story structure

A Conversation with Jule Selbo

I'm taking a slight detour from memoir, to learn about writing historical fiction!

My dear friend, mentor and colleague, Jule Selbo, recently released her book about the legendary explorer John Cabot. Jule has been instrumental in my path as a educator. As the former Chair of the MFA screenwriting program at Cal State University, Jule invited me to teach Story Structure to undergrads after completing my degree. It's no surprise that she says 'structure' is the thing she comes back to time and again, no matter what she is writing - a play, screenplay or novel. I wholeheartedly agree and highly recommend her book Screenplay: Building Story Through Character if you want to learn more about her approach. It can be applied to any story you're writing, not just a screenplay!

Jule Selbo is a tour de force! She has written feature films and television series for major studios and networks, and plays that have been produced in New York City and Los Angeles. In addition, she has written books on screenwriting and created the Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at California State University, Fullerton, where she is a professor.

Jule's debut historical fiction novel, John Cabot: Dreams of Discovery, captures the life of the great explorer. As a child, Cabot dreamed of captaining a ship across a mysterious, uncharted Ocean -  from Europe to the riches of China. In the 15th century, the Turks had a stranglehold on the Silk Road, the only viable trading route from Europe to the Far East. There were promised riches and glory to the one who could find an alternate route to Asia. This is a story of a determined man who risked everything.

Karin Gutman: What drew you to write a book about John Cabot? 

Jule Selbo: A wonderful Italian-American man named Robert Barbera became determined that one of his legacies would be commissioning books on the Italians or Italian-Americans who contributed to America. His publishing arm is Barbera/Mentoris; he believes that books on actual people who overcame great odds to achieve goals can inspire. I was lucky to be hired to write two of these books—the first one is the story of Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and the other is about Laura Bassi, a scientist in the 1700s in Bologna, Italy who, taking her cues from the newly coined era called the Enlightenment, became the first woman to gain her doctorate at the prestigious University of Bologna. And after many obstacles, she became the head of the physics department, paving the way for many women to receive higher education in Europe.

The story of Giovanni Caboto (he took the name John Cabot when he moved to England to get King Henry VII’s patronage) was a great challenge and that is partly why it appealed to me. Whereas Columbus was a bit of a braggart and attention seeker, Caboto kept his focus on two things: his dream of exploration and his family. Digging into his story, bringing the scenes and characters to life, researching the paths of other explorers and coming to an understanding of navigation and politics of the era—all of it was fascinating to me.
Karin: Had you ever written historical fiction? How did you approach the process?

Jule: I have been a history buff my whole life. When I wrote for George Lucas on Young Indiana Jones Chronicles we were asked to be as historically correct as we could be (that’s where the fiction comes in) as we brought young Indiana Jones to life. In one of my episodes, young Indiana hangs with Puccini during the first production of Madame Butterfly, in another he is with Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea (one of the first anthropologists), in another he learns to play tenor saxophone with Sidney Bichet. Of course, sometimes “adventure” was added and sometimes the adventure of the story was inherent—but the historical parts of the characters and era were true to the time.

As far as HISTORICAL NOVEL, yes, this is my first one.

How did I approach it? I spent many many weeks in research.  Then I would start to structure how I might tell the story.  My “boss,” Mr. Barbera, wanted a life to death story, so I knew I had a lot to cover. I needed to find, for me, what make this character “tick” and have the gumption to fight for his huge goal. Then I would go back to research. And write again. The Caboto book took about 9 months to write. I am a stickler for keeping it as “true” as possible. 

Karin: You call this a NOVEL versus an autobiography. How do you strike the balance between writing about someone’s life and taking liberties of fictionalizing it?

Jule: The most interesting challenge is making the characters “talk” and creating the scenes and pushing the story forward. The goal was not to go over 70,000 words. That’s about 230 pages or so. That’s not a lot of pages to tell a complete life story. But because my background is screenwriting, the word “cut to” kept coming to mind. The questions, “what are the most important scenes that will get him from desire to actualization? What characters do I need to add just to make the story work and give Caboto someone to talk to? What characters would illuminate his desire? I knew Caboto had a brother, and they stayed close all his life, but Piero never was a sailor. That gave me a clue as to who Piero (brother) was. I knew Caboto married Mattea and that she moved with him to England. It made me wonder, because this was unusual for a wife to move herself and family away from familial home. It made me think she might have been adventurous too and, unlike many women of the time, acted on her desires. And what did it say about their relationship and love for each other? So I don’t think of it as taking liberties as much as putting the clues together and fashioning a full persona.

