Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Steven James, the consummate story blender

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed on  The Story Blender, a fantastic podcast hosted by Steven James and featuring interviews with storytellers of all stripes. 

Steven is a masterful storyteller in his own right. He is a national bestselling and award-winning author of fourteen pulse-pounding thrillers featuring FBI Special Agent Patrick BowersPublishers Weekly calls him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” 

He is also insightful about the art of storytelling, and wrote Story Trumps Structure.

Welcome Steven! When and how did you come up with the idea for The Story Blender, and who have been some of your top "gets" in terms of storytellers?

STEVEN JAMES: I think that every great story is a combination of factors: audience engagement, emotional resonance, escalation, desire, causality, and more. The blend of those ingredients differs for different art forms (oral storytelling, film and fiction, for instance) but everyone loves a great, well-told story.


So, The Story Blender has been my opportunity to pick the brains of some of the best storytellers out there and uncover the secrets to what makes their stories so powerful. 

I’ve been really honored by all the guests who’ve joined me. I particularly enjoyed speaking with screenwriter Mark Bomback (from the recent Planet of the Apes movies), sand artist and storyteller Joe Castillo, comedian Bob Stromberg, and international best-selling authors Jeffery Deaver, Sue Grafton, and Sandra Brown.  

And, of course, you, Hallie!

HALLIE: You write pulse-pounding thrillers. And you teach and write about storytelling. What is the one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring thriller writers?

STEVEN: Suspense is created not by what you conceal from readers but by what you reveal to them. Sometimes authors will tell me, “I didn’t want to give too much away and I wanted to create suspense so I didn’t tell the readers about—whatever it might be.”


That’s how you create mystery (and appeal to curiosity) but not how you create suspense (which increases apprehension). When readers are aware of impending peril that a character is not aware of (and they have concern for that character), they’ll feel anxiety. So, let readers see the bomb under the table, the killer lurking in the basement, the terrorist putting on his suicide vest, but keep that information from the characters who might suffer. In this way, you create suspense by revelation of danger to readers, but concealment to characters. 

HALLIE: The title of one of your books on writing is STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE. What do you mean by that?

STEVEN: Regarding story structure, some stories have one act (for instance, one-act plays), some have two (most sitcoms), some have three, others four or five (like Shakespeare’s plays), and so on. For every storytelling “rule” there are notable exceptions. 


All stories involve some sort of pursuit, but how many chapters or acts or pages that takes depends more on the obstacles that the characters encounter and their subsequent choices than it does on a fill-in-the-blanks plot template.

So, rather than teach a plot formula I’m trying to help authors and screenwriters understand the principles of storytelling. 

Also, I write organically, without an outline, and there hasn’t really been a practical book for those who use this approach on how to do it. I believe that the more you understand what lies at the heart of a great story, the less you’ll need to outline and the less you’ll need to write “by the seat of your pants.”



HALLIE: You've written nine books featuring FBI agent Patrick Bowers. The early titles were OPENING MOVES. Then THE PAWN. Then THE ROOK. Can you talk about chess (a sedate game, played mostly while seated) and how that sparked stories packed with riveting suspense and action?

STEVEN: Ha! I’ve never been asked that question before. 


When I was beginning the series I was drawn to the idea of strategy and trying to get one step ahead of your opponent—in chess, as well as in an investigation. Cat and mouse intrigue. Move/countermove. That’s what drew me to the idea.

Also, for marketing purposes, I thought it would be intriguing to write a book for each piece on the board so that readers could try to collect them all. So, it’s been fun to hear from fans of the series as they anticipated what book would come next. 

HALLIE: When you started writing about Bowers, did you have any idea how many books about him that'd be writing?

STEVEN: I had the dream of perhaps completing the chess board, but no real anticipation that I would. As time progressed and readers responded to the series, it grew book by book, chess piece by chess piece. 


I’m now working on a spinoff series of sequels that includes my latest EVERY DEADLY KISS. 

I realized recently that I’ve written nearly 1.4 million words about Patrick Bowers and he’s still an intriguing character to me. 

HALLIE: You teach a writing retreat with Bob Dugoni, one of my favorite authors and a brilliant teacher. How did that start, and where can people find out more about it? 


STEVEN: Many years ago when I first started writing I became a contributing editor to an inspirational magazine. One weekend the publishing company flew eight of us out for a weekend retreat at a bed and breakfast.

In those three days in that small community with an informed and talented editor, I learned more about writing than I ever had before.

After becoming a novelist myself, I decided to try to recapture that atmosphere by hosting a four-day writing intensive for other novelists. I lead the first by myself and it was a crazy amount of work. So I asked Bob--who's one of the best writing instructors I've ever met--if he would team up with me.

Thankfully he did. We've now taught eight of the intensives together and the response has been phenomenal.

The intensives are limited to twelve participants. Bob and I critique up to fifty pages of each person’s work in progress. We rent a bed and breakfast for everyone and spend four days going through the manuscripts and lecturing—nearly 20 hours of teaching. The success stories of authors who’ve been published and signed with agents has been inspiring.

