Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: How To Develop Strong Fiction Ideas With Larry Brooks

We all want to write the best book we can — but how can we make sure the story is strong enough to make it worthwhile writing in the first place? In this interview, Larry Brooks gives 4 criteria for a great story and 8 steps for your novel premise.

In the introduction, FindawayVoices releases their Headphone Report 2019, UK publisher Faber moves into direct sales [The Bookseller], and tips on how to sell direct from your website [ALLi] and my own process for selling books directly and getting paid right now; Faber’s sales are down “about a third year on year for print” during the lockdown period, but that digital sales are on the rise [The Bookseller]; Small presses fear being ‘wiped out’ by autumn [The Bookseller] — If you’re traditionally published, have you checked your contract for reversion clauses? 

Plus, join me for a Facebook Live on Fri 15 May at 4 pm UK / 11 am US Eastern. Just come on over to to join the live. Plus, if you’d like to know the latest tips on Using Amazon Ads to Sell More Books, join me and Mark Dawson (and an ex-Amazon insider special guest) on 11 June. Click here to register for your free place.

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This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Larry Brooks is the best-selling author of psychological thrillers as well as books for authors, including Story Engineering, and Story Physics. His latest book is Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • How do you know when a story idea is strong enough?
  • 4 criteria for a great story
  • What is the ‘secret sauce’ of story idea selection?
  • 8 criteria for a great premise
  • The difference between premise, concept, and theme
  • Tips for creating emotional resonance in your writing

You can find Larry Brooks at and on Twitter @storyfix

Transcript of Interview with Larry Brooks

Joanna: Larry Brooks is the best-selling author of psychological thrillers as well as books for authors, including Story Engineering, and Story Physics. His latest book is Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction.

Welcome back to the show, Larry.

Larry: Hey, thanks for having me, Joanna, this is great.

Joanna: It’s great to have you back. It’s actually been a while since you’ve been on the show.

Tell us a bit about you and your writing background for anyone who doesn’t know.

Larry: I’m probably older than most of the people listening here, at least it feels that way sometimes. I started writing with the intention of publishing in the ’70s. And I was an overnight success beginning in 1999. So it took that long to get something published.

I was making a living writing corporate marketing and training stuff the whole time, which is its own torment because you spend all day writing stuff for clients that you really don’t want to write, and in the back of your head, your new novel is kicking around, and it’s kind of distracting.

When we sold the company and I had the opportunity to chuck all that and write fiction, I did that. I wrote and published six novels over a few years, and gee, nobody wanted to interview me on the radio much for that. That’s not completely true, I did a little PR kicking around and stuff.

But my publisher dropped me, which is a pretty common thing. It was Penguin Putnam at the time, after four novels in four years. And then I had to scramble and my agent had to scramble and I ended up with a small publisher. And then things slowed down and I thought, what am I going to do with this slowdown?

A friend of mine’s son was big into the digital world and got me started blogging, and the only thing I was qualified to blog about, I think, was writing books. I’m pretty opinionated about that, had a lot to say. The blog started in 2009.

Then in 2011, I collected most of those posts, and I smoothed the edges out and turned it into a narrative nonfiction called Story Engineering, which to my delight and surprise kind of took off. When we say something in nonfiction takes off, it’s way different than a novel taking off. It’s a much smaller thing, because it takes off in a niche, takes off in its own little neighborhood. Whereas a novel can take off globally when it happens. That didn’t happen to me, by the way, but the Story Engineering book did well.

It launched me down a path of continuing to blog and teaching writing at conferences, mostly around the country, but a few international gigs. And I’ve written four of them now. And the last one, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves was published this last November by ironically…well, it was Writer’s Digest Books, that’s still the imprint. But Writer’s Digest was acquired by Penguin Random House. So that beginning that Penguin Putnam and then here I am, now I’m a Penguin Random House writer.

Joanna: That’s actually really funny and a real tale of publishing over years of acquiring. I remember us meeting because my podcast started in 2009, and my blog just a bit before that. We met online when you were doing Story fix.

Your book Story Engineering, I’ll point back to the original show when we talked about it, but I learned how to write a scene from that book.