I stuck to the trajectory of his life—his move from Genoa to Venice (getting in trouble there) to Catalonia and finally to England. I feel a duty to give the reader actual life facts wrapped in an “informative, exciting” read.
Karin: You have such a widespread background as a writer - plays, screenplays, textbooks, etc. What new things did you learn, or that surprised you, with this new genre?

Jule: How much I loved it. I always point to working with Lucas on Young Indy as one of the most fun and challenging jobs I had as a TV writer. The research, the facts, the history—bringing it all together in an entertaining way—it’s fun for me.

I learned a lot more about how to research and where to find credible facts and information. Surface google searches are not the best places to rely on. And academic resources will, sometimes, disagree with one another. Only in digging, digging, and digging can one come to a moment piece and decide how to put all the clues together.
Karin: What are some fundamentals of craft, the things that you return to time and again, no matter what you’re writing?
Structure. I believe in telling a good story and I do believe a good story has strong structure—to pull the reading audience along.
Karin: What do you hope that readers take away from this book?

Jule: That there were incredible explorers in this era. They were led by what they imagined could be. That navigation was in its raw form, but a desire to know how the world was shaped propelled dangerous exploration. That having big dreams is exciting and that even though they may take time to come to fruition, they can be reached. That a person’s worth has little to do with others’ perceptions, but with self-satisfaction.
Karin: What creative projects do you have cooking now? I know you’re always working on many things. Tell us something that you are EXCITED about!
Jule: My historical fiction novel on Laura Bassi—I think it will be entitled Unstoppable: Based on the Life of Laura Bassi—comes out in October. She was a scientist who broke through many barriers set to keep women out of higher education and science in the 1700s.

I am working hard to finish my first private investigator book based in Portland, Maine. My main character is a female ex-cop who had to leave the force for medical reasons and I love the character.

My women’s fiction/romance book Piazza Carousel, that I published independently a year ago, has been picked up by a publisher and will be re-issued this Fall and the publisher has me signed to do a sequel.

So my plate is full, but I am loving it!  

To learn more about Jule Selbo, visit her website.

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A Conversation with Amy Wallen

Years ago, I met Amy Wallen through mutual writer-teacher friends. At the time she was producing a spoken word series based in San Diego called DimeStories, which she also founded. Amy had published a novel and was also hosting salons at her home featuring her delicious pies (hence the name, Savory Salons). Like me, she was creating community through storytelling and I felt I'd met a kindred spirit.

Next week Amy's debut memoir When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories is being released into the world through the American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff. In the interview below, I had a chance to ask her about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, how she found the keys to structure, and what advice she would have given herself in retrospect. You'll also find her upcoming readings and signings in LA and across the USA! 

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the soon-to-be-released memoir When We Were Ghouls (University of Nebraska Press, March 2018). She is the associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at the University of California, San Diego Extension. Her first novel, Moon Pies and Movie Starswas a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Amy is the creator of Savory Salons, an intimate gathering with a conversation springing from the author’s latest work. If you want to be invited, message her and she'll put you on the list!

When Amy learns her parents are grave robbers and her memory is out of focus, she tries to figure out what truly happened. When We Were Ghouls, A Memoir of Ghost Stories is about a search for family. It follows a family that has been dispersed around the world, a family who, like ghosts, come and go and slip through Amy’s fingers making it unclear if they were ever there.

"Lyrical and haunting."—Booklist

Buy the book


Karin Gutman: Tell me about your book!

Amy Wallen: When We Were Ghouls is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir metaphorically in ghost stories. The book opens with a memory I have of my family digging up a pre-Inca grave in Peru. I soon discover my memories are not quite what I thought and yet at the same time frighteningly just as I remembered, so I start to dig even deeper into my family’s adventures. As a young kid my blue-collar family was transferred to Nigeria, Peru and then Bolivia. All of my family members, like ghosts, came and went during this time. I begin to question everything that happened, although the physical world suggests my memories are real, the stories seem unbelievable to me. The stories suggest that my family were looters, grave robbers and hideous people with no regard for humanity. The opening scene/chapter is exactly how the story came to me. I had no intention of writing a memoir, but I soon realized that’s exactly what I had to do. 
I know you have also published a novel. Can you describe the difference between writing fiction versus nonfiction?

