On writing

[Writing] a novel is like an acid trip. For the first forty-five minutes you’re thinking, “Hmm, this isn’t so intense. I can handle this.” Then you look down at your hands and flames are coming out of them.

- Steven Pressfield, Nobody wants to read your shit

Although Pressfield is a Duke alumnus, I’m comfortable saying that what I learned in the hour it took me to read his tongue-in-cheek guide to writing a novel, Nobody wants to read your shit, has completely changed how I write and how I understand stories, news, movies, research papers, etc.

Pressfield says stories are understood at the level of the soul and the soul is a conservative entity that expects certain elements. If you don’t deliver on those elements, the soul will feel something is missing. It’s not formulaic, it’s for the soul, he says.

Here are those elements (ahem, the formula):

1. Concept: What the story is about externally. Unique spin on or framing of an idea. Should be communicated clearly in a couple of sentences. For example, I just watched The Invitation: a man gets invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife and her new partner when he hasn’t seen her for two years after a tragic incident that led to a nasty divorce. The concept is reconnecting with an ex-wife after a divorce. The unique spin is reconnecting via a mysterious dinner party invitation after a two-year disappearance.

2. Theme: What the story is about internally. Internally, The Invitation is about coping with loss, grief and depression. The theme is that we have to work through our grief by letting ourselves mourn our losses but ultimately move forward into the future.

3. Protagonist: The story must have a protagonist and he must embody the theme. 

4. Antagonist: Not necessarily a person. Could be personal demons, the economy, American greed, etc. Must personify the counter-theme. If the theme argues for coping with grief and loss by letting yourself feel the pain but knowing your life has to continue (still talking about The Invitation), then the counter-theme personified by the antagonist could be the denial of loss or refusing to cope with the pain and just giving into depression. For the antagonist to be effective, his POV must be relatable to the reader. The reader must have the blood-chilling realization that under some circumstances, they, too, may not be able to cope with loss.

5. Structure: Beginning (Hook), Middle (Build), End (Payoff).
- Put your protagonist in danger as soon as possible: Your protagonist should want something desperately (stakes) and the obstacles to him getting it should be great, and should ratchet up throughout the course of the novel (jeopardy). The greater the jeopardy and the higher the stakes, the greater the reader's emotional investment and engagement with the material.

- Inciting Incident should begin the story and foreshadow the Climax.

- All is Lost moment is the protagonist’s darkest hour leading into the Climax. Try to make it as dark as possible.

- The Climax should be a clash between the protagonist and antagonist, the theme and the counter-theme on the issue of the theme and should pay off on everything that came before and resolve on the theme.

- Dialogue should have subtext: The worst dialogue is exactly what your characters are thinking. The greater the juxtaposition between what is being said and what is being communicated, the more powerful the emotion induced in the readers, because they will feel like they are participating in the moment.

Pressfield calls out the majority of noob writers out there, saying too often they write about themselves and their experiences (the writer’s version of the selfie), when the point of writing, and of art in general, is to offer something to someone else that they may find of value, either by expanding their mind or by challenging their notions. (Not by writing your life story disguised in a “fictional” protagonist. Not to say you can’t write your life story—it just has to have all of the above elements to provide value to the reader. :P)

Random, but in speaking of American literature mostly being hinged on the belief of the American dream (that we have control of our lives and that our actions lead to fitting reactions; which is not the convention in countries like Russia, which have experienced mass widespread turmoil), Pressfield mentions there is no Russian Mickey Mouse. Finally, someone who backs up my claim that growing up in Russia really is all math for fun.