Must & Cannot

I’ve been reading Writing to Sell and I have learned a few things. The lesson that I found to be the most telling is a simple plot skeleton that revolves around two basic elements; must and cannot. The lack of one or both of these can really hinder your story.

Scott Meredith says one of the most basic mistakes every new writer makes when trying to write a salable manuscript is forgetting the basic driving force behind every story. This would be the problem that the lead character MUST deal with, something extremely urgent and pressing. This would be something in the ballpark of a bad guy taking a character’s family and holding them for ransom or internal like an alcoholic overcoming his addiction before his wife leaves with the kids. Scott says this necessary for making the reader worry about your character’s outcome, helping them invest into your book. If the MUST is mundane or easily solvable, it won’t really capture an audience and a publisher won’t buy it.

The other element is CANNOT. This is the part of the problem where it seems as if the character CANNOT solve the problem. Going along with the earlier examples; the character can’t pay the ransom because he just lost his house and all his possessions to a tornado, and the alcoholic is having problems pushing through his addiction because he just lost his job and found out his son has a terminal illness. This is where the assault on the character prevents them from accomplishing their goals, starting from minor complications and cranking it up to where it just seems like we are in a moment of darkness.

Don’t go over board though, if you create an unsolvable problem just to make some ridiculous solution, you lose the reader. If you don’t have a logical solution or don’t explore and exhaust possible alternatives to your problem, you will lose the reader. Like the man lost his house and possessions but still owns a BMW, of which he won’t sell to get his family back. You will lose the reader, so be logical about your problems and solutions.

I posted about this because after I read the five chapters on plot skeletons, I went through some of my stories and wasn’t totally surprised at what I found. The early stories I wrote definitely lack a solid must and cannot, which Mr. Meredith simply calls incidents. What I mean by early are the stories that I haven’t edited very much. The stories I have edited heavily (including my manuscript) have these elements in them which sort of amazed me. I wonder if the countless editing and revising until I felt it was rounded is what did it, or I just stumbled into it.

I’ve been writing for a while now, more or less just taking the chaos from my head and putting it words, learning empirically as I go about what works and what doesn’t. I have some stories that I am damn proud of and others that smell really, really bad. I have posted some of both, which I suppose I should be embarrassed about the stinkers but I want to learn and sometimes the best avenue is through the blog.

Now that I am making submissions to agencies and magazines I really want to see growth in my writing and do what I need to do to make my work salable. I know to write, is to write is to write, but while I’m writing I am examining the work through the eyes of a professional. There are tons of information and books out there and it is hard knowing what is valuable and what isn’t, but you don’t know unless you try.

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2 thoughts on “Must & Cannot

  1. Great stuff, Frank! More of this, please.

  2. To try and never give up are two things that will bring us closer to our dreams. I have faith that one day, you will get yours. Your passion for writing and your zest for life are inspiring. Wishing you happiness and success….

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