The difference between a good story and great story is like the difference between a pop song and a symphony.
While many pop songs work well, are catchy and appealing, and you may even fall in love with them for a time, a symphony is something of far more weight, depth and significance.
In a symphony, the composer takes a theme and explores it, breaks it down, reinvents it and shows it in many different lights until the listener is aware that the composer fully understands his art, and can relate in musical form the reasons for him wanting to develop a particular musical idea in the first place.
A symphony is not just a tune or three strung together, it's an exploration and a celebration of the human condition.
So it is with writing stories - or should be.
A simple story is one dimensional: A character has an agenda that is thwarted once, twice, maybe more, until his goal is achieved.
Easy to follow, appealing and satisfying, like a pop song.
A great story is one where there is a theme, but it is explored, broken down, turned on its head, reinvented, and seen from differing angles.
A great story might take a simple theme but there is nothing simple about the way it is handled.
Bonfire of the Vanities takes the simple theme that 'power corrupts' but amid the character relationships and plot twists there are a myriad of different perspectives on the theme.
Tom Wolfe - a truly great writer - is good at this aspect of story construction.
He takes an idea and twists and turns it, considers the implications of everything and then shapes a story that is epic but focused. This is probably why he writes a novel only once every five or ten years, while other, less complicated authors can pump out two or three books a year!
Don't get me wrong.
I'm not saying that one way of writing is better than the other.
I love Tom Wolfe's books. I'm in awe, and not a little humbled by his talent.
But I also enjoy James Patterson and his finely crafted stories that may not even be written by him nowadays!
We can't all take years to write a masterpiece.
Especially while the demand for stories is huge - and growing.
Nowadays, we have to be masters of the craft of storytelling quickly - now, while we're working.
In order to compete in the marketplace, we need to know how the masters do it.
We have to know what may have taken a lifetime of writing for them to learn.
There is Art - But There is also Formula
You only have to work for some time in the writing industry - anywhere from books, to magazines, to screenwriting - to know that everyone these days works within accepted formulas and literary conventions.
It seems that on some level, everybody knows what works and what doesn't work.
There are far more critics out there than writers.
Pretty much anyone has an opinion.
Curiously, when a piece of writing isn't working, everyone from a janitor to a CEO can tell you what it is they don't like.
It's up to us poor writers to understand our craft well enough to deal with criticism - and often we do it well, or at least try to.
What's interesting to me is that when a writer systematically deals with all the criticisms, they may produce a work that is suddenly heralded as genius!
But what has happened is that the writer has simply honed his CRAFT to such an extent that is has slip-streamed effortlessly into a perceived ART.
Because, yes, I believe the CRAFT and the ART and ultimately apparent GENIUS in writing can be learned.
Writers Must Master Craft to Create Art
Just like master composers like Mozart or Beethoven - writers need to hone their skills like musicians: learn the basics first, practice and practice, gain familiarity with all of their influences, learn from others diligently, over and over, until they can eventually emerge with their own style and begin to use their own personalities to develop ideas and themes and to finally express themselves artistically in a way that is perceived as genius.
Genius is not always innate.
But it can be learned with practice.
I think what really makes a genius is commitment and perseverance - and not a little obsession.
Learning from the masters, writing every day, listening to the marketplace, responding appropriately, and being determined to improve, will all help in your quest to write stories that will sell.
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