Larry: That’s nice to hear. That’s awesome.

Joanna: It is a great book. I also wanted to tell you that last weekend I read Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.

Larry: Oh, my.

Joanna: One of your novels because I’m into religious thrillers and I was like, oh, it’s Bible-code-y.

Larry: Yes, it is definitely Bible-code-y.

Joanna: So I just wanted to let you know that because it was funny, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to just re-check out Larry’s books,’ and there you go.

Larry: I hope you enjoyed it, that book took 27 years to write. I literally had the idea for that 27 years earlier, and just procrastinated and pondered, and was kind of worried about the implications of messing with that topic.

Having read it, you know what I’m talking about. And really, I actually consulted with priests, and spiritualists, and a minister, and wiser people than me about, ‘Should I mess with this?’ And some of them said, ‘No, you shouldn’t.’ Being a little feisty, I said, ‘Well, okay, yeah, I’m going to go do it, then.’ That happened.

Joanna: Unfortunately, it didn’t get banned by the Vatican.

Larry: I didn’t get any attention from the Vatican at all.

Joanna: Neither did I with any of mine. That’s unfortunate. Okay, let’s get into the latest book. I think it’s really interesting and I’m going to read a couple of the quotes as we go through.

You say, ‘Not all story ideas are good or even viable, and too many writers are committing to too many weak story ideas,’ which is like okay, then. So I think this is really good advice.

How do we know when a story idea is strong enough, or if a story idea is too weak?

Larry: It is a fabulously germane, important, urgent question for all of us because none of us sit down and say to ourselves, hey, I’ve got this idea, and it’s really mediocre. So I think I’m going to sit down and I’m going to spend a year of my life writing up this mediocre idea into a novel.

We don’t think that way. We all think our ideas are worthy, and they fascinate us. And so that’s the thing that moves us toward the blank page and we start to write.

But there’s a couple of things that new writers need to learn or inevitably will learn, the longer they take care of this. And that is that while this is fun, and why this is personal, and it’s an outlet, and it’s a pressure reliever and all the things we want to think our writing is, when you seek to publish, you’re hanging out a shingle in effect. And you’re announcing that I’m a professional, I’m in this business. And like any business, you are creating a service and a product, for a market, for an audience.

So the fact that you were really intrigued with your idea when you start a project may or may not translate to something that the market is going to agree with that oh, I love this idea. And the data proves this out.

In my book, I cite a statistic that was quoted by ‘The Huffington Post,’ but it’s a statistic that floats around in actual specificity but you can find this data in all kinds of places. And that is that 96% of the manuscripts submitted to agents for publication are rejected. And only 4% are ultimately accepted by a publisher.

Now, that means that some of those were accepted for representation, but they never got a publisher. But that’s a pretty scary proportion, 96% don’t do what you hope they’ll do, the dream doesn’t happen and only 4% succeed. And yet, nobody really challenges that.

I found myself, as a writer who’s writing these books and teaching the stuff out there in workshops and conferences, part of what I call the writing conversation, which is the collective noise about what’s true, and what should be true, and what isn’t true about writing, which includes not only books like I write, and that you write, but the blogs that we write, and the workshops that we give, and the forums we talked on, and the critique groups we belong to, and all of our friends who are also writers, and the writing conferences where there’s all this buzz in the hallway, and everybody’s sharing their conventional wisdom about writing.

Now, why would we just accept a conventional wisdom that has a 96% failure rate? That got my attention. I wanted to challenge that, there has to be a better way.

So I started analytically talking to people at various stages of their career and their learning curve. And we need to understand that the people who repeatedly end up on a bookstore shelf, they don’t experience a 96% failure rate, those writers basically get everything published.

Now it’s true that their first draft may not get published, and that they may work with editors at the publishing house to finish the project to the liking of the publisher. But the 96% is really composed of, for lack of better words, newer writers, or emerging writers, or frustrated writers who refuse to evolve their own process and their base of knowledge and they just stick with that original, ‘This is my idea, and I’m sticking to it and I don’t care if you like it, I’m going to write it.’

Then they’re heartbroken when nobody does like it to the degree you do and the agent and the publisher don’t like it either, and they don’t publish you.

