of a new year, we look back in order to look forwards, and I think it’s worth noting that this is also one of the main actions of writing. I thought I would take some time today to talk about writing flashbacks – why we do it, when to do it, and how to do it.
Before we get there, a quick definition: by flashback, I mean any time in a fictional narrative or a non-fiction explanation when you stop the main story or flow in order to look back at something that happened in the past, in order to make sense of what is happening in the present. There is no form of writing that doesn’t employ this technique in some way, shape, or form.
Why Even Write a Flashback?
Readers turn to books to help us make sense of a world that often doesn’t make very much sense. Our lives don’t always have clear arcs or neat resolutions, and they certainly don’t have the clarity that comes from following a step-by-step how-to guide laid out by an expert. Whether we are reading a memoir, a novel, or a non-fiction book, we are seeking a deeper understanding of the world, of the other people in it, and of ourselves.
Each of us goes through the world with our own belief system, our own way of thinking and knowing. We can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we do have the ability to imagine what that would be like, and it is that imagining that expands our understanding.
That imagining is also extremely individual. If I say to you, “Picture a castle on a hill,” you will see something very different than I do, based on where you live, where you have travelled, what you have read, and how many Disney movies you have watched.
We write flashbacks in order to let our readers into those specific, highly personal thoughts, in order to invite them into our minds and our way of seeing, because that is the closest anyone will ever come to getting inside someone else’s head.
So we write flashbacks to give our readers insight and understanding. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
When Should You Write a Flashback?
In my definition, above, I explained that a flashback lets us look in the past in order to make sense of the present. The past can be yesterday, an hour ago, five, fourteen, or thirty seven years ago, but they key to when to take us there lies in that definition: in order to make sense of the present.
You should only use flashbacks when the present demands that we know something from the past. You should not use flashback because you the writer decided that the reader needs to know this thing and you picked an arbitrary place to dump it on us. We hate that. That feels like a lecture. What we want is an invitation.
The best way to learn how this process works in writing is to watch it at work in your own life. Pay attention to what causes memories to come into your mind, to what brings you in and out of the recollection, to how long they last and how detailed they are.
Let me give you an example of how this recently worked for me.
Like millions of my fellow humans, I was recently in a theater watching the new Star Wars movie. When Harrison Ford showed up on screen as Han Solo, tears instantly came to my eyes. I imagine that tears instantly came to a lot of people’s eyes (I mean, he’s with Chewie, on his battered and beloved and dependable old ship, and he says, “We’re home,” and it’s a lovely moment.) The question is, though, why did tears come to MY eyes? What specific understanding was I bringing from that past into that moment that was different from any one of the millions of other teary-eyed movie-goers?
If I were writing about that moment (in a memoir, or transposed in some way to a novel, or in a non-fiction book about, say, the power of a shared cultural moment), I would be leaving the reader completely out if I didn’t answer the question. I would be letting the reader flap in the wind by bringing up my teary eyes without also explaining what it meant to me – an omission which would confuse and frustrate them. Or I would be leaving them to interpret for themselves why I was crying – which would mean I gave up my authority.
I owe it to the reader to explain my tears so that they can understand what I am feeling, and whatever larger point I am making in even choosing to talk about Star Wars in the first place.
The past that brought tears to my eyes in that one silver screen second has many layers, but the two most prominent layers for me were:

  • The fact that grey-haired Harrison Ford looks alarmingly like my dad (who is on the right, below); and that my dad has always been quite like a superhero/action figure to me, with all the power and all the limitations of that job; and that because of the same devil-may-care attitude he and Han both have, I have never been completely sure that my dad would survive any of his many adventures; and the fact that, unlike my dad, Han can always be counted on to swoop in to save the day. The split-second appearance of Harrison Ford’s face yanked all of these thoughts up to the surface in a sudden bittersweet wave of affection and regret. That alone would have given the moment meaning, but there was more:
Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 4.08.10 PM.png


  • The fact that I was 13 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out, and this time I was sitting in the theater with my husband and our grown children, and all this time has passed and Harrison Ford has grown older and I have grown older, too, and on top of all that there was a time that is now receding into the past when (because of a cancer diagnosis) none of us were sure that I would have the chance to grow older. And yet there we were – my husband and my children and I -- having made it to that moment, which brought up a whole different sent of intense emotions about mortality and chance and love and loss, just as complex and nuanced as the other wave.