I struggled with the transition from fiction to nonfiction. Not because I didn’t want to tell the truth, and not because I wanted to make things up (although I do find that to be more fun), but because I had a hard time with the narrators of experience and innocence. I had learned psychic distance in fiction but those characters felt more stagnant or controllable, maybe. To apply that to myself, to who I am now AND who I was then was a mind-bender for me. I had to learn compassion for my complicity, for my family, dig inside deep to admit to how I felt then versus how I feel now, or rather how I felt as I wrote the book. I say the last bit because I think even as I look at the pages now, a few years after they were written, I have a new way of looking at the story, but I had to realize that was the story I was writing then. Once it clicked, once I realized the juxtaposition versus the commonalities, once I realized that I was writing the story that I had to tell at that moment about that part of my past, even though it would be different at every stage of my life, I felt right at home in the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s a very “of the moment” genre and yet is about the past. Or at least, that’s how I came to decipher it.

What does your writing practice look like? Has it morphed over time?
My writing practice varies with my life, somewhat, but also stays the same. I believe in writing every day because otherwise I lose the momentum. But I have also learned that I can’t always make this happen because life gets in the way, and mostly I get in the way of myself.  I wanted to get another book started so it wouldn’t take me as long as it took me to write this last book. So, this time I’m writing every day but not putting on any pressure and I’m just committing to 250 words - no matter what. That’s about a page a day and so I figure at the end of a year I’ll have at least 365 pages. I usually write more than 250 words, but even if that’s all I have some days, then at least I’ve kept my finger in the pot and the momentum going. So far it’s working. I’m on page 73 and I started Dec 29, 2017 so I’m about 35 pages ahead of where I thought I’d be.

Writing memoir at times can be painful, as we go to our most vulnerable places inside. How did you take care of yourself during the process?

I’m not very good at self-care, then again, I’m too good at it. I tend to be a workaholic, but I also go to a lot of spas and get a lot of massages. As far as taking care of me as a writer, I really focus on only showing my work to the people I trust and only when I feel it’s got enough heft that the input won’t turn it to dust. I am way too sensitive and take everything that people tell me about my work to heart. So instead of trying to teach myself to be tougher, I try to find ways to receive input that isn’t going to make me quit writing, but instead will make me a better writer. Sometimes though I wish I had one of those mothers that would just tell me everything I do is perfect. 
To me, writing a memoir is about uncovering the deeper underlying truth of our experience… how did you do that?
I agree with you completely. I think I did this by doing what I mentioned above—showing drafts to only people I trust. When I say I trust them I trust that they will tell me where to dig deeper, where they want to know more, where I am being superficial. I think I also asked a lot of questions about myself and why my memories would be so distorted. I assumed that the answers were inside of me. I kept to the truth by realizing there is never just one truth—that everyone’s point of view and reality is valid. But the story I was telling was my reality and my truth wrapped up inside all those others.

What kind of feedback did you seek out along the way? Are you a part of a writing group? Did you work with an editor?
I have a very close reader and we share work. We have read each other’s books probably over 10 times. We have seen them at every stage. I did pay another good friend who is a professional book reviewer to also look at a later draft. He gave me the keys to structure. Then, after I got my book deal through the University press, the peer reviewer gave me comments that pushed the theme to a whole new level and I felt took the story to a much deeper and honest place. So yes, I sought feedback along the way, but very carefully. I belonged to a writing group when I wrote my novel and they were incredibly helpful, and I also learned the key to having trustful readers along the way. It’s not good to have the blind leading the blind, but to have a fabulous guide and teacher and a group of intelligent readers and writers—that’s invaluable, whatever form it comes in.

I am curious about what “keys to structure” you received?

