Why You Should Write Inside the Box

    write inside the box
    Write inside the box? Surely all the great authors wrote outside the box?
    Unless they contain a book ordered from Amazon, writers don’t like boxes.We resent being categorized, stuffed into or shown what appears to be a box that, because someone says we belong there, becomes something into which we feel we should climb post haste.  Unless we are writing obituaries or updating the local grocery ads, we believe our work to be art, and where art is concerned there are no rules, or boxes.

    When we believe that, at least when it comes to writing, we are wrong.

    About both things.

    In many other aesthetic pursuits we can indeed reach a level of art without having to fit into anybody’s box.  We can skip all that boring discipline stuff and ignore any prevailing commercial tastes and trends and just do our thing.

    But where writing is concerned, all that changes.  Because in the eternal tug-of-war between art and craft in this avocation, craft is winning.

    The acid test on this issue relates to why you write and what you hope to get out of it.  If you’re in it for fun, sure, do it your way.  But if you want to become a professional author, one whose work attracts a readership and perhaps a publisher with a checkbook, craft simply trumps art all to hell.

    Craft depends on discipline.  On function as well as form.

    And that, by definition, establishes a set of rules that, at first glance, can look a lot like a box.  But don’t be fooled.

    A guy named T.S. Elliot says it better than I can:

    When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost… and will produce its richest ideas.  Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

    And sprawl won’t get you published or read.

    Just don’t call it a box.

    Here’s the newsflash that rubs some writers the wrong way: there are storytelling principles and expectations in place, at least at a professional, commercial level.

    The moment we depart from those standards, if we try to negotiate them or attempt to reinvent them from a context of either ignorance or defiance, our work becomes less than commercial.  In doing so we may indeed become artists – very lonely artistswhen the higher goal is to become a writer (preferably one with an audience) who has perfected craft to the level of art.

    There are consequences to writing without parameters and honoring accepted standards.

    When your writing ceases to be commercial you’ve just shot yourself in the foot – at least if your goal is to turn pro – perhaps in the name of art.

    The concept of selling out isn’t about writing commercially, it’s about writing at a level that’s beneath you, which is a completely different thing.  When you disrespect the principles of craft, you are already in that free-fall.

    We all get to choose.

    I’m not crazy about rules, either.  That’s why I’ve coined another term for the discipline of writing, a way to organize the various aspects of craft into separate yet ultimately dependent categories of essential principles, skills and criteria.

    And essential they are.

    I like to think of these categories as buckets rather than boxes.  I’ve stuffed all the things a writer of stories needs to understand and master – the craft – into one of six different buckets of intellectual and creative awareness, and delved deeply into why they are essential and how they remain connected to each other.

    Skipping or mangling these criteria isn’t art, as some might believe.  It’s storytelling suicide.

    Why we need these buckets.

    When you talk about storytelling without differentiating between, say, the essential elements of concept, character and theme… if you view the narrative process as some mysterious and organically intuitive flow defined by obscure, impressive lit class rhetoric more suited to book reviewers than writers of books…

    … well, I think I speak for millions when I say there has to be a better, clearer way to wrap your head around the craft of storytelling.  One that doesn’t elude you for years and even decades.

    I call these buckets of awareness the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.

    And there is only one rule in play.

    Actually, an unavoidable and stark truth: you have to be competent to the point of mastery in all six core competencies before you can write a commercially viable and successful story.  A weakness in any one of them will kill your chances.

    I didn’t make that truth up.  Always been there.  Even though you’ve never heard it capsulated in this fashion, or this clearly.

    The inherent opportunity residing within these buckets.

    Books from new writers that actually sell are the ones that offer something special.  The trick is to understand what this means, and how to make it happen.

    The answer awaits inside the buckets that contain the six core competencies.

    When one or two of them, as executed in your work, are astoundingly original, creative and compelling, then you’ve just separated yourself from the crowd.  A crowd, by the way, that for the most part is already competent in all six, which makes wrapping your head around these competencies (or, if you prefer, sticking it into each of the six buckets) is just the ante-in to the game.

    In writing, the essential elements of a story become the physics of what makes a story work, and when viewed as an entire discipline (which is precisely how they should be viewed), they become the stuff of story engineering that cannot be ignored or, unless you spend decades paying attention, intuitively absorbed.

    When one or two are super-charged, the entire story kicks into a higher, better gear.

    Introducing The Six Core Competences

    Don’t mistake this for over-simplification.  Storytelling is still hard, and there is a long and challenging list of attributes, skills, nuances and mechanical gizmos you must understand and put onto the page.

