Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Hi folks,

I’m borrowing this idea and term from the wonderful series of three books on screenwriting by Blake Snider, the Save the Cat series. All credit for these ideas goes to him!

I’m convinced this is at the heart of many unfinished novels and short stories.

What does the term mean? It’s that germ of an idea for a story triggered by any number of stimuli. It can be a glimpse of something—the “smell of the rain on the road at dawn” for instance. Driving home from a night of partying, hung over, you turn onto a country blacktop and see a man hitchhiking in Army fatigues in the fine mist that’s falling. Aha! There’s a story about this guy, you think. You begin to imagine a character who’s passing through town—and you kind of visualize a story about him. If you’re David Morrell, you end up with a story titled, First Blood.

Or, you hear a story about a man whose mother has just died and the police came to inform him and they’re put off by his seeming lack of emotion about the tragedy and become suspicious. If you’re Albert Camus, perhaps you write a story based on that anecdote you’ll title, The Stranger.

All of us as writers get ideas triggered like this and any number of other ways. Thinking about the scene or idea makes us feel that there’s a story there. Usually, when we see or conceive of a story idea that way, it elicits a powerful emotion from us. The guy in our vision, standing on the road at dawn in a drizzle, wearing fatigues, triggers a feeling of sadness, say. We have an urge to write this guy’s story so that the reader will feel this same intense feeling of sadness as we do.

And so, we break out the Bic, turn on the ‘puter, put a piece of white paper in the Underwood and begin to write. And it fizzles out.

Why? As Blake Snyder says, we’ve simply fallen in love with an inspiration. That’s all it is. There’s no story there yet mostly because we haven’t yet come up with a story. All we’ve got is a guy standing in the rain on a blacktop and a feeling that this is a story. It’s gossamer. It’s not a story because we haven’t taken the time to think beyond this image very much.

I’ve got a student in a class I’m teaching at present who I think is at this stage. He’s an extremely gifted writer, but the story he’s worked on for a long time now isn’t working. I suspect it’s because he hasn’t yet thought out a story. He has an idea for a story, but ideas aren’t stories. There are infinite numbers of story ideas floating around and most of them will never become stories because they never progress beyond that stage. That image of that road.

I don’t think this man will mind if I use his story as an example. I’m not going to name him and only the other students will know who he is should they read this, and he’s a very confident writer—as he should be—totally without ego and with a ton of talent, approaching brilliance, so I don’t think he’ll mind at all.

His image of THE SMELL OF THE RAIN ON THE ROAD AT DAWN is of a young man, who upon the occasion of his twenty-first birthday discovers he’s been adopted. I don’t know if this is an image he’s gained from a  real-life event or just one he’s imagined, but it doesn’t matter.

A powerful image. One that lends itself to all kinds of dramatic possibilities. However, I don’t believe our writer hasn’t thought much beyond how that will translate into a story. Is there a story there? Well, sure. I just don’t think he’s thought what that story will be. He’s been inspired by a glimpse at a dramatic moment in a life and senses there’s a story there. The problem is, he needs to find 400 pages of material to tell this story in, and I don’t think he has more than ten pages at most at this point. He hasn’t thought much beyond the guy finding out about the lie his adoptive parents have told him all of his life and his first reaction—getting drunk and/or getting into a fight. I suspect he hasn’t gone much beyond that in his mind, other than some vague idea of going through some kind of murky struggle to resolve his problem. In fact, when he began this story in class, he admitted this was the case, when he told me it “was a work in progress and changes on a daily basis” and that he’d “only started this a few weeks ago” and “was still trying to write his way into it, if that makes sense.” As I told him; no, it doesn’t make sense. He’s posing himself an almost impossible task to try to fill the 350-400 pages a novel requires with no more than this.

This is a story doomed to failure, I’m afraid. And, I think it’s a very apt illustration of what happens to most of us when we begin a story with only “The smell of the rain…” image in our minds. The story peters out. We think up one, maybe two things that our protagonist will go through, and then our imaginations dry up. What usually happens is that at this point, another story idea presents itself and in much the same way as this one did, and we’re off in pursuit of that one, planning someday to return to the original one.

Before we know it, we have a dozen unfinished novels sitting in our file cabinet.