It was David Ulin and he gave me the idea to start with the grave digging as the opening scene and then use the metaphor of digging up the remains of my family’s history throughout the rest of the memoir. It seemed so obvious when he said it, but it also seemed somewhat awkward at first since it changed the order of how I had it structured. Originally I had started with the grave digging, but hadn’t considered the slipping of memory and the continuation of the conversation with my parents in the current day. At first I tried to break the grave story up and spread it out, but I soon realized it was more about the metaphor, about slanting the details, than about scattering the physical scene. Again, another lesson learned about what memoir is about. But this “slanting of details” is something I really learned to the bone when I worked with Sue Silverman in grad school and from her book FEARLESS CONFESSIONS. She discusses the slanting of details, of taking the moment in time, finding the metaphors in the details and using them to create momentum and continuity to go into deeper and deeper places. So I guess I really was given the keys from many teachers and friends

How did you get a publishing deal for the book?
That’s always a question that I think every writer can answer differently, but still the same. I was seeking agents in New York since that’s what got me my novel book deal years ago. But this book was so different I also thought it may need a different kind of publisher. My NYC experience with my novel had been more about selling the book and getting it out into the world rather than about the words on the page. I wanted this book, maybe because it was so personal, to be treated with kid gloves. So I also researched independent presses. A good friend and mentor referred me to the University of Nebraska American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff, and they made me an offer. They sounded like exactly what I was looking for and the perfect home for Ghouls. I have found the experience to be everything and more of what I dreamed of.

What has the publishing process been like?

A university press is so much different than a New York City publishing house. First of all, they only publish a handful of books a year and publish a more narrowly focused story, like the American Lives series which is basically memoirs of a variety of Americans. They also publish novels that focus on the Flyover States.  Because of the smaller focus they can spend more time on every word and detail. Before any contract is signed, the editor sends the book out to be peer-reviewed. This is when I was given the keys to the bigger question I needed to bring to the overall story. I never got this kind of depth of discussion before. This required another round of revisions, and the possibility that my manuscript would be rejected. I guess I must have done the job right. The cover was designed by an award-winning book cover artist, the editor read the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and again even after the copyeditor had cleaned it up. All this attention was both nerve-wracking and fabulous to have such intricate attention paid to my work. I feel I learned more in this process than in any class.

How encouraging to hear that your publishing experience was so positive. Again, you mention that the peer review gave you the keys to the “bigger question” that took the theme to a whole new level. Can you share more details about that?

The first round of peer review was positive, but only recommended publication with the contingency that I needed to find a bigger overall question that threaded through the entire memoir. See above where I am considering the slanting of details. I understood what the reviewer meant and he suggested that my early question in the grave digging scene—“Are we hideous people?” which my mother keeps calling us—seems the best question. That statement hit the nail on the proverbial head for me. I immediately saw how the question, which is asked in the opening, could be asked about every scene and memory and about myself and my family throughout the whole book. It also helped me see how to edit out some scenes because they were not essential to this question. The big question helped make the memoir feel whole, feel complete. Before that, it was a conglomeration of memories. The editing was so easy with that one key question.

You say you learned more in the process than any class. Can you elaborate?

I LOVE classes and take more than the average person. I think I went back to grad school after having published my novel because I just love being in the class setting so much. The camaraderie, the friendships created, and the bonds from sharing bad drafts (being vulnerable) are essential to surviving the writing process. But as someone who works on book-length work, I have found that it’s hard to get big-picture input when a class or group is only looking at 10-30 pages at a time. I craved to have someone read the entirety to give me those keys I mentioned before: David Ulin seeing the opening scene as a metaphor for the whole story; Sue Silverman teaching me to look for the metaphors throughout, the one metaphor that repeats itself; and the peer reviewer, Lee Martin, to see the Big Question that was hidden in the grave scene and that really was the thread that pulled all the repeating metaphors together. Maybe I’m dense and should have seen all of this myself, but I think that it becomes difficult to see our own stories from a longer perspective when we are so close to them. I think classes are fantastic for providing deadlines, to give input on the prose style, the intrigue of the story and the development of individual scenes. They teach us how to write, and I am an honest believer in that as writers we never stop learning how to write.  I think Big-Picture readers are essential for the later drafts. My own frustration with the later drafts and big-picture input is why I started the 200-page workshop I do with David Ulin in my living room. I think the peer review process at the university press was ideally the best kind of reader—one who wants you to get published, wants to make your book the best it can be—not the kind that is just looking for what isn’t working, but instead looking for what will make it work.

