Do You Know The Secret Sauce That Turns Stories Into Magic?

    Let me tell you a story.

    Once there was a writer who had a dream.

    To live, work and thrive by telling stories that made people smile, swoon and weep.

    He was pretty decent at it too, sailing through school on a knack for essays and last-minute term papers that fooled faculty into giving him a generous grade.

    After graduating, he wrote his way into a series of suit-and-tie jobs doing newsletters and assorted copy work that never really rang his creative bell.

    On nights and weekends, however, he wrote novels and screenplays.

    He wrote, and he read everything he could about how to tell stories.

    But after finishing six novels, he’d failed to crack the code that would get him published. The feedback was pretty much the same: nice writing, but the story was either too familiar or a little lacking. What it lacked was never specified.

    Something about the dream had eluded him. He could never define what it was.

    Apparently it was a secret, because nobody in the publishing business was talking.

    All he heard was the usual blah-blah about character development and the avoidance of adjectives, but never much on how to differentiate a great story from an average one. The confusion was compounded by the fact that many famous writers were publishing what seemed average stories at best.

    No, they weren’t better than he was when it came to cobbling together sparkling sentences and paragraphs. But they certainly knew something he didn’t.

    Meanwhile there was always another brochure to write and a speech to polish, so he had enough to eat, even as his dream went into a reality-induced coma.

    But he was starving creatively.

     

    Then one day…

     

    … at work with a writer wearing a tie – behind closed doors they referred to themselves as hacks – in a conference room, pounding out the script for yet another corporate training video, he heard the words that would change everything.

    This other guy was older and much more worldly – he had traveled, studying storytelling all around the planet. He was one of the been-around-the-block types who had dipped his toes into the entertainment biz until it cut out his heart and threw it off the CAA building in Los Angeles.

    What the crusty old hack said that day, referring to the printer sales video they were writing, was this: “The trouble here is that there’s no story in it. There’s no drama. No heart either. Because there’s no conflict.”

    Our frustrated young writer looked up, frozen with the recent memory of yet another rejection slip, and asked him to explain.

     

    What is Story?

     

    “Story is conflict,” replied the older writer. “Conflict drives everything. It leads to drama, confrontation, ethos and passion. It resonates with an audience because life is conflict, and that empathy is the secret sauce of getting into a reader’s heart and mind. The trick is to make them want what your hero wants because they can relate to the stakes. Take them for that ride. Compel their emotional engagement through conflict. Do that and you’ve got them. But if all you give them is a documentary or a travelogue or a sermon, you’ll lose them.”

    “Dude,” our guy said, “it’s a printer video.

    “Exactly,” the crusty guy responded. “Designed to sell printers. Not fix them. Which means, we need a story to tell.”

    He paused before adding, “No conflict, no story, no sale. Period.”

    That’s when it hit the dreamer.

    Hard.

    He was writing the wrong things, in the wrong way. And because of that, his dream had remained on hold.

    Because what he’d just heard was especially true of fiction. He’d been faking it, relying on gee-whiz concepts and deep dives into his characters’ psyches. He was subconsciously imitating the published stories he’d read, without understanding the principles upon which they had been built.

    Conflict. Could it be that simple?

    What about vivid settings, hidden demons, character arcs and the Micheneresque backstory of the land? In all those writing books and workshops and interviews with superstars in magazines, nobody had said it quite as succinctly as his writer comrade had.

    He immediately saw how this liberated nearly everything he was writing. Not just novels and short stories, but also his blog, ad copy – even his video scripts.

    Because life itself is imbued with conflict. We can all relate to that. It gives us something to root for.

     

    Conflict in Storytelling

     

    Pretty much everything works better when there is a story to tell. Something driven by a hero with a need or an opportunity, facing conflict through some form of antagonism, with something meaningful at stake, requiring decision, action and confrontation to resolve it all.

    Everything was instantly different.

    He began to imbue all his work with the secret sauce of drama, driven by conflict in the light of compelling stakes, and how it unspooled before him on the page.

    Soon he felt like a real writer again.