The problem is, the image we begin with is so powerful to us that we think that building a story around it will be easy. It is… for about three or four pages into a short story and perhaps ten-twelve pages into a novel. Sometimes, we can even get as far as 70-80 pages of a novel completed before we run out of steam. What’s happened is as Snyder says, “That flash of scent, sight, and sound makes us think we’re onto something.” We may be… but not yet. What we need to do is to take that image into a work that makes sense to others.

That means… hard work.

I suspect many of us who write are looking for easy answers. Secrets. Here’s a writing secret: There are no secrets. It’s hard work. If it was easy to write well, subsidy and vanity presses wouldn’t have any business. That’s the only easy way there is to achieve print. All it takes is a checkbook… and no pride. Or a misguided sense of what constitutes quality writing.

First, that image you have is basically just the logline. You’re kind of putting the cart before the horse to begin a novel with just that. A short story can be tackled without nearly as much forethought as a novel, although I’d still recommend giving it some thought before putting pen to paper. But, a novel, in my opinion, requires a lot of planning and thought before sitting down in front of the computer to be successful.

In my own case, I have to mull over a novel for about two years before I begin writing it. That may or may not work for others—we each have what works for us and it’s not the same for everyone. Don’t take that as a literal timeline. I don’t think about a novel for two years, then sit down and write it, send it out, and then start thinking about the next one for two years, then… I’ve always got multiple novel ideas running around in my mind—at any given time at least four or five—so whenever I finish one, I’ve got several more I’m ready to plunge into. And, many times, I’m working on several novels at the same time. In fact, at this moment in time, I’m rewriting three novels and working on two new ones. But, I would never begin a novel a week after coming up with an idea. That would be the way to failure, at least in my case. I know from experience that a story of that length needs time to mature and for me to work out the logic of it and see if it’s indeed, a story that will occupy my interest for the length of time it takes to write it. Make no mistake—it’s hard work to write a novel and I wouldn’t enter into that fray unless I was as prepared as I could be.

And that’s what I suggest for those who get that “Smell of the rain…” kind of image and inspiration for a novel. Sit on it for awhile. Think about it. Kick the tires. See if it has legs. See if you can see any depth in it. If something else comes up and diverts your attention away from it, that probably means the idea really wasn’t novel-worthy to begin with. But… the idea that won’t go away, that begs to be told, that begins to unfold in your imagination over a period of time of at least a month or two and hopefully even longer—that’s probably an idea that has legs and one you can run that marathon with. Keep in mind that ideas are cheap. They’re everywhere. There are at least as many ideas as there are politicians who will promise you something and promise you it won’t cost anything. Legions of ideas…

If you do that one thing—let that “Smell of the rain…” image percolate for at least a month at minimum—and at the end of the month it still burns that white-hot heat it had when it first came to you, then you might just have an idea you can spend the time and energy on that it will take you to fill up nearly a ream of paper. If it “disappears” from your thoughts for long stretches of time, what you probably had was just a gossamer. Go with the idea that won’t let you go.

And then, when it becomes a bestseller and you’re on the Letterman show, you can do what Snyder advises. Use it as a story to tell on the show about how you came up with the idea.

Just keep in mind always that whenever you get one of those “Smell of the rain on the road at dawn” moments, that it’s just the start of an idea and that’s all. As we say in poker, “Don’t bet the rent money on it.” Not until it won’t let you go and you have no choice but to write it or seek therapy.

And get Snyder’s books. They’re amazing! I’d buy them in the order they were written as each builds on the last. You can order them here:


Sally Clements said...

I love Blake's books. He was a wonderful teacher, and the writing world has suffered a great loss.

Tiffany said...

That would explain why some of my other stories are, "Pphhbbt!"

Do you recommend working on more than one novel at once though? Sometimes I could use a break from mine.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow! I found this post fascinating, Les. I'm not sure why, but it really sucked me in. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom and clicking your Save the Cat! link hungry for more. You have become an invaluable resource for me, Les - thanks! :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Sally--I agree! The advice in his books is spot-on and practical, even for fiction writers.

Tiffany, it works for me. You might want to try it. It depends on how well a writer can compartmentalize, I think. Being ADD gives me an advantage, I believe. I can focus completely on the project at hand and then switch it instantly to another. Other writers find they work best by sticking to one project until it's finished. It's really an individual thing, but I'd give it a try.

Thanks, Shannon. I get the same from your blog, believe me!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love to sit down to your posts with a cuppa in hand - each one a full lesson.

I will check out Blake's books, because if they are anywhere near as good as 'Hooked' I'll be pleased. :-)

Helen Ginger said...