Did you have to deal with any legalities, in terms of exposing other people? Did you have any personal concerns about telling this story?
I have not had to deal with any legalities, but I did worry about it when I was writing it. I considered using a pseudonym so that if any of the issues of what my parents did came to the attention of someone who wanted to try to cause a problem, I could avoid it. I did a TON of research on whether or not I was exposing anyone, namely my parents, to some kind of legal hassle or even jail time. I called attorneys, museums, archeologists, and of course googled every variation of negative thought I had. Everything I kept finding out was that my parents would have had to sell the artifacts they dug up in order to be arrested or even fined. But I still worry that there will be some kind of problem that will arise. My parents are in their late 80s and that would be a real drag if they were hauled off to prison. I asked my mom if she would have a problem if Homeland Security showed up at her door, and she said, “Good gosh no, I wish they’d come and haul all that stuff out of here.“

Now in hindsight… looking back at yourself at the beginning of the process, what advice would you have given Amy?
I’d tell myself to not resist whatever story wants to show up on the page, and to remember that just because I am writing a book all about myself that I’m not a narcissist, but a storyteller. And, that even though I’m writing a book all about myself, people will want to know my story if I tell it truthfully. And to be me on the page, even if 'me' is sometimes a little shit.


~ Meet Amy Wallen ~

Upcoming Readings + Signings:

February 24th, 7pm @ The Foundry (San Diego)

March 3, 5pm @ The Book Catapult w/ Jim Ruland (San Diego)

March 8th @ AWP Tampa Bookfair (Florida)

March 15, 7pm @ The Innovative w/ Samantha Dunn (Orange County)

April 26, 7pm @ Book Culture w/ Philip Lopate (NYC)

See full details



To learn more about Amy Wallen, visit:

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A Conversation with Lisa Cron

I recently chatted with Lisa Cron about her most recent book, Story Geniusa detailed guide for writing a compelling novel. I have known Lisa for a long time and largely attribute my deep understanding of 'story' to our many conversations over breakfast at our favorite diner 'Rae's' in Santa Monica. And I continue to learn from her!

In this interview I was particularly struck by her insights around how traditional writing is typically taught - as early as kindergarten - leaning on 'technique' over 'story'. Perhaps my ears perked up because I have a four-year-old daughter. Even so, it makes me reflect on my own foundation and evolution, and the ways I've had to unravel and re-learn, thanks to people like Lisa who has made teaching 'Story' her life's work.

So I hope you'll take a moment to glean some Cron wisdom...

LISA CRON has worked as a literary agent, a TV producer, and a story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and many others. She is a frequent speaker at writers' conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. She teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA in Visual Narrative Program, and is the author of Wired for Story. She splits her time between Santa Monica, California, and New York City.

In her book Story Genius, Lisa takes you step by step, through the creation of a novel from the first glimmer of an idea, to a complete multi-layered blueprint--including fully realized scenes-- that evolves into a first draft with the authority, command and richness of a sixth or seventh draft. It follows on the heels of her first breakout book, Wired for Story, which offers a revolutionary look at story as the brain experiences it.


Karin: You call yourself a “Story Coach” versus a “Writing Coach,” why is that?

Lisa: When people hear the word “writing” they think, “How do you write? What's your technique?” and that comes at it from such the wrong place. Because story begets writing, not the other way around.

That's why people who know me well, when I'm working with someone, and I go, “Well, you're a really good writer,” they know I'm about to tell them something awful. That's not a compliment.

What is “You're a really good writer” code for?

For me, it's code for: you can write a sentence, you can write a generic scene, you can use words but what you're using them for isn't there. It's not about writing; it's about story. The power comes from the story not the writing. It's story first. That's what ends up giving power to any words. The problem is that writers think that the words have to be there first. It keeps them from getting into the starting gate, let alone out of it, because everything has to be beautifully written from the get-go. And if you don't know what you're talking about or writing about or what the story is, what are you using those words for?

Why do we have it all wrong?

I spent the past two years in this small school district in New Jersey that was K through 8. They wanted to figure out how could they incorporate story into how they teach writing. I've always said that writing is taught wrong everywhere. Originally in my head I was thinking post-secondary. And I got there and I went, “Oh no, it's starts in Kindergarten. I see exactly where the problem is.”