So this book is an attempt to break down the reasons and the rationale why that 96 % do in fact, fail to find an audience. And we have to factor in the fact that so many new books now are self-published as well, but the criteria are exactly the same.

It really chaps me when I hear people go, ‘Well, I don’t have to follow any of these principles because I’m going to self-publish and I can just do it anyway I want to.’ When in fact, the criteria that makes a story work, and the high bar at which we must execute those criteria is exactly the same for a self-published author seeking to grow an audience as it is for an author aspiring to land an agent and end up in a traditional publishing situation.

Joanna: I think you’re right about that. Obviously, it’s very easy to publish now, but it is not easy to find an audience, it’s not easy to be ‘successful’ as an author. And in fact, even if you are published by a publisher, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be successful. It doesn’t guarantee a particular level of income, and it doesn’t guarantee prizes or anything like that. But let’s agree that with the listeners, we all want to write a really good story. And it’s interesting you said to evolve the process.

I’ve written at this point now 17 novels…Actually, I’m having a gin and tonic, as I mentioned to you because I just printed out the first draft of my next novel, Map of The Impossible.

I want to write better stories. I want to be a better writer, I want to evolve my process.

Let’s get into the book. One of the things you say is concept is the secret sauce of story selection. People might have heard high concept, but let’s talk about concept.

What is concept?

Larry: That’s a great question. And before I do that, I just want to circle back and finish the idea question because you asked about what constitutes a great idea and I really never answered that.

The theory of this new book is that I’ve broken the entirety of what a novel is, and what it has to do down into 16 categories or buckets. The most early of which is the story idea.

And then for all 16 of those areas, I’ve defined criteria that are…you have to use the word criteria a little loosely. But they’re principle-driven criteria that say, if you do this, it will serve you, if you don’t do this, it may hurt you.

For example, with idea there are four criteria offered in the book. And the first one is that the idea leans into a dramatic intention or a dramatic proposal as opposed to simply observing thing or a documentary type of story.

What I did on my summer vacation may not have a shred of drama in it. And yet people write novels about that kind of thing all the time.

Here’s the novel of my summer in Venice, without any drama, it’s just a documentary of what they did. So those criteria for your idea really elevate it if you come up with a dramatic level to it.

Another one is a vision for the character and the worldview and how they’re going to behave in a situation…going back to number one, the dramatic situation into which you’re going to thrust your character. Who is that person and how will they respond? You need a notion of that and it becomes context within your idea.

The third criteria is there’s a sense of thematic and emotional resonance to it. For example, your summer vacation in Venice may not mean anything to a huge portion of the potential reading public out there. They don’t care about Venice. They don’t want to go to Venice. It’s important to you, but it’s not important to anybody else.

So the idea should touch on things that people can relate to and empathize with. And we put your hero into a situation where we not only can relate to it, we root for them. We don’t want to just watch them, we emotionally root for them on whatever that journey is.

The final one is that there’s some sense of how the story will unfold, and the slope of that is exactly the same as your learning curve. The more we learn about how a story is built, the more we intuitively sense, at the idea stage, how it can unfold.

With those as the basic criteria for an idea, and getting back to your question about concept, it’s true that you can actually meet all four of those criteria and come up with a perfectly vanilla, been there, done that, not all that compelling story premise.

So what do we do then? The first delineation is:

Are you writing what is by intention a literary novel or are you writing a genre or a mashup of genres or a commercial novel?

The room divides depending on your answer. Because when we say we are writing a commercial novel, which by definition becomes some sort of genre or combination of genres. It’s a mystery, it’s a thriller, it’s a paranormal, it’s a historical or whatever those genres are.

The word genre should be synonymous with conceptual. So in other words, you have a premise, which I’m going to talk about in a minute because that’s kind of the heart of this whole book. There’s eight criteria for a great premise.

But you can meet all eight criteria and still not have anything conceptual. So here’s an example, Joanna. A story about a kid who grows up, and he’s very talented, and he decides to fight crime and evil in his small town, and he’s successful of it, and he starts going out and saving the world. That’s your idea.