    Now that he knew about it, he saw how conflict, stakes and structure were everywhere. In every film, television program and novel, in articles and advertising that worked, conflict was the fuel poured onto the hot cinders of content. The result was a message that engaged people’s minds and hearts.

     

    20 Years Later

     

    The old curmudgeonly writer had long since retired without making a dent in the dream, proving that in this game, it takes more than one run at the gate or a singular awareness to knock it down. That fellow had found another sauce to soothe the loss of his dream; eventually it cost him everything.

    Our writer, though, fueled by his enlightenment and possessed of an irrepressible will, went on to publish many books, fiction and non-fiction, to solid critical acclaim.

    His corporate chops were getting noticed too. He had an edge, they said.

    It was enough to score an equity partnership in the marketing agency where he spent his days, enough to eventually ditch the tie and finance his dream of working independently as a writer, blogger and teacher, introducing others to the secret sauce.

     

    So?

     

    But his story isn’t really the point of this post. In fact, if you’ve read this far it’s because of one thing: you’ve already sensed that this story is about you.

    And that’s the most effective storytelling secret of all.

     

    How to Add the Secret Sauce that Turns Stories into Magic

     

    Infusing your writing with drama isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. For one thing, we are always alone with our opinion about what is compelling and what isn’t.

    A vanilla idea, brilliantly executed, remains a vanilla idea. But you can elevate a vanilla idea to a triple chocolate thunder ecstasy by infusing it with stakes and placing compelling conflict in the way of your hero’s quest.

    Stories have layers. They’re built upon specific structures driven by demanding criteria and benchmarks. Stuff you can’t easily fake through imitation or intuition. Designing a story with drama in mind, no matter how you write it in terms of process, will get you there quicker, and more effectively.

    This path leads to one spectacular revelation that holds the keys to the storytelling kingdom.

    There is an entire storytelling infrastructure, a model that is available to all, one that has been used for centuries and defines nearly every piece of commercial storytelling in existence today. It hides like a secret matrix beneath the surface of a story, and while the reader won’t see it, the successful writer absolutely must master it in some form.

    It’s almost entirely based on the introduction, exploration and resolution of conflict.

     

    the secret sauce that turns stories into magic

     

    The entire storytelling challenge is embodied in the landscape of this graphic. Which means it isn’t something you glance at and move on. Actually, you can spend a lifetime studying it and working with it, which is… every time you sit down to write a story.

    When a story works, it almost always looks a lot like this. Read a book or watch a movie, you’ll see it there. Every time.

    The discovery and mastery of this storytelling framework is nothing short of an epiphany for many, who quickly sense that this is precisely what will elevate a story toward what it needs to be — an expression of your understanding of the reading experience and what will make it rewarding. Something which is driven by emotional engagement with the hero’s confrontation with conflict.

    This is where true storytelling chops come into play, shining a light on options and solutions that will empower the story’s hero – which, when you do it right, is the reader themselves – toward resolution.

    The dream will wait for you. It’ll return to you on the wings of this realization, as a vehicle to take you where you want to go.

    How have you used the secret sauce to create magic? Share in the comments!

    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.

    • Rod Rhimes says:

      Thanks for posting this. While writing my first novel it took me a while to wrap my head around good story flow and conflict. I’m sure that like anything worthwhile, success in writing comes with practice.

    • Harriet says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this! I was drinking in every word and you made seem very achievable, which is a huge help to me. I am learning that writing a book while having no idea if I am any good or not is very intimidating. This just makes me feel good. Thanks again!

    • Hi Larry,

      Ah, fantastic article. Yes! I also heard about that some times stories comes in to magic but after reading this articles I make my doubt more clear.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • AWESOME article – excellent, i read your book. Larry its a concept that how to write a noval. thank you Larry.

    • I’m a big fan of story structure ever since I read your book, Larry. It’s a concept that has helped me immensely with my novel writing. It gave me something tangible to hang my stories on and for that, I thank you.