Do you see how, if you knew none of those things, my teary eyes at Harrison Ford could be mistaken for straight up movie nostalgia, or for something else entirely?
You need the intel from the past in order to understand my tears. If I were writing about those tears, it would be my job to give you that intel and to give it to you the moment I told you about those tears. If I waited, I would lose the opportunity, I would lose momentum, and odds are good that I would lose you – because SO WHAT that I got teary in Star Wars? Everyone got teary at Star Wars.
Flashback allows you to answer that so what at the moment the question is raised, which deepens the hold you have on your reader because it deepens the meaning of what you are trying to convey.
How to Write a Flashback
The key to making flashbacks work is to enter and exit them in a seamless way. They are part of the story you are telling or the point you are making – not a separate thing. But you need to give the reader distinct cues and clues as to what you are doing.
Those cues almost always have to do with the passage of time – days and dates. It often feels heavy handed to write these kinds of sentences – Three years before… or The last time I was in a movie theater… or I suddenly remembered my tenth birthday party… but those straightforward cues are necessary.
In the Star Wars example, I might write this:
Tears instantly began to burn my eyes and I felt my throat close up. I felt silly – why was I crying at Harrison Ford’s sudden appearance? – and I looked at Emily to see if she had been impacted by the moment in the same way. She hadn’t been. She sat watching the movie unfold as if nothing momentous had occurred. [This is “story present.”]
It was then that I realized that my 20-year-old child simply didn’t have the same deep history with mortality that I had.  [This is a statement of my point in telling this story…]
She had only been three when I was diagnosed with cancer. [Note the use of ages to bring the reader back in time… we are now entering the flashback.] I remember that once we decided to tell the girls, we gathered them in the living room to try to explain what was happening. We told them we had something important to say, and while her older sister was antsy about the gravity of the moment, wanting to escape it, Emily seemed to sink into it. She sat there with her little forehead wrinkled in concern, her green eyes drinking everything in.
“Your mom has a sickness called cancer,” Rob said.
“That’s what Grandma died from," Carlyn said.
“Yes,” I said, “But the kind I have is different. We don’t think it’s as bad.”
“Are you going to die?” Carlyn asked.
Rob took my hand. “We don’t think so,” he said, “We’re going to work with the doctors to do everything we can to make sure she doesn’t.”
“Okay,” Carlyn said, convinced, and got up and left the room. 
Emily stayed. “What’s cancer?” she asked.
Rob took a pencil and drew some shapes on a yellow lined piece of paper. He then explained how cells divide, and he turned some of the shapes into larger shapes.
“How will the doctors make it go away?” she asked.
Rob explained how doctors had tools to remove the cells that divided the wrong way, and he erased the dots. This seemed to satisfy Emily – but she never asked what death was. She never asked what it meant to die. Perhaps, at age 3, that simply wasn’t part of her worldview. Perhaps, like any child, she simply couldn't imagine her mother not being there.
Sitting in the darkened theater next to her 17 years later [Note the use of time to bring the reader forward in time and back to story present] – having lived all those years, having survived – I felt immense gratitude for the opportunity I had to raise my children to adulthood. I felt immense gratitude to be alive.
Suddenly it didn’t seem silly at all to be so moved to see Hans Solo return against all odds, yet again.
Here’s another good way to learn how to go in and out of flashbacks: watch sketch comedy. The best comedians often fold stories within stories and you can HEAR how it works.
With my kids home for the holidays, I was invited to watch all kinds of great videos, clips and sketch comedy routines that I might not otherwise ever know about, and among them were some comedy routines by John Mulaney. I found him quite hilarious, but he does use strong language and scenarios that might offend some people, so I tried to find a clip that showed what I wanted to show without going too far.
In this clip, Mulaney is telling a story about how great it is to have a girlfriend going through life by his side and in the middle of that story, he breaks to tell a story about what life was like before his girlfriend. It’s a flashback. It happens to be told in an over-the-top extreme way, for the biggest laughs, but it’s flashback nonetheless. 
20:35 -- The start of the girlfriend story.
21:19 -- The restatement of his theme (“Before I had a girlfriend, I had no standard for how I should be treated as a human being”) and the segue to the flashback – a story about how life was without the girlfriend.
21:49 – Repetition of the theme and the flashback story -- the story about Delta airlines (so funny, I crack up every time!)
23:28 -- End of flashback, back to girlfriend story, where she calmly and logically recommends Southwest, thereby proving the theme of the whole routine: life is better with the girlfriend.
Here’s to telling great stories and writing great books in 2016!