Well, every detective everybody who wants to be a policeman, that’s everybody’s dream who wants to get into that business. There’s nothing conceptual about it.

So what can you add to that idea that is conceptual? The definition of the concept is something that isn’t the plot but that becomes a framework for the plot, or the story, or the character in such a way that it flavors the story in a certain way.

When I give you this example, you’ll see that right away. Take that same kid who grows up and he’s talented and he wants to save the world. And the author goes, ‘Well, what can I bring to this that nobody’s ever seen before?’

Let’s say it’s 1936 because you’re going to recognize this right away. Let’s say that character actually arrived on Earth in a crashing spaceship. A really nice couple in rural Kansas finds him, he’s still alive. They raise this child because he appears to be human. But he actually ends up with all these very superhuman traits and abilities.

They raise him well, to appreciate good versus evil, and want to help others. And he realizes that he’s very super. His mother takes that to the next extent and makes him a costume. And suddenly this kid is actually Superman. And everything about Superman aligns with that original story idea that I just pitched to you.

A kid grows up and he realizes he has talents, and he wants to go fight evil and maybe save the world, which isn’t conceptual until you put a suit on him and let him fly.

And you create this amazing backstory. And you do so within a genre that allows you to be that far out there. And you’ve got probably the most iconic genre character/hero ever created along with Sherlock Holmes, who is conceptual. Batman is conceptual. Janet Evanovich’s characters, Stephanie Plum is conceptual.

If you can bring something conceptual to the character, or to the story world, a world in which time travel is possible, that’s conceptual. You’re still writing a love story, you’re still writing a mystery of some or a thriller, right? But when you add time travel to the mix, it becomes conceptual.

Now, some people would say well, that’s easy if you’re in science fiction or paranormal or something like that. How do you be conceptual within a romance or a mystery thriller, which is, grant you, harder to be conceptual?

If you’ve got a love story about going back to Kansas, not picking on Kansas here, but it’s good old salt of the earth farmland with really great people. It’s not highly conceptual in any regard in that sense.

But about two people that grew up on neighboring farms in Kansas and they fall in love, that’s not really conceptual. So how do you make that more conceptual? Instead of two farmers falling in love in Kansas, how about two people that work for the president’s staff in the White House fall in love amidst a policy of no fraternization in the White House in full view of the entire nation, but they’re falling in love?

That’s a conceptual layer that you bring to the story. And when you begin to wrap your head around what concept is and the upside of it, you can see how just about any story can be rendered more conceptual.

And if you go look at stories, other than bestsellers who are down the road that can really publish anything, the concept actually is their name. The next novel by Nora Roberts is a concept. Nora Roberts is a concept, you want to see the next one of Roberts’s book if you’re a fan. That’s a concept. And that’s the definition of concept.

The best definition, the succinct definition of a concept is you pitch the concept to someone, but it doesn’t tell them anything about the actual plot. And the listener goes, ‘Wow, that sounds really cool I want to hear that. I want to hear about a love story that takes place in the White House.’ There’s no story yet.

Joanna: I think this is why fiction is a lot harder than people think. I feel that’s why it’s a lifetime’s journey, I think, to be a fiction author because there’s always something more to try and something more to learn.

You’ve given us some great stuff there. We got the four points about the story, we’ve got the concept. Now, a couple of things I want to pick up on, so you mentioned the premise so we’ll come to that. And then I also want to come back to emotional resonance.

Should we do premise first? The word premise is bandied around by so many people. And in fact, if you look it up on the internet, it has so many different definitions, it is ridiculous.

Give us your take on premise.

Larry: If you want to go English teacher formal about it, the root word of premise is to presume. So there’s a presumption of something that exists in your story. And that’s when you’re putting forth a premise.

You’re absolutely right, Joanna, this word is mashed together with the word concept, sometimes theme, by book reviewers, by other authors, by agents. They don’t differentiate it in a way that allows the writer to understand that those three things are different.

Premise, concept, and theme are all three different things. They work together, they combine, but they’re not the same thing.

When one of those folks in a casual conversation says, ‘The theme of the book is…’ and then they turn around and tell you the plot, that’s not actually an astute way to say it. They mean well, they’re just simply giving you an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch, by the way, can be a premise, or it can be a concept, or it can be a theme.