    • Inspiring article, you had me hooked and now I’m going back to read some of my stories again. At my writing circle I’ve been told that I have good characterization and story telling abilities. One judge even said I had too much imagination, but can a fiction writer ever have too much imagination?
      I really don’t think that this is my problem, because in reading your article, I think I don’t have enough genuine conflict in my stories. I tend to mention conflict and then kind of gloss over it and then move on to the next scene. I don’t allow my readers to feel the suffering or anxiety that my hero is going through.
      Thanks so much for bringing the idea of conflict out into the light of day.

    • Love this post, Larry. It is easy to read, succinct and the information is ‘gold’. I write mystery/adventure stories for children and, although I knew the structure you outlined, it never hurts to be reminded. Also agree with PJ that there is a ‘secret’ ingredient that takes books from good to great, but you have to learn the basics also.

    • Larry says:

      @ everyone — there’s actually a typo in the post, and it’s totally my fault. The line reads: “A vanilla idea, brilliantly executed, remains a brilliant idea.” It SHOULD read: “A vanilla idea, brilliantly executed, remains a vanilla idea. Unless the ‘brilliantly executed’ idea evolves it into something more.”

      My mistake. It may actually have been corrected by the time you read this note, but if not, I hope this clarifies. This single line might have motivated P.J. Reece’s astute comment above, and my response to it. Thanks to all for reading my stuff.

      Larry
      http://www.storyfix.com

    • K.Nandan Kashyap says:

      Great indeed. I ‘ve written some stories but so far couldn’t able to publish . I’m following “Write to done ” and now this article motivates me. Anticipating more from you. Thank you .

    • PJ Reece says:

      With all due respect… and this schematic is not wrong… it’s the same ABC of dramatic storytelling we’ve been reading for decades, especially since Sid Field in the 1980s, and of course Robert McKee in the 90s. And of course fiction writers need to learn this basic structure — and I thank you for this reminder because I’m going to go back and “pinch” my current work-in-progress into greater clarity. But in my experience even this overview isn’t going to guarantee a killer story. There’s something more. The Nobel winning author Orhan Pamuk talks about a story’s “secret centre.” Maybe that’s it. But story mechanics doesn’t touch upon it. Perhaps it’s got something to do with what Leonard Cohen calls “sacred mechanics.” I hope so, because the writing a good story is so rare that the answer must lie in a realm other than conflict resolved. The truth is that we are more compelled by failure than success… and I think the answer lies somewhere in there. For these reasons, I’m so glad I’m a writer.

      • Larry says:

        @PJ – I completely agree with your comment. I didn’t mean to over-simplify the criteria for a great story in this article. This post presents a baseline, the model, the essential essence of a story that works (conflict), rather than the key to genius of any kind. It isn’t genius, it’s square one stuff. What Pamuk and you are pointing toward — the “secret center” — may indeed be the actual secret sauce, the elusive genius we seek… though without these fundamentals even the most magical idea will come up short. I believe what may not be stressed enough here, and needs to become a focus when one has mastered the 101-level and is shooting for the stars (which you can’t achieve without that 101), are the two things that DO comprise a really successful and brilliant story, both built upon the more basic “secret sauce” of empathy-eliciting conflict. They are a) a really compelling story idea, something fresh and fascinating and emotionally-resonant, and b) the writer’s own “story sensibility,” which is the target outcome of understanding these fundamentals. Story sense – the ability to make the call as to what is compelling, what isn’t, and what treatment is applied to the story parts and milestones – is an evolved thing, there’s no model for it, other than it builds upon basic structure as a framework for those brilliant creative calls.

        Thanks for contributing to the conversation. In my view, story sense and the discovering of a “secret center” for our stories (a brilliant concept leading to a compelling premise) is indeed the key to everything… and yet, it depends as much on this structural framework as does a bad idea. Before we can aspire to something great, we have to first master that which is essential and fundamental to storytelling: conflict-driven arc for a hero. This post is about THAT. It is the ante-in, the secret sauce of getting into the game… rather than the key to a bestseller, which is almost always a function story sense — landing on a truly compelling “story center” that unfolds upon the page.

        • PJ Reece says:

          Thank you, Larry. Great elucidation. Nice e-chatting with you. We’ll meet again.

    • Yep, you blogged this just for me! 🙂

    • AWESOME article – excellent, CLEAR delineation of story structure. Very, very well done.


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