In 2018, I met the two resources that will change the way I plan and draft manuscripts forever.
For my first semester in my MFA program, I wanted to start completely from scratch on a story.
I had no ideas. No characters. No setting.
I knew I needed to start with the Five Building Blocks of Story, so I researched and listed and batted around a hundred of those blocks. Eventually I came up with 12 log lines to discuss with my advisor, which became four pitches, which became one outline, which I constantly revised while I was writing and getting to know my story better. Though I had direction, characters, a setting, and some possible themes, I was still driving at night.
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
This is a great way to complete a draft eventually, and it’s how I’ve written two books!
But it was not an efficient use of my time when I had monthly deadlines to meet, especially when trying to balance writing with a full-time job and a family of four.
Halfway through the semester, I discovered these two resources I’d wish I’d known ten years ago, when I had started writing my first book.
They are The Idea by Erik Bork and the Enneagram.
The Idea by Erik Bork
The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction has this dedication:
For every writer
who for the first or thousandth time
has tried to come up with
a great story
Erik Bork is an Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winner who has written for the screen, blogs, and wrote this book, but he has also written for TV—Band of Brothers, for one.
Writing for TV means coming up with viable ideas: lots of viable ideas. And not just viable, but good, commercial ideas that people will want to spend money or time on.
I have read many dozens of books on the craft of writing, but The Idea is the most helpful book—
- for writers who want to sell their work
- when beginning a new draft
I’ve always been a trial-and-error writer who has to outline, then write, then change my outline, then write, this cycle continuing until I have a story that meets the seven elements Bork details in this book. For my first book, it took seven years. For my second, it took three.
It makes sense that starting with those seven elements in mind might save some time, right?
The 60/30/10 Rule
Bork says that at least 60% “of what makes a project potentially successful or not is the core idea that could be communicated in a short synopsis of a few sentences up to a single page.” So, you know—basically a query letter.
Then 30% “lies in the structural choices, the decisions about what will happen, scene by scene, in a story—or what you’d see in an outline.” And then 10% is the actual writing.
Now, I don’t think this is as accurate for writing novels, because novels take a very long time to write (they consist of many more words and scenes than a TV episode or movie) and they need to be revised and edited.
But consider your book from a reader’s perspective.
If you like a book, 60% of what you like about it probably comes down to the concept and characters (or WATCH elements), 30% might be what happens in the story and how the story was presented, and 10% might be specific quotes or imagery from the book.
That 60%—the concepts at the foundation of the story—are also what can carry over to other stories within a series or franchise.
But most courses and books on writing don’t talk about the concept or idea at the heart of your story. In The Idea, it’s the whole book.
The Seven Elements
You may have heard of “the story problem,” which Bork defines as “at the heart of any story … that takes the whole story to solve. It’s a challenge that the story’s main character is actively engaged with, which consumes their attention, energy, and emotion—and that of the audience.”
Bork turned broke this concept into seven elements to create the acronym P.R.O.B.L.E.M. I’ll list them here and provide a quick note on each:
- Punishing (the longer the story, the more complex and challenging the problem needs to be)
- Relatable (the main character and their motivation and goals and relation to the problem need to be relatable)
- Original (A fresh new take on storytelling and genre conventions. In fiction, a strong voice.)
- Believable (The story makes sense)
- Life-Altering (Primal stakes and internal changes)
- Entertaining (meets emotional expectations)
- Meaningful (theme or meaning that sits with you after the story ends)
For great insight on each of these elements from a real pro and to see if these elements are all present in your manuscript, you’ll need to read the book. I highly recommend having a copy you can highlight or annotate if you can swing it, either physical or eBook.
I feel like the enneagram is everywhere right now. It’s been around for a while, but for whatever reason, it’s popularity has blown up in 2018-2019. I’m definitely a part of that, not as a creator but as a consumer. I follow several enneagram-centric Instagram accounts and share their stories pretty frequently.
I’ve used Myers-Briggs and the seven deadly sins for character development (and created worksheets and blogs for each), but I was really struggling with coming up with the motivations behind my new characters this past semester.
Enneagram focuses on primal motivations behind different personalities, and learning more about the system has made a world of difference in creating my characters.
I just realized I’m probably going to need a whole page dedicated to the Enneagram…
*** hours later ***
Okay, well! Here’s a page about Why the Enneagram Is So Useful for Writers, including an enneagram worksheet so you can plan out your cast of characters!