The Help. I’m going to write a story about racial tensions in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. Well, there’s no story there yet, it’s just a theme. But it’s a conceptual theme because there’s so much emotional resonance in the…as soon as you say racial tensions in 1962, Deep South USA, the themes just scream out at you.

It’s already alive with something conceptual because the theme can be conceptual, character can be conceptual, a plot proposition can be conceptual. It’s good if the writer can understand, gee, if I have to do all three of those things, let me understand all three of them separate from the other two, each one separate from the other two, which brings us full circle back to premise.

Premise is, in fact, synonymous with story, synonymous with plot. A lot of times when we pitch something, we leave out a lot of the eight elements of a premise and the pitch can be successful, just like that pitch on Superman. Alien kid crashes, raised by human parents, goes on to have superpowers and save the world from evil. That’s a pitch.

A lot of people go, if they haven’t heard it…by the way, there’s been over 500 published stories and television shows on that one pitch. It’s proven. But it isn’t a complete premise yet.

Let’s do a different show and I’ll show you how this plays out. Remember the TV show ‘Castle?’

Joanna: Yes.

Larry: A few years ago, ran for seven years.

Joanna: I enjoyed that.

Larry: The protagonist is a novelist, lives in New York City, and he’s friends with the mayor, might be the chief of police. I’m not sure which, doesn’t matter. But they offer him a gig as a consultant within a precinct of the New York City Police Department to come in and use his analytical crime-solving skill that he’s demonstrated as a novelist, like inviting James Patterson to come in and be a consultant to this precinct to help them think outside the box. Meanwhile, he gets to see real-life cases that he can use and leverage and turn into his novels. It’s a win-win proposition.

That is a concept. There’s no plot there yet, it’s just a concept. And yet, over seven seasons, there were 174 episodes of ‘Castle,’ which means there were 174 unique, separate, and different premises because it told 174 different stories from that one concept.

It’s the strength of the concept that fueled the ongoing success of that series and yet, every one of them is different.

Let me run through the eight criteria for a premise because a premise really is the pitch line further developed and finished into a holistic description of a story.

There’s eight criteria.

The first criteria is we meet a protagonist before the sky falls on them, which implies the sky does need to fall on them. They say that it’s not a story until something goes wrong, that’s especially true in genre fiction. We meet the story before they are fully engaged with whatever problem you’re going to put in front of them. It could start out partially underway but they don’t fully understand or are exposed to the full scope of what they have to go out and do.

The second criteria is something happens that changes everything for that protagonist. And that usually isn’t on page 6, it’s usually around page 60 to 80. And it’s when, after a bunch of setup, what I call the first quartile, where we meet the protagonist, we begin to seed the forthcoming plot, we begin to explore the story world, and we begin to understand what this protagonist will have at stake in the story.

With all that in place, something happens. In ‘Castle,’ it’s the phone rings and there’s a murder uptown and he has to go with the squad down there. And oh, by the way, the murdered guy is a priest, that’s the sky falling. That’s this moment where everything changes for the protagonist.

The third criteria is that the hero is compelled to react to a calling from whatever that sky falling inciting moment is. They have to go, they have to run from it to save their life, or they have to go save somebody else quickly, or they have to seek out information before it happens again, or they have to engage with an enemy who is challenging and threatening everything.

But that third thing needs to be there, there has to be something to react to. And they are compelled to engage and react, even if it doesn’t seem like a reaction other than just running like hell to save themselves because that’s often the case within a premise because the hero is in danger all of a sudden and they have to run.

The fourth criteria is there are stakes in play. This can’t be the stakes are that my daughter lost her term paper on the bus on the way to school. Those aren’t really big, global stakes that a huge readership it going to react to. There needs to be stakes that are what the hero is playing for.

It’s the win or lose proposition of whatever you’re asking the hero to do in the story. And right there is where a lot of new writers depart from the wisdom of this because they’re writing a story that’s a documentary that says, ‘Watch my hero on his summer vacation, it’s really cool.’

