Lesson 3: Learning to see

All the conceptual explanations of story will do you not one lick of good until you see them in practice.

Practice trumps theory.

You need to be able to identify a story’s THOMR, what draws you to a certain character and pushes you away from another, what creates anticipation, what raises your hopes and fears, and much more.

How are you going to do that?

You’re going to go back to stories you enjoy and look at them with a brand new set of eyes.


By looking for certain things.

Seeing structure

You might be tempted to skip ahead. It will be foolish to do so because this activity is going to pay you humongous dividends. I can’t teach you what you’re going to learn. You can only learn it by performing the activity.

Here’s what I want you to do.

  1. Select an episode of a TV program you like, a movie, a book, or a short story.
  2. Identify the main THOMR
  3. Identify the specific goal the hero has
  4. Identify the main obstacle to achieving that goal
  5. Identify the minute or the page where the presentation phase ends
  6. Identify the minute or page where the struggle ends
  7. Calculate how far along the story was when these things occurred. Use a percentage. So if the TV episode was 45 minutes long, and the presentation ended 7 minutes in, that would be 7/45, or about the 16% mark.

If you will commit to do this with five stories, you will be able to see things you never saw before.  If you’re studying with a buddy, compare your notes.

When you finish, come back because there’s more that you need to see.

The three grunts

In the previous activity, you learned to see the general form of the story. But form without function means nothing.


You must not get trapped in form. You must always judge everything by the effect on the reader.

How do you avoid that trap? How do you see more than form?

The very best way I found to do this I learned from Orson Card in his literary boot camp. There are three main issues a reader might have with a story—confusion, disbelief, and boredom. When you run into these issues, you react with a “huh?”, “come on”, and “who cares?” Card calls these the three grunts.

What you’re going to do is start to sensitize yourself to these reactions and identify what’s causing them in you.

To do that, you will follow this process:

  1. Read a story like you would if you were reading it for pleasure. You do not set out to critique it. You set out to enjoy it.
  2. As you read you make a mark next to any spot that is confusing, boring, or doesn’t ring true. Don’t stop and expand on your reaction. You are NOT looking for these things. Nor do you want to interrupt the flow of your experience with the story. You’re simply trying to enjoy the story and noting these reactions as you go along. If the story is really boring or confusing you, you stop where you normally would. You don’t have to read to the end.
  3. When you finish, go back and clarify what each mark was for, then think up ways that might fix the issues.

The scales fell from my eyes when we had to do this with 19 stories in three days. You can do this with 19 short stories or 19 chapters in a novel or the first chapter of 19 different novels. Or do 9, or 5. But don’t short shrift yourself.

You need to see stories with different eyes.

You need to be attuned to the effects they generate in you.

This is the best way I know to help you start noticing the story working its magic.

Seeing more

You’re not done improving your vision and sensitivity.

Not by a long shot.

There are other things you need to be able to see and feel. You might be building your own list. Let me add two more:

  • The number of stories being told. Very often there is an A story, a B story, and maybe even a C, D, E, and F story.
  • The story turns and the parts of the story cycle, including problem, response, action, trouble, conflict, and surprise.

Now look at this list of other things you’ll want to learn how to see.

Select one of these other things and identify it in a story or three.

Remember: I cannot give you a new set of eyes.

I cannot increase your sensitivity.

All I can do is give you the activities that will help you develop this yourself. If you do nothing else in these lessons, do these activities.


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