Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

Summary

This book will help you create large, well-crafted creative works. In it, Steven Pressfield shares the elements of every good work, the principles of storytelling, how to make your work resonate with an audience, and much more. A great read alongside this one is The War of Art by Pressfield.

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Key Takeaways

“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy.”

You need a concept

  • A concept takes a conventional claim and puts a spin on it
  • It establishes a frame of reference that is greater than the product itself
  • It sets the product in a context that makes the viewer behold the product with fresh eyes – and perceive it in a positive, compelling light
  • It frames or re-frames the issue entirely

Every story has to be about something

  • Theme is what the story is about
  • Theme is the single idea that holds the work together and makes it cohere. Nothing in a creative work or movie should stray from the theme.
  • What is this damn thing about? That’s the theme. The theme is the anchor to fall back on when you get lost. You need to define your theme upfront.

Difference between theme and concept

Concept: “A concept is external. It frames the material and makes us look at every element of that material from a specific point of view.”
Theme: “A theme is internal. When we strip away all elements of plot, character and dialogue, what remains is theme.”
The power of the protagonist is derived directly from the strength of the theme and concept.

How to have bad ideas

  • Try too hard
  • Work mechanically
  • Follow a formula
  • Be desperate or panicky

Authors to read

Turgenev, Hemingway, Henry Miller

Use letters to find your voice

Read letters or emails to a friend to identify your most natural writing voice. Here’s an idea: Write your book to a friend, as if it were a letter, or to a future kid, or to the stranger that needs it. Write to someone as a frame.

Three-part structure

The most important principle for structuring any narrative.

  • Act 1, Beginning, “The Hook”
  • Act 2, Middle, “The Build”
  • Act 3, End, “The Payoff”

Alternatively, you can divide a work into 8-12 major sequences, an idea from David Lean.

Know the conventions of your genre

Every genre has conventions (unbreakable rules). You need to know those terms for the domain you’re entering.

The Hero’s Journey, simplified

  1. Hero starts in Ordinary World.
  2. Hero receives Call to Adventure.
  3. Hero rejects Call.
  4. Hero meets Mentor. Mentor gives hero courage to accept Call.
  5. Hero crosses Threshold, enters Special World.
  6. Hero encounters enemies and allies, undergoes ordeal that will serve as his Initiation.
  7. Hero confronts Villain, acquires Treasure.
  8. The Road Back. Hero escapes Special World, trying to “get home.”
  9. Villains pursue Hero. Hero must fight/escape again.
  10. Hero returns home with Treasure, reintegrates into Ordinary World, but now as a changed person, thanks to his ordeal and experiences on the journey.

Recommended books for learning more about the Hero’s Journey

What is a story?

A story = three-act structure + hero’s journey

Inciting Incident

Every story needs an inciting incident, which is the event that makes the story start. You have to include the inciting incident in the first act of your work.

Climax

Every story needs a climax, which needs to be embedded within the inciting incident. Anticipation of experiencing the climax is what helps the audience get through the movie or book. Without the climax embedded, you don’t have an inciting incident.

The second act belongs to the villain

You must keep the villain up front throughout the second act of your work.

Characters

Every character must represent something greater than himself

Start at the end

  • First figure out the climax, then you can work backward with how you get there.
  • So ask yourself at the beginning: where do I want to finish?

Questions to ask yourself when beginning a new project

  • What’s the genre?
  • What’s the theme?
  • What’s the climax?
  • Who’s the hero?
  • Who’s the villain?
  • What are the stakes?
    • High stakes = high emotional involvement by the audience
    • “Make the stakes life and death for the hero or for someone he/she loves. Or take it beyond life and death to damnation. Extinction of the soul.”
  • What is the jeopardy?
    • Get characters in danger as quickly as possible
    • The more jeopardy to your characters, the more the audience will care and the more involved they will become

Capture the inner and outer journey

A character’s development is more than the external events that happen. It’s also about the internal process of change that brings meaning and depth to the external happenings.

All is lost moment

It’s the protagonist’s darkest hour, coming near the end of Act 2.

How we learn

“In other words, you’re in the trenches, getting hosted and head-banged and dismissed and ignored. You’re invisible. You’re held in contempt. You’re exploited. People farther up the food chain take your time, your energy, your body. You let them. You want them to take these things. It’s the price you pay to learn.”