    That said, it’s a lot easier to group them into six separate affinities that share common standards, criteria and expectations.

    Four of the six core competencies are elements, the essential aesthetic building blocks of your narrative.  They are: concept… character… theme… and structure (plot sequence).

    You can’t skip one and get away with it.  And you can’t knock one or two out of the park until you completely wrap your head around what they each mean.

    Separating them is essential, because the criteria for, say, concept and theme are very different.  Many a manuscript has tanked because the writer didn’t understand this premise.

    The other two core competencies are issues of execution, the application of the four story elements to the blank page.  They are: scene execution… and your writing voice.

    When you isolate these six essential realms of storytelling, they can be broken down, analyzed, studied and practiced in context to the larger, integrated whole of a story.

    Once introduced to the six core competencies – you’ve met them before, just not quite this clearly and stripped of mystery and pretense – your entire writing life will change and expand.

    Because suddenly, perhaps for the first time, you will understand how to determine what to write, where to put it, and why it works there.

    Which, regardless of how you’ve approached storytelling in the past and intend to get it done in the future, has always been the goal.

    About the author

      Larry Brooks

      Larry Brooks’ runs the popular writing craft blog, Storyfix.com. He is the author of novels and writing craft books, including the bestselling Story Engineering, and his newest book, Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant. You can find a series of videos that he calls “hardcore craft training for serious authors,” available at his new training website.

    • Anonymous says:

      Tom: I wonder if James Joyce’s innovations were suited for commercialism…
      Bill: …What about Hemingway’s short stories?
      Tom: Structure, dialogue, focalization…what?
      Bill: All of it and more…within the principles.
      Tom: Those guys continuously mastered their writing craft within the principles of the art form.
      Bill: Hmm, weren’t they worried about being published or considered outside the box or too artsy in juxtaposition to commercial standards?
      Tom: Hahaha….wish we could ask them.
      Bill: Humf….
      Tom: Who else???
      Bill: Who else, what?
      Tom: What about….ummmm…..Kafka, Maupassant, Chekhov, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.
      Bill: Those dudes are old but the same goes for them.
      Tom: Lahiri, Boyle, Appel.
      Bill: True.
      Tom: True.
      Bill: But I want to get published damn it!
      Tom: I think you must continue to master your craft, work according to the principles and do your submissions when—; even then, it takes time; there is no book that can teach you how to speed up the process or tell you how to get on the printed page…
      Bill: Yea but, I’m worried about the whole, form vs. content thing.
      Tom: It’s both working together…if you know the principles.
      Bill: What makes you an expert?
      (pause.)
      Tom: If your work speaks, it will sell. If you are writing to just be different and cool or act like some kind of genius or rebel…you are shaming the art of writing and making no contribution whatsoever. But if you discover through the nature of the work…that’s a different story I believe.
      Bill: Hmmm. Katherine Mansfield, William Trevor, Jack Kerouac?
      Tom: Yes. All worked within writing principles and made new discoveries in the art. Spontaneous Prose for example. Thank goodness for their courage and bravery or else there would be less to learn from and we’d all be carbon copies of a commercialized industry, just to sell a book. Besides, any good editor, if they are good, knows this…

    • astoundingly original, creative and compelling…Doesn’t every writer want this? Is this possible with out living an original, creative and compelling life? Congratulations on all of your success!

    • Larry, thanks for this great post. I’ve been teaching composition for, oh, thirty years or so, and the toughest nuts to crack are always the “creative writing” majors, who feel that the “basics” are not for them. I’m no Miss Grundy and in fact took two degrees in creative writing myself, but I do know that in order to be able to break the rules effectively, you have to know what the danged things are. Sounds like a great and informative book.

    • Larry says:

      @Ellie — thanks for commenting. You’re right, I’ve pulled the ebook because I used it (expanded on it, actually) in “Story Engineering,” and didn’t want an overlap for new readers. Glad to hear that you found confirmation of the structure — easy to do, because these are universal principles — from another writing teacher. There are a lot of names for the story elements, parts and milestones, but when you break it all down what we’re left with is a lot of good stuff that seeks to clarify the same basic set of fundamentals. L.

    • Larry, your Story Structure Demystified actually did that for me. I’d just taken a writing class where the instructor explained that the midpoint was the place in the middle of the story where everything changes. I was still scratching my head until I read your explanation. I noticed Story Structure is no longer on your website. Are you revamping it, or has it been included in Story Engineering? In any case, this looks like a fantastic new offering and one I should pick up. Congrats!


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