Kids in second grade are taught “theme.” What does that even mean? It doesn't mean anything. I tell adults not to use that word; it's a horrible word. You don't say, “What's my theme?” You say, “What's my point?”

It's taught in terms of technique. It's taught in terms of using beautiful, flowery language. It's taught in terms of mastering how to write a sentence.

I'll give you a great example. I worked with this great literacy coach at the school, and she told me before I got there, “I just want to let you know what you're up against.” About a year or two before I got there - I can't remember if it was a third or fourth grade class - but there was a little girl who came up to her and she'd written about the time when her parents sat her down and told her they were getting a divorce. And so she's reading a piece and she's holding back the tears trying not to cry. And the literacy coach said, “This is so beautiful, this is so amazing. Let's go show it to your teacher.” And so the teacher read it and the first words out of her mouth were, “Um, you missed a couple of transition words here.”

That's the problem.

Besides the fact that it's taught in terms of different techniques and pretty, flowery language - flowery language is very much applauded - they get these prompts that are things like, “Jane was walking on the beach, and she found a bottle with a message in it. Write a story about what happened...” Or “Joe woke up and heard some noise in the backyard and looked outside and there was a castle in his backyard. He decided to go in and explore. Write a story about what happened...”

Prompts are always like that. It's just a big weird thing that happened. But there's no story in that, why would that matter? I don't know.

The problem is, writers are taught the technique of how to write: here's how to write a sentence, here's how to write a paragraph. But when it comes to actually writing a story, they're not taught anything. And the thing is, ultimate and complete freedom is not liberating. It's paralyzing. Because how do you know what matters and what doesn't? What's the point? You're just standing there knowing nothing.

So I said, here's what a story is: it's character, problem, struggle, solution. They didn't know that a story is about how somebody changes. They didn't know that a story was about an internal struggle. They didn't know any of that. For them a story is just what happens. Adults hear it, too. “Okay, here's what a story is: it has a beginning, middle and end.” Show me something that doesn't have a beginning, middle and end. I mean, what does that even mean? Again, it means nothing.

People don't teach story. Writing is taught as if you learn how to write somehow a story is going to appear by itself. You get good with words, you develop your voice, which is bullshit anyway, and then somehow you're going to write forward and a story is going to appear; and if it doesn't, it means you don't have any talent. That's what kills me.

When people say things like, “I have a love of language,” I'm like what the hell does that mean? Language is nothing; language is an empty vessel. Language is a means of communicating something. How can you be good with language if you don't know what you're communicating? That comes first. Then you have the language with which to express it. Story first, writing second.

I think the key thing that is missing - the seminal mistake - is this belief when you start writing, you start writing on page one and you go forward to the end. When actually all stories begin 'in media res' - meaning in the middle of the thing - meaning that there is just as much of it before as after, and that there are certain very specific things in developing story that you need to do before you get to page one. Which is not in any way, shape or form “pre-writing” but everything that you develop “before” is actually in the novel itself; in fact, the most foundational layer of it and on every single page.

Are you talking about the relevant backstory?

I hate the term “backstory.” Backstory is story. My favorite quote that I've been using is Faulkner who said, “The past isn't dead, it isn't even past.” In other words, when the character steps on the page, they bring that with them, that's how they got to where they are.

It's the lens through which the protagonist - and really every character - sees everything. It's how they evaluate everything. It's how you evaluate stuff; it's how I evaluate stuff. There is no general reality out there. We make sense of everything, and everything gets meaning, based on what our past experience has taught us what those things mean. So if you send someone onto the page without knowing that, in a story specific sense, it's like pushing them on to the page with amnesia.

Tell us about your new book Story Genius...

Story Genius takes you step by step, from that first glimmer of an idea that sparks you, all the way through a method as to how to dig down and how to really get that first draft on to the page -- and what you need to know and how to do it. It's literally 100% prescriptive: here's what to do, here's the next thing to do, here's the questions to ask, here's the test to put your ideas through, here's what you're looking for.

If I could burn every copy of The Hero's Journey and every story structure book out there, I would make the biggest bonfire ever. I think any story structure method is awful and I'll tell you why.