Principles for every creative project

  1. Every work must be about something. It must have a theme.
  2. Every work must have a concept, that is, a unique twist or slant or framing device.
  3. Every work must start with an Inciting Incident.
  4. Every work must be divided into three acts (or seven or eight or nine David Lean sequences).
  5. Every character must represent something greater than himself/herself.
  6. The protagonist embodies the theme.
  7. The antagonist personifies the counter-theme.
  8. The protagonist and antagonist clash in the climax around the issue of theme.
  9. The climax resolves the cash between the theme and the counter-theme.

Principles of Storytelling

  1. Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.
  2. Every story must be about something. It must have a theme.
  3. Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
  4. Every story must have a hero.
  5. Every story must have a villain.
  6. Every story must start with an inciting incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.
  7. Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.
  8. Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.

Narrative device

You need to define the narrative voice for your story, which has four main elements.

  1. Who tells the story? Through whose eyes (or from what point of view) do we see the characters and the action?
  2. How does he/she tell it? In real time? In memory? In a series of letters? As a voice from beyond the grave?
  3. What tone does the narrator employ? Loopy like Mark Watney in The Martian? Wry and knowing like Binx Bolling in the Moviegoer? Elegiac like Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa?
  4. To whom is the story told? Directly to us, the readers? To another character? Should our serial killer address himself to the detective who has just arrested him? To his sainted mother who believes he’s innocent? To the judge who’s about to sentence him to the electric chair?

If you get the narrative device right, the story will tell itself. The narrative device also must work on-theme.

Think in blocks of time

If you think about the end goal, you might be paralyzed with overwhelm. But if you think in terms of time-based milestones – a draft in 6 months, an outline in 2 weeks, a chapter in 1 month, etc. – you will be better prepared to start making progress.

Think in multiple drafts

Most writers do 10-15 drafts of each book. You can use this to set the right expectations, but also to not feel too shitty about yourself if Draft #4 or #5 still kind of sucks. You still have more drafts to go to make the book resonate.

Writing a memoir

Imagine you’re writing a story about your grandma’s life. What does your grandma’s life mean? Make it about something big, like the human toll of a grand, visionary, national dream.

  • Distill “big theme, widely resonating” theme into something specific (e.g., go deeper than the American Dream. “The toll of the American dream on the individual and the family”
  • Let the hero embody the theme. Your grandma’s story should convey the theme.
  • Identify the climax, which does not have to be chronological.

The wrong way to structure a self help book:

  1. Introduce the thesis (first three chapters).
  2. Cite examples supporting the thesis (next hundred chapters.)
  3. Recap and sum up what you’ve presented so far (last five chapters.)

Authority is critical in self-help

Authority is critical in self-help because as the author, you’re prescribing something – a new mindset, a course of action, etc.. You’re pleading with the reader to change his life based on our prescription.

How do you establish authority? There are multiple ways.

  • Have an existing reputation.
  • Extensive academic research.
  • Professional or academic credentials.
  • Have record of sales or successes.
  • Via blog, podcast, or other social channels.
  • Quality and integrity of your voice itself (hardest way).

The end

Make your end about something big and epic for the reader. That’s the payoff of reading the book. Example from The War of Art, “Ms. Writer, your role in this timeless, epic struggle is noble, valorous, and necessary. Heed the calling of your heart, Stand and go forth.”

Concept in The War of Art

“Forget Time Management and Motivational Pep Talks and tips about How to Aim High, Persevere, and Succeed. Instead let’s dig beneath everything and state straight-out what all of us know but have never dared say.”

Narrative device in the War of Art:

  1. The character has to talk straight.
  2. He had to be as tough with the reader as I am with myself.
  3. He had to establish authority via his own experience as a writer. This experience had to include enough success to be credible and enough failure to be relatable.
  4. The character had to speak to the reader peer to peer. I wanted to talk as if I were addressing myself, both because I wanted to respect the reader and because I believed that this tone was the one the reader would respect.
  5. Toward the end, the character would offer no tips or exercises. The issue, I believed, was too important to trivialize.
  6. The character had to be totally candid, particularly about his own weaknesses and failures. Not so as to be “likeable,” but to encourage the equally-fallible reader and to make him or her feel that they are not alone in their struggle.
  7. The character had to truly and passionately believe in the worthiness of the artist’s calling – that of all artists and creative types – and believe with equal conviction in the supreme value of art itself.

Write your white whale

If you have lots of ideas, start with your white whale. Here’s how how you know – you’re scared to death of it. The book should take a reader’s understanding of life a little bit deeper. Everything must advance the story and be on-theme. If it’s not, cut it.

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