How’s this for irony: the two things that writers focus on first and foremost are the exact two things that tend to keep their stories from getting out of the starting gate: Beautiful writing and a well-structured, dramatic plot.

Sure, beautiful writing is a plus, and yes, a well-structured, dramatic plot matters. But they are handmaidens of something far more important: the story.

Why don’t we already know this?

Because our experience as readers seems to say something else. After all, when you read a great book, the two things you see on the surface are the beautiful language and the plot. So it’s insanely easy to assume that they are the elements that hook and hold you, and thus are what you should focus on when you set out to write a book.

Not so!

What actually hooks you – what your brain is wired to crave, hunt for and respond to in every story it hears -- is the story itself. Without that, neither the writing nor the plot, regardless how well executed, have any power at all. Except, maybe, the power to bore.

Beautiful writing is merely the vehicle that conveys the story. By itself, language is an empty vessel. What gives language its life-changing power is the meaning it conveys, and that comes from one thing only: the story.

And the plot, by itself, is merely a bunch of external things that happen. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that writers are often so focused on the plot that they spend countless hours pouring over “story structure” manuals, as if by creating a rigid one-sizefits-all exoskeleton a story will magically appear.

Not so!

Now for the million-dollar question: If the story is what hooks us, what is a story, exactly?

In a nutshell: A story is one single, unavoidable external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.

The story is about what it costs the protagonist emotionally to change internally, not what happens to her externally. The plot is created to force her to make that change (or not).

I think you see where this is going: how can you create a plot to spur that change if you don’t know what the change is, or why she needs to change?

You can’t. Nor can you express any of it in beautiful language until you know what it is. Until then, beautiful language just gets in the way, and starts to take precedence over figuring out what you’re actually trying to say in the first place.

All of which means that there is a whole lot you need to know before you get to page one.

So, what does “writing well” really mean?

It means digging deeply enough into your story – before you even think about writing page one – so that when you get there, you have something meaningful to say.

And – one final irony, a good one – the more meaning you have to convey, the more beautiful the writing becomes.