They're like plotters; they start with the external story. They go, “This has to happen at this page, that has to happen over here”; they're looking at external structure. Story structure is a byproduct of a story well told. The plot is not what the story is about. The story is about how the story is affecting the protagonist and the plot is created to force the protagonist to go through a very specific internal change that they needed to make before the plot ever was even conceived of.

Those books will take very successful, well-known movies or novels and they'll break them down based on this theory. And the thing is, you already know that movie. You already know that novel. So the internal story, the thing that is really giving it meaning, you already internalized. So when you look at the external stuff, you think, “Oh I'll just make the external stuff and that internal stuff just shows up.” And it isn't true.

Story structure builds things from the outside in; story is built from the inside out.

Can you talk more about re-defining theme as “What's your point?”

All stories make a point on the first page and everything goes to that point. The point is how the character changes internally, that 'aha' moment at the end. It's kind of like that dithery friend who's going on and on and on... and you're smiling... and what you're trying to do is not shake them by the shoulders and go, “Why are you telling me this? What's the point?” If you don't know what the point is, then you can't write a story that tells it. You have to know.

It comes down to - and it's surprisingly deep - why does this matter to you?

I use that phrase a lot, “Why does this matter?” It's a much more relatable way of talking about it than “theme.”

Well, “theme” is scary because it's general. And when people think of theme, they think of that thing that hovers over. The thing is, the story is in the specific.

But I've noticed that it can take time to uncover and really get to - at least for memoir - the deeper, underlying truth of the experience and why it matters and what the actual change is that you're writing about. So what do you suggest?

Everybody enters wanting something really badly, something that they've wanted for a really long time, not something that they want once the plot kicks in. You've got to figure out what that is.

Their “misbelief” is what's keeping them from getting this thing that they want. I would never use the term 'fatal flaw' because it sounds so finger-waggy. It sounds so pejorative. And I would never use the term “wound” because it turns the protagonist into a victim. But it's a misbelief. Once you know that, you ask yourself, “Where did that come from?” It came in childhood, almost always; and I would guess that's definitely true with memoir writers. It defines how the character sees the world.

A misbelief is something that happens in a difficult situation that saves the character from something really bad happening. And in that moment it's true; but it's actually not so. So characters believe this misbelief; they feel like they are super lucky to have learned this early in life. And it drives their life. Once you've identified that and written it in scene form, when it kicks in you can start to trace it through story specific events that led the character to what's going to happen to the character on page one.

I'll give you an example I use all the time. I even have it in the book. Did we talk about the movie “Protagonist” ever? It's a great one; it's a documentary.

So in this movie “Protagonist,” there are four men telling their stories. One of them is this guy Mark Pierpont and he's gay. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian enclave. It doesn't sound like they were in a cult - it wasn't David Koresh or anything - just very fundamentalist. He felt very loved and felt very close to his mom. But he, I guess like all of us, felt like he was different. He didn't quite get 'why' but it didn't matter. And then one day at school - he was 11 or 12 - someone came up to him and said, “God hates faggots.” And he went, “What's a faggot?” He went to the dictionary and looked up the word; and that became the defining moment in his life. If what I want most is love and connection, but if I have that, God isn't going to love me? Therefore, I can't be gay.

And he lived his life based on that. He got married to a woman!

When did he have to confront that misbelief?

The thing is, in a story the character is confronting it in every scene. In every single scene they've got to make a tough decision, and the story is what they have to struggle with to make that decision.

As I recall, I think the moment of truth was when he became one of those guys who was counseling other guys that they could not be gay. He was counseling someone who so deeply reminded him of himself that he couldn't do it. And he became the great guy - flamboyant with a capital “F” - that he was always meant to be. But you watch him buck it his whole life.

The “point” you're making is that 'aha' moment, what it takes to change someone on that level. And now the character can solve or not, depending on what kind of novel or memoir you're writing, that external plot problem.

A story is one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates.

Story Genius is not a formula. I never go into any kind of formula. I just go into, “This is what a story is and these are the things you need to know about your character and what's happening in order to then tell a compelling story.” There's no formula to it at all. Just, “This is what you need to get to, and those other methods won't get you there.”

Look at E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car in the dark, you can only see as far as your headlights but you can make it all the way there.” No you can't. If you have a natural sense of story, then maybe, but the rest of us are driving off a cliff. And that doesn't mean you're a better writer.


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