Information on the seminar and how to get on the invitation list can be found at novelwritingintensive.com

HALLIE: So what think? Is reading a great suspense novel like watching a brilliant chess match? What blend keeps you turning the pages? 

40 comments:

  1. This is quite an insightful interview . . . I’m wondering if Steven had a favorite Patrick Bowers “chess” story . . . .
    I’d never quite thought of comparing the reading of a great suspense novel with watching a chess match . . . perhaps the reader’s ability to discern the intuitive strategy of the chess master in the unfolding of the story is what keeps the pages turning. When the author draws me into the story from the beginning and I feel invested in outcome, it’s difficult to set the book aside until all the questions are answered . . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your interest. I'd say that one of my favorites is THE ROOK. It's a good place to start the series and I had the idea for it while reading a book on sharks to my (then) 8-year-old daughter. When I found out that sharks have a scientifically-proven sixth sense, I was intrigued—it led me to the center of the plot. That, and the triple-twist-ending make it one of my favs.

      Delete
  2. Right, I love it when I'm reading along and think I know where it's going but then I turn out to be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's one of the paradoxes of writing—the predictive nature of reading and the pleasure we experience when we're wrong—in a satisfying way.

      Delete
  3. Welcome, Steven! I love what you said about suspense comes from what is revealed, not what is hidden. Big shoutout to the weekend intensive retreat Hallie and Roberta used to lead, which has produced its own number of success stories because of their excellent coaching and critiquing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We're so proud of your successes!! Edith Maxwell, Liz Mugavero, Barbara Ross, Sherry Harris... and more! But I have to say I'd like to go to Steve and Bobs' retreat. Sadly the next offerings are already SOLD OUT. Which says something to you right there.

      Delete
  4. thanks Edith! this weekend sounds amazing, Steven. I haven't read your books (yet) and love the idea of working through the chess board. Wondering if you use multiple points of view and how maintaining suspense is different with more voices?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do typically use multiple povs, since that can be a very effective way of building suspense. How? Well, you can use one pov to show danger to the reader (the killer's pov as he breaks into the character's car and then slips into the backseat), but keep it from the characters within the story (she approaches the car, unaware, and opens the car door...)

      Delete
  5. Wow! I've been trying to take myself from pantser to plotter - I am letting out a long held breath here and eager to get back to the keyboard. Thank you! Intrigued by the idea of suspense being created by what the reader sees that is withheld from the character. So simple, so clear. Pleasure to met you, Steven.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's the big payoff to multiple narrators

      Delete
    2. I think there's a lot of pressure out there to outline or "plot out" your story. It's rare to find someone encouraging writers to write organically; it's almost like we're supposed to apologize for it. It's crazy. So, find out what works for you and then pursue it, but don't let the pressure (from either side) force you into a place that doesn't work for your writing brain.

      Delete
    3. Thanks, Steven. I wrote four books as a pantser with a side of outline (as to scenes only) and it is how I'm most comfortable. Thank you for the permission!

      Delete
  6. Steven, I am such a fan! Your writers digest sessions were phenomenal. And, your intensive sound terrific. I see they are full—:-( do you plan to schedule any more?
    I am so relieved that you write organically, I do too, and I love watching my stories develop. When you begin a work of fiction, what’s the one thing you, personally, need? A twist? An event? A conflict? How do you think about: this is a story about…
    Steven, so great to see you here! Reds and readers, if you have not been to a seminar or read his books or heard the podcast, I highly highly highly recommend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We will be holding another novel intensive in the spring of 2019, and possibly adding one in the fall. Write to Pam through the website and she'll keep you up to speed. When I begin a new book, I sometimes start with a moral dilemma or question (for instance, "What's more important, protecting the innocent or telling the truth?") or a scene that intrigues me. I have never started a novel knowing how it will end. That's part of the joy for me—seeing where it will lead.

      Delete
    2. Love that. And will do. And agree about the ending. One of the things that keeps me writing is to find out what happens.

      Delete
  7. Okay, so what's the difference between writing organically and inching forward not knowing where the hell this story is going?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's what I was wondering, too, Hallie! Seeing as you and I both use the "where the hell is this story going" method...

      I'd love to do Steven and Robert's intensive workshop. In so many other professions, people are expected to get continuing education in their field. It would be so helpful to writers - even well-established ones.

      Delete
    2. I don't know where the story will go—specifically—but I do have a sense where all stories lead through their progress of moving from the opening orientation, to a disruption, to a pursuit, to escalation of tension, to despair (a moment of darkness), to a climax that tests the protagonist and leads to a transformation either for the character or for the situation (or both). I continually ask myself 4 questions to solve all plot problems I might face while writing—"What would this character naturally do?" "How can I make things worse?" "How can I add a twist?" and "What promises have I made that I have not yet kept?" These, along with an understanding of genre and story help the novel take shape.

      Delete
    3. I'm copying this and pasting it over my desk!

      Delete
    4. I love this--and "what would the character really do" has saved me many a time. I think we forget, as we're writing, that the people are "real."

