storytelling rules

The Rules of Storytelling

What makes a good story and how does the writer know if his or her novel has what it takes? To help answer those questions, world-class authors have offered their dos, don’t and maybes.

Mark Twain

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a suffi­cient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel in the end of it.
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reason­able.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the per­sonages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in a tale should be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emer­gency.

Elmore Leonard

  1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
  5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10—If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Pixar’s storyboard artist Emma Coats 22 Tips on Storytelling

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on—it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Robert McKee’s Ten Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not take the crisis/climax out of the protagonist’s hands. The anti-deus ex machina commandment.
  2. Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. Nothing progresses in a story except through conflict.
  3. Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition’s sake. Dramatize it. Convert exposition to ammunition.
  4. Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise.
  5. Thou shalt respect your audience. The anti-hack commandment.
  6. Thou shalt know your world as God knows this one. The pro-research commandment.
  7. Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better. Don’t multiply the complications on one level. Use all three: Intra-personal, Inter-personal, Extra-personal.
  8. Thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters to the farthest reaches and depth of conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of probability.
  9. Thou shalt not write on the nose. Put a subtext under every text.
  10. Thou shalt rewrite.

Gavin McMahon

  1. Be relevant. Keep in mind what’s interesting to an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer.
  2. Provide structure to your story. Once upon