And nothing really happens to the hero, that hero isn’t called out of that pre-event life to engage with something, or run from something, or save somebody because there are no stakes yet. So the stakes are important for the story to work because the stakes are what the reader is going to relate to emotionally.

That’s when you get the reader. When they can feel the weight of those stakes, they’re going to empathize with this whole situation and they’re going to root for your hero to fix this. Or to save themselves, or to save the other person, or to save the city, or to save the world, that’s basically in essence what that means.

When the hero reacts, and there are stakes in play.

The fifth criteria is something opposes the hero, opposition, obstacle, in that quest to right the wrong, save people, turn this problem around, solve the problem, whatever it looks like, something stands in the hero’s way. It isn’t just a clean path.

Right now, we’re living a huge hero’s quest where all of these wonderful medical professionals are trying to solve a huge problem and there’s a virus that will not be defeated standing in their way.

So it really becomes hero entity A against antagonist entity B. Usually in genre, in the form of a villain or a group of villains, that’s where the fight becomes kind of a one-on-one entity versus entity proposition that describes the arc of what the hero is doing to solve this problem.

Because ultimately, that’s what a story is. Hero has a problem, hero has to solve the problem has to confront the problem, defeat the problem, and minimize or reverse the threat or the negative consequences had they not won.

When the hero is opposed, we bring us down to criterion number six, where the story needs to escalate, it can’t be an even thing. It has to twist and escalate, which is a function of the writer’s understanding of how story structure works. It isn’t linear, it isn’t easy. And there are highs and lows and lulls and reveals and breakthroughs.

The seventh criteria is that the hero’s state of play, the hero’s character arc if you will, the hero has to learn from what they’re being exposed to. They have to encounter inner demons and habits and fears that might be stopping them. They have to conquer those things, they have to learn as they go about the antagonist and about the situation so that they can adapt.

Because what the hero is doing early in the story isn’t working. That’s that level thing I was talking about. The hero isn’t going to win right away, things are going to get worse before they get better. And then the hero has to turn that around. They do that by understanding what wasn’t working and why and suddenly start trying different things.

And then the eighth criteria is that the hero has to be the key catalyst in the resolution of the story. The hero isn’t an observer to the resolution. The hero doesn’t get injured and go to the hospital and someone else finishes the work and solves the problem, that won’t work.

It’s the hero resolves this whole thing somehow, maybe not completely, maybe not completely happily. But they vanquish whatever the problem is, whatever the villain’s agenda was, and the world returns often to a new normal, if not the old normal.

Those are the eight blocks of a premise that works. And when we analyze a story by a new writer, and you start to dig into these eight things, you will often find that…not necessarily a new writer, but any writer who’s had a story rejected or it isn’t working, you’ll find that in this diagnosis resides in one or more of those eight things either missing completely, or too weak, or not emotionally resonant.

Joanna: Wow, you’ve given us loads, Larry, and we’re actually almost out of time. So I’m going to ask one more question because I think that emotional response, that emotional resonance, I feel that many indie writers, many writers have a good idea for plot.

What you outlined there, it’s the hero’s journey type of thing, and that people can fit those to plot. But what is often missing is the depth in the writing where a reader has an emotional response. It doesn’t have to be crying or anything but something that’s deeper than just oh, here’s another fight scene. That is a very difficult thing for many people to write.

What are your tips for writing emotional resonance?

Larry: That’s another great question. I want to go back to that horrible fraction, 96% don’t get there and 4% do, and we try to explain. It isn’t as simple as well, the 96% hit all eight of those things and the 96% can write really solid narrative prose. Yes, yes, and yes, but the real reason that 4% works, is that the nature of the problem that you’ve asked your hero to engage with is something that the reader can feel.

Let’s look at a ridiculous premise like Superman or Batman. There is no Superman, there is no Batman. But when Batman is trying to stop an evil villain and his gang who wants to poison the water supply of an entire city and kill all the children and basically decimate civilization in a region of the United States, that is something that anybody with a pulse is going to want stopped.

So you create a story world that gives you permission to have these fantastical elements. But then the story translates to reality in terms of the reader feels it, they not only feel the urgency of the need, they feel the weight of the stakes, and they can feel what that would be like if something really happened there.

