Where Does Story Theory Come From, Anyway?


When you edit a novel, much of your job is to use story theory to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of this blog: to give you the story theory tools that will help you craft an amazing novel.

But where does story theory come from, anyway? Why does it work? And the big question that many writers fear: won’t using story theory make your story too predictable, formulaic, and—gasp—boring?

Many of my favorite episodes of Your Next Draft are about story theory: the nuts and bolts of how stories work.

I love story theory. It transforms our intuitive understanding of story into explicit concepts we can apply consciously and strategically. It puts language around the patterns that repeat across stories that work.

And I’ve gotten great feedback from writers who are putting those strategies to work in your own manuscripts and seeing that they work. I love that!

But why does story theory work? Why does it matter? Where does it even come from?

That’s what I want to talk about in this article.

But I’m going to take a somewhat circuitous route to get there. So buckle up and join me on this journey.

What I Talk About When I Talk About My Business

In December of last year, I launched my own editing business. I’ve been editing novels for over six years, but I finally decided it was time to strike out on my own and build my own independent business as a developmental editor.

I don’t know if you’ve ever built a business before, but here’s something I’ve experienced: I am literally always thinking about my business.

I am always, always, always thinking about the writers I work with, the manuscripts I’m editing, the editing tools I’m using, the new methodologies I’m learning, the way I’m marketing my business, my revenue goal and the things I can do to reach it, my podcast metrics, my email list, the things I’ve tried that have worked, the things I’ve tried that haven’t worked, the things I’m excited to try next . . . I could go on and on.

And I DO go on and on. If someone asks me how my business is going, well—I can talk for hours. All these details are top of mind, always, and I’m so excited to share.

But paradoxically, I’ve found that it’s been really difficult to talk about my business with my friends.

My friends are nice, so they ask how it’s going. And I’ll launch into the business-building topic that I’ve been focusing on today, or this week, or this month.

And pretty quickly I can get into the weeds of what I literally do every day: I sent this email, or I sold that editing package, or I planned this podcast episode.

And I’m really excited about all of that. All of that is so important to me and so fun. It matters so much to me.

You’ve heard me say it over and over on this podcast: I love editing. And I am absolutely delighted every single day to build my editing business.

The Missed Connection in Conversation

Yet when I share that with my friends—when I dump all the technical details of my day-to-day work on them—they don’t get fired up and excited with me.

They listen politely. They nod and smile.

But they don’t ask follow-up questions. They don’t share my enthusiasm. Sometimes they even look a little confused or bored.

They’re not being rude. They’re being kind! They asked about my business because they want to know. And I’m not holding back. I’m telling them about my work.

Yet I feel a sense of missed connection.

I want my friends to jump into the joy with me. I want them to join me in feeling the ups and downs of my business, to feel the high of a marketing effort that goes well, the satisfaction of knowing I’ve just given someone really, really helpful feedback, the nervous excitement of looking at the month ahead and knowing I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m up for the challenge, and I can’t wait to do every bit of it.

So it’s really disappointing to me when I share what’s going on in my business, but I get blank stares in return. There’s a connection between us that’s not happening.

I wanted to share something with my friends, but I didn’t manage to convey the excitement I feel.

They asked a question; I answered; they listened to my answer. Logistically, everything was there. But we didn’t connect.

There was a feeling I wanted to convey to my friends. But they didn’t feel it.

The Missed Connection in Writers’ Manuscripts

I see this happen so often with writers. They send me a manuscript they’re so excited about. I can see how hard they’ve worked on it—one draft, or two, or five of really intentional crafting.

And those writers tell me, “I can’t wait for you to read this. I hope you love it. I hope you love my character. I hope you connect with them and feel for them like I do. There are parts where I even cried as I was writing this book. I hope those parts touch you, too.”

Of course, that gets me really excited to read their story! So I pick it up, all ready to be engrossed and delighted.

And the plot is there. There are interesting events that happen throughout the story—romance, adventure, mystery, thrills.

But that love for the character? The connection between me and the protagonist? The tears? I don’t feel it.

The writer knew what they wanted to convey. They want their books to connect with readers!

When I’m talking about my business with friends, I know what I want to convey. I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm!

And yet, in my conversations with friends and in those manuscripts, there’s something missing. The connection doesn’t happen.

A Little Bit of Life Advice From a Professional

Well, I took this problem to my therapist. The problem with talking with friends about my business, not the problem with manuscripts that don’t make me feel things. The problem she’s an expert in, not the problem I’m an expert in.

And here’s what she told me:

“Your friends do not care about what you literally do in your job. They care about how it impacts you. Don’t focus on sharing what you do. Focus on sharing why it matters to you.”

Can I be honest? When she said that, I burst out laughing. Loudly. A lot.

And when I could finally catch my breath, I told her, “That’s hilarious. Because I have literally created three podcast episodes where I told writers exactly that. Readers are only interested in the external action of a story when they understand how it impacts the characters internally.”

You’d think I could take my own advice!

The Academic Textbook Version of My Life

Every client, every manuscript, every email, every podcast episode, every task, every metric—they all matter so, so much to me, as an editor and entrepreneur.

But when someone asks me, “So how’s work going?” and I respond with those details, I’m giving them the academic textbook version of my story.

Academic textbooks are full of facts. They’re not quick reads or easily digestible.

For the relatively small group of people who are interested in learning about the topic, they’re fascinating. Those people are willing to do the work it takes to understand dense pages of information.

Every now and then, I’ll come across a friend like that—usually a fellow editor or entrepreneur. They’re curious about the details and happy to hear about all the nitty-gritty things happening in my business.

But that’s a pretty small population, a niche audience. Most people don’t choose to read academic textbooks and are glad when they finish school and no one ever asks them to anymore.