      Delete
  8. This was a really thought-provoking interview! I have often told people that I prefer mysteries to thrillers (though of course I do read and enjoy some thrillers.) But I never knew how to articulate what it was that caused that preference. Steven's description of how one arouses curiosity while the other arouses apprehension was an "aha!" moment for me. Clearly, I enjoy the sense of curiosity and trying to figure things out alongside the protagonist much more than I enjoy the feeling of apprehension as I fear for the protagonist who is unaware of his/her peril.

    Your writing intensive sounds FABULOUS as well. I anticipate demand will continue to exceed supply!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm with you, Susan, and sometimes (don't tell anyone) I skip to the end of the book just to be sure my favorite characters survive.

      Delete
    2. No! No skipping to the end. I disallow it. :)

      Delete
    3. I don't really skip....but! I might look. and then read from the beginning to see how the author got me there. It's educational, really, to see the underpinnings. ::ducking::

      Delete
  9. "Suspense is created not by what you conceal from readers but by what you reveal to them." This says it all to me. I just didn't know it until today!

    Welcome Steven. I'm off to have a look at your books.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Steven, the premise behind STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE really resonates with me. I'll have to pick up the book.

    The writing intensive sounds fabulous.

    Mary/Liz

    ReplyDelete
  11. What a lot of interesting information in this post! Steven, I didn't realize that suspense is created from the things revealed to readers, not hidden from them. After reading your statements about that, I started thinking about books I'd read with great suspense and it hit me how true that is.

    And your series based on the game of chess. Brilliant idea! I don't play chess myself, but most of the other members in my family do. My eight-year-old granddaughter is already winning chess competitions. I'm thinking this series would be a good one to start my son-in-law on, too. He likes receiving books from me, but it's usually non-fiction I give him. I think I've finally found a fiction series I can introduce him to. And, of course, it's a series I need to check out, too. Just because I'm not much of a chess player doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the game and know a little about it.

    The Story Blender sounds like a fascinating podcast, and I will be looking for it. With you podcast, writing books, and holding writing seminars and/or retreats, I am wondering when you sleep. I guess the old saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person rings true for your life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments. The series isn't really chess-oriented (in the sense that you have to be a fan of chess to enjoy the books). There's always a tangential connection to the title, but mostly they are more like CRIMINAL MINDS meets 24.

      Delete
  12. Steven, it's such a treat to have you at JRW today! Just last week, I taught a workshop at the Manzanita Writers' Series in Manzanita, OR, and your book was on the list of resources I gave to participants. "Story Trumps Structure" has been a terrific resource for me as I write my first standalone and take a break from my series. I've also found "Troubleshooting Your Novel" to be incredibly helpful. Both books offer a markedly different perspective on storytelling and have helped me push through some obstacles, so thank you! I wonder, when you find yourself struggling at some point in a manuscript, is there someone you turn to for help? Your editor? Fellow writers who provide feedback?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I usually turn to context for help when I'm stuck. I print out the project from the beginning and go through it asking myself what readers are hoping for, expecting, worrying about and wondering about throughout the story. Typically I find that I've either made promises I haven't yet kept or need to make more promises to fulfill.

      Delete
    2. I had a very talented screenwriter brother-in-law who used to say that if you're having a problem with the story in Act 2, you probably need to go back to Act 1 and fix what went amiss.

      Delete
  13. This makes sense. If the reader knows things the main character is not privy to, the reader is left with great tension. Tension is primary to suspense, isn't it?

    Thank you for another piece to the puzzle of storytelling, Steven!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Steven! Thanks for the very intriguing post. I seems I am the odd "plotter" in the group here, but I think it's just a different way of working through the same organic process. I just do more of the story structure in my head before I put it on paper. Since I'm writing mysteries, I know that the ultimate outcome has to be a resolution of that crime. Then I figure out what it takes to get from point A to point B (sometimes working backwards. That just gives me a rough framework, with plenty of room for unexpected things to happen along the way.

    Your writing intensives sound wonderful! Do you have many published writers attend? As Julia says, we all need continuing education.

    And so I'm going now to check out Story Trumps Structure and The Rook!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Yes, we do have published authors who attend. I believe that with the ones who've signed up there are approximately 100 different books in print. Often, someone will come who is interested in switching genres and wants a new perspective on their next project.

      Delete
  15. This is fantastic. Honestly, there is so much here that I've never thought of before - I tend to write alone, in a cave, in the dark, trying not to overthink things too much. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with us. I am definitely going to have to check out your work, Steven.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for these insights, Steven. As a relatively new writer I think I've got a good bit of work to do before I try an intensive workshop, but I've got the page bookmarked. And I've put a hold on The Rook and will look for Story Trumps Structure (bridge too! ;-). I should have known better than to come here just when I'm starting to get Mount Tooby under control.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Welcome to Jungle Reds, Steven. Did you read James Bond or the Hardy Boys mysteries?

    Hallie, what keeps me turning the pages are the characters and the plotting. The story has to grab my attention.

    Diana

    ReplyDelete