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The Story Behind the Story

The Story Behind the Story


One of the first questions I ask any writer is, Why do you want to write this story?

There are permutations to that question that follow hard on its heels: When did it first come into your head? Why does it matter to you? Why this story and not some other one? Why now?

The reason these questions matter so much is that the answers often hold the key, not only to the point of the book, but to the structure, and even to the way that you will ultimately connect with readers. I say on my website that I have book-seeing super-powers, which is somewhat cheeky and ridiculous, I know, but also strangely true. The super-power, comes, in part, from my understanding the reality of where books come from. They do not randomly arrive out of the clear blue sky. They come from somewhere. The come for some reason. The book that is haunting you is not haunting someone else, and it is not haunting you at a different time of your life.

If you can find out why you, why now, why this book, you can unlock the secrets of your story – where it should start, what it should do, how it should proceed on the page. It really is a kind of magic.

So how does it work?

I was recently driving up to teach at UCLA (an arduous trek on the 405 through West LA) and listening to NPR (which I don’t always do; sometimes I listen to Ryan Seacrest. Sometimes you need a little fluff in your life…) A story came on the air that perfectly captured the power of the origin of a story.

It was Emily Spivak talking about her book, Worn Stories – a collection of memoirs of people talking about their favorite items of clothing. I had heard about this book, had seen the cover, had even read an excerpt somewhere. I was intending to buy it, so when I heard that the author was there in my local NPRR studio – live! Just down the freeway in Pasadena! – I was eager to hear what she had to say.

The host asked Emily where she came up with the idea for the book, and Emily proceeded to tell this riveting story about taking her fashion students to a thrift store’s regional sorting center, to basically watch where clothes go to die. Her point in taking the field trip was to show students that clothes are just rags unless they are worn and loved. Her point was to inspire them to design clothes that would be worn and loved. The trip also inspired her to start thinking about how clothes were worn and loved – and voila! A book was born. A book with a point, which is the same thing as a beating heart.

I said above that the origin of a book can give you its structure, too, and this one did. If you want to share stories of clothes that were worn and loved, you probably want a wide variety of clothes and stories, which means you need a wide variety of people. Emily set about developing a list of people she might ask to contribute stories to her book. She thought of some famous people who it would be interesting to ask, but she wanted a diversity of people talking about a diversity of clothing. In the NPR piece, she talks about how once she chose one story it would lead her to chose the next, in a kind of yin and yang, back and forth process. She talked about taking out ads on Craigslist in towns in the Midwest in order to fill out her table of contents – a detail I love, because it suggests such commitment and passion. So the point of the book that had been sparked at that thrift store suggested a structure, which Emily began to build.

As I sat there listening to Emily tell this tale, I realized that her origin story also gave this author a way to connect with readers. She was on NPR in one of the largest media markets in America, and what she was talking about was the story behind the story.  She was talking about her love of clothes. Her passion for teaching people how to design them. Her beliefs about where they got their power. That one specific day at the thrift store sorting center. All of that occupied just a few pages of the introduction of her book, and yet THAT was the story that brought her to me, and to all the NPR listeners that day. That was no doubt the story that got the NPR producers excited about spending five minutes of airtime on Worn Stories. It was, after all, the very first question the host asked.

The story behind the story is often what gives a book its power to connect.  This morning, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It has become a massive hit on at least two continents, but I had never heard of it before this morning. If you read the Journal’s piece about author Marie Kondo, the part that really hooks you is the part where she talks about her childhood and how she loved to fold things and clean things and tidy up, and how she was the classroom organizer in grade school. The moment when she stumbles upon her signature phrase – “Does this spark joy?” can’t help but make you smile, and, at least for me, want to buy the book.

What’s the story behind your story? What’s the spark of joy that is motivating you to write this book? Tap into that, and you may just have the key you need to writing a great book.

To listen to the Emily Spivak interview, click HERE. She starts telling her origin story at .41 and the story about developing her list of people to interview at 2.30.



Join me and Dan Blank for a webinar series about how to connect with readers at every stage of the writing process. We’re doing a 4-part series for SheWritesPress, starting next week. The first webinar is free.  It’s not a super nitty gritty-hands on program, but we will be giving a lot of information, telling a lot of success stories (and a few failure stories), and taking individual Q&As from participants every week.

Join me at UCLA for a one-day workshop on Navigating the Path to Publishing. It’s perfect for anyone trying to decide between traditional and self publishing.

I’ll also be at the Women’s National Book Association Los Angeles Conference on March 14