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A Mistake Writers Make

If you’re a reader, you’ve probably read a book by Malcolm Gladwell. Either his bestsellers The Tipping Point, Outliers or his more recent book David And Goliath.

Now, he’s teaching a “masterclass” on writing.

One tip he gives away for free in the advertisement for the class (beginning at the :59 mark):

Gladwell: “One of the mistakes I think writers make is they spend a lot of time thinking about how to start their stories. And not a lot of time thinking about how to end them. Knowing my ending makes the beginning super easy! Right? It’s totally clear what I have to do! And totally clear what I shouldn’t do!”

If you’ve read A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, you’ll recognize what he’s talking about. He's talking about the first rule of strategy: Look Forward and Reason Backward. Before you do anything, you imagine where you're going. From there, you reason backward. Then, you act.

In Strategy, we talk about those three steps: Imagination, Reason, and Action. For a helpful shortcut, you combine those three things with the strategic framework of Positive-Sum and Zero-Sum Games. It looks like this:

When I use that framework to write books, it looks like this:

After imagining and reasoning backward, you have a strategy. Which means you know what you should do. With the end in mind, “It’s totally clear what I have to do! And totally clear what I shouldn’t do!” Gladwell says.

We’ve talked before about the parallels between building strategies and good storytelling. Good stories follow the strategic framework of Positive-Sum Games and Zero-Sum Games. As an astute reader wrote after reading A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, “I've known about the Hero’s Journey concept for years as a storytelling formula but never thought of it as a strategy!”

Stories have power when they use strategic frameworks. Stories have power when they're built the way strategies are built.

Building powerful stories follows the pattern of Imagination, Reason and Action.

To do that, as Gladwell says, start at the end.

------ If you like historical fiction, take a look at The Adventures of Young John Quincy Adams: Sea Chase. It illustrates the Spy’s Guide principles through a fictional account of a future president’s youth in the dark days of the American Revolution.

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