The Commercial Fiction Version of My Life

On the other hand, when someone asks me, “So how’s work going?” and I respond with the highs and lows I’m feeling as a result of those manuscripts and emails and tasks and metrics, they’re interested. I’m giving them the commercial fiction version of my story—the paperback you’d pick up in the airport bookstore.

Now, I’m telling an engaging story, one that’s fun and interesting and connects with a wide audience.

You don’t need any special education to understand it; you don’t have to slog through a lot of details that most people find boring. You feel invested right away in the fate of a character you care about, and you understand why the external events matter.

The 3-Step Formula to Build Connection . . . With Readers and Friends

When you write a story that focuses exclusively on the plot, on the external action, that’s the academic textbook version. It recounts the facts: this happened, and then this, and then this.

But in order to move your story into the realm of commercial fiction, the kind of novel that someone wants to pick up in an airport bookstore to enjoy on a long flight, you’ve got to show us why those events matter. You have to show us how they impact your characters.

When I share how my business impacts me, that builds connection between me and my friends.

When you share how the events of your plot impact your characters, that builds connection between your characters and your readers.

This is something I know—it’s something I’ve shared on this blog in a three-part series (here, here, and here). In fact, one of those articles is actually called “The 3-Step Formula to Evoke Emotion and Make Your Readers Feel.”

So this is something you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while.

And it’s something my therapist knows. She gave me my own advice without even realizing it!

So what’s the bigger takeaway here? Why am I bringing this up? Is it just to repeat the concept from that blog article—a very important concept, by the way, and one I’ll probably touch on many times in many episodes?

Or is there something more?

The Fundamental Truth of Story Theory: Art Imitates Life

As I sat in my therapist’s office catching my breath, here’s what really struck me:

Art imitates life.

You’ve probably heard that phrase before. But when it comes to story theory, I believe it’s really true.

So much of storytelling theory is just centuries of writers, editors, and students of story studying patterns in life and giving those patterns language.

Why We Fear Story Theory

Writers sometimes feel uncomfortable with it because they’re afraid that describing these patterns will make storytelling formulaic.

I see this especially when it comes to genre. Many writers balk at the idea of choosing a genre for their story because they don’t want to be boxed into a formula. They don’t want to be limited to recreating one story we’ve all heard before over and over again. They want to create a story that’s innovative, surprising, unique!

I get that, I do. And we’ve all seen stories that fall into the trap of becoming so formulaic that they’re predictable and boring.

For me, Hallmark Christmas movies fall into this category. I can tell the time by when the characters kiss—always the last two minutes of the movie. And since the movies start on the hour and run for two hours, that kiss means it’s 7:58.

Story Theory Taps Into Truths About Humanity

But the people who have codified story theory didn’t do so because they wanted to make stories boring.

This isn’t about trying to suck the life and creativity out of storytelling by distilling stories into simple formulas.

This is about observing truths about human existence and recreating them honestly in art.

When I tell you that in order to make your readers feel, you need to show us how the events of your story impact your characters, I don’t say that to simplify storytelling into a plug-and-play system.

I say that because as my therapist pointed out to me, this is how humans connect with each other.

If you want your readers to connect with your characters, you’ll need to use the same strategies you use to connect with other people.

Story theory is about observing truths about human existence and recreating them honestly in art.

This is true for pretty much all the tips and tricks and strategy I share on this podcast. And it’s true for pretty much everything you’ll find in other storytelling methodologies, like Story Grid, Save the Cat!, the Snowflake Method, or what have you.

Test Story Theory in the Real World

I’m so confident of this that I challenge you to test it. Take story theory into the wild. Test it in the real world.

Here’s what I want you to do: the next time you’re in a conversation with friends or family and someone asks some version of “what’s going on with you,” tell them just the literal events of your life. Just the external action. Just the plot.

Remove all the emotions you feel about those events. Remove the ways they impact you, the way they impact your mind, your emotions, your spirit. Try to go so far as to remove the emotiveness in your tone of voice.

Just give them pure facts about your external world and see what happens.

I hypothesize that you’re going to get a lot of blank stares. You’re going to bore your audience quickly.

You won’t get engaged responses. You won’t get curious follow-up questions. You won’t get a rise of emotion.

You won’t get connection.

Then, Use Story Theory to Make Your Story Come to Life

And then, once you’ve done that, come back to your story. Look for places where you reveal how the events of the story impact your characters—the things they feel, the things they think, the things that have changed in their internal world as a result of the external action.

And look especially for places where you don’t reveal how the events impact your characters.

Imagine if you read those passages to the friends you were talking with in your real-world test of story theory.

Would those friends care about these events? Or would you get blank stares?

If you find your story focuses mostly on the external events and it’s missing all the ways those events matter to your characters, not to worry. Head over to The 3-Step Formula to Evoke Emotion and Make Your Readers Feel and follow the steps in that article.

And as you edit, remember: I’m not trying to stifle your creativity by locking you into a soulless formula. No—that formula is such a universal human experience that my therapist told me to apply the very same principle in my own life.

And this isn’t the only time I’ve observed story theory in the real world, either. Once you understand how stories work, if you pay attention, you’ll start seeing story principles playing out all around you.

If you enjoy testing this bit of story theory in your conversations with friends, keep it going. Pull out some other episodes of Your Next Draft and test them in the real world, too.

A couple favorites of mine that translate really nicely to this kind of real-world test are Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story and What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes.

Story theory is about observing truths about human existence and recreating them honestly in art.

Which means that as you use story theory to edit your story, you’re exploring what it means to be human.

I think that’s beautiful. I hope it inspires you like it inspires me.

I’ll be back next week with another tip for your editing process, drawn, of course, from the ways real humans experience real life.

Until then, happy editing!

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