I've not heard of the Save the Cat series. I'm going to link over and check them out.

Straight From Hel

Helen Ginger said...

Well, I ordered the first two books. Thanks Les.


Les Edgerton said...

Charmaine and Helen, these are excellent books, imo. Even though they're written for screenwriters, there's a ton of stuff in them for fiction writers as well.

Let me know how you like them, okay?

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Happy Friday, Les! I have an award for you at my blog today. You have to post it or pass it on unless you want to, but I wanted to share it with you regardless. :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Shannon, thank you! I've never gotten anything like this.

I can pass this on? I'm kind of challenged on this stuff--if I can, how do I do that?

You've absolutely made my day!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Wasn't Blake a fantastic writer and mentor? His story board idea is one I stumbled across before his book. But it was great to find out my tool was thought of by another creative mind.

I'm happy to have discovered your blog. Thanks for the obvious effort and creativity you put into it. Roland

Les Edgerton said...

Welcome, Roland. I just visited your blog and it was great! I'm posting yours in my blogroll as well and thanks for posting mine.

I see you live in Lake Charles. Small world! I lived there for about a year back in the 70s or 80s, can't remember exactly. I was a haircutter then and worked in a shop owned by two guys. I cut Freddy Fender's hair there when he had a concert in town--cool guy.

Used to go crabbing down by the Gulf on that canal that a road ran alongside--can't remember its name. I remember one time, traveling at about 60 mph, my wife counted over 100 gators just from the car along the way.

Another time, on a Sunday, we were on the bridge over the lake and traffic both ways stopped. We were all honking and waving at two ski-boats coming at each other... only they couldn't see each other as they were on a collision course coming around that little point of land that sticks out. They waved back, I assume thinking we were just cheering their skiing prowess... and then crashed. I forget how many were killed, but there were several.

Loved Lake Charles. Best Oysters Rockefeller I ever had there. And, the mudbugs are fantastic!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I haven't been crabbing. But I often drive the Creole Nature Trail as I deliver blood to an isolated rural hospital. The view as I drive is something that is hard to put into words. Beautiful is too pale a term.

It was a different world in Lake Charles in the 70's and 80's. Hurricane Rita has changed so much here.

You have a fantastic memory. Glad you enjoyed Lake Charles. I'm originally from Detroit and part Lakota. I am an eternal misfit.

A young customer at the bookstore I used to own once said, "Gee, Mr. Roland, you've been everything but a pirate."

But then he didn't know that I once worked at a tax preparation firm while supporting myself while getting my two degrees.

So let's see : pirate, teacher, counselor, book store owner, now blood courier -- with an assorted mix of make-do jobs in between.

We all have to re-invent ourselves many times in the course of our lives. You have an absorbing, interesting, and fun blog. Thanks for all the work that takes, Roland

Oh, and Tiffany, as I lived an exile's existence on the roads during Katrina and Rita, I wrote three novels concurrently. Ouch.

But it did help to take a break from one to work on another. It would give me the emotional distance I needed to come back with a fresh take on what I had written. Just a thought. Roland

Skrickett said...

This post really hit home for me. I've spent the last year and half struggling to find the story within my novel. I realized I didn't have a story after reading some of my classmates work and recognized the same lack of direction in my work. It was pretty disheartening. I've learnt that without a story all you've got is a series of events, and if you're in the business of telling stories it's pretty crucial to have one! But I'm happy to report that after a year and half of racking my brains I finally discovered the story inside my novel. Now to write the damn thing.

Les Edgerton said...

Sapphire, welcome to our blog and I'm really glad this post helped!

What you describe is fairly common and normal when writing a novel. It's why it usually doesn't work to just think up an interesting character and turn him loose. Often, he or she will end up going to dead-ends. The key is to create a compelling story problem for him that will occupy his struggle for the 350 pages.

Good luck!

ssas said...

I'm one of those people things happen to (like last night someone asked me if I lost my drunk Sudanese guy--and there actually WAS a drunk, lost Sudanese guy.) But anyway, if I tried to write stories about every glimmer of an idea, I'd have literally thousands of first pages.

I write log lines, pitch graphs, and then synopses and I storyboard. THEN I get to write the book.

I might through out some pages (I have a few right now on what might very well be my next book) but I don't really dig into writing until I know the plot pretty well. I've wandered waaaayyy too much in the past.

And I'm working on two books (was three, just turned one in) so I can't focus on one thing that well either! :)