If somebody writes a novel about this coronavirus we’re dealing with right now, and it’s about a doctor who has a solution, but nobody will believe her, and her fight is to get her solution into the right hands so that it can suddenly be distributed widely. But for political reasons, they’re not listening to her.

Can’t you feel that already, me just saying that? We root for this doctor, we understand that this doctor is important, and unless she achieves this goal, the story goal you’ve given her, bad stuff is going to happen to all of us because that’s in our lives right now.

So that’s an example I just sparked right now because it’s something we can all relate to. Even though the story is really about one doctor, one chemist who came across something that doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does and she has to take it forward and get it out there.

But there’s big pharmaceutical companies that want that chunk of business and they’re trying to stop her. See where the story starts to layer in? But it’s all based on the reader feeling the need and rooting for her, not just watching her, rooting for her to succeed in this quest that you’ve given.

That’s the magic of emotional resonance. It’s really the degree to which the reader cares about the hero and what you’ve asked them to do. Because the stakes are something they can relate to and emotionally feel and fear if you will.

Joanna: I think we see this in a lot of the Hollywood blockbusters that have lots of effects, but they don’t necessarily have the emotional resonance that we want, and that’s why they then fall apart. Although I love these big action movies, to be honest.

Larry: Me too.

Joanna: The last Avengers movie where they’re all together, and they all come together to fight the bad guys. And they have that scene where all the different types of heroes come together. And I found that emotionally resonant. It’s about as far from our life experience as possible. But this is a friendship resonance, we’re banding together to save the world as friends.

That’s one that often happens in YA books, I think, young adult books. The ‘Harry Potter’ books, I think YA crossover, and ‘The Hunger Games,’ things where friends and teams…It doesn’t have to be romance, it doesn’t have to be Batman, as you say. But I think like friendship, it’s something that’s part of the human condition.

And like you say, right now we’re recording this in coronavirus, we can’t even see our friends, we can’t see your family, so you feel that. So that’s what you’re saying, right?

Even if it’s a most fantastical story, if it’s rooted in real human emotion, then that will resonate.

Larry: Yes. Heroes who will give up their life for their friends or to achieve a global enemy that has to be stopped at any cost. That’s the emotional key to the Avengers. It’s also the key to every romance story.

Someone will do what they have to do to make this relationship work without it harming the person they’re in love with by taking you both forward in a way that you can be together going forward after the book is over. That’s emotional resonance, and it’s the most common.

But why is that the biggest genre of all? Because it’s the most common human emotion of all. It’s the most common dream, the most common fantasy, having love, having an amazing love affair that is unconditional and tested and challenged. And these people do what they have to do to make it work in spite of all the odds.

Joanna: We want to write these amazing stories and you’ve definitely given us some good tips and the book has lots more in.

The book is called Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves.

Where can people find you and everything you do online?

Larry: All the usual online booksellers, beginning with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, every place that sells novels and books online will have this available. The chain bookstores will have the new one, maybe, if they don’t get a huge buyout. It’s not like the next Nora Roberts where there’s 44 copies of her new book available, there’s a handful of copies and often, Lord willing, they go quickly and it takes them a while to restock.

But a bookseller can also order any of these books for anybody that’s interested. The new book may be there by now but it may not. Like any author, I do drop into Barnes & Noble to see if my book is still there, and I find out often that about three or four months later, the small allocation is gone and they’re doing a reorder. So it isn’t always a sure thing but it’s easily found.

Joanna: That may never happen again, Larry.

Larry: I appreciate it.

Joanna: And just your website for people?

Larry: It’s I’ve got eight parts where I’m actually taking excerpts of the book and using them as a blog post and embellishing them so they work as a blog post. Because you lift something out of a book, it may or may not work on its own.

But this series is going to go forward, it may end up with 40 or 50 posts in the series. But that’s what I’m doing now on There are over 1,000 posts there so there are all kinds of stuff.

Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Larry, that was great.

Larry: It’s my pleasure. I appreciate you inviting me, Joanna, you take care. Good luck to you.

Joanna: Thank you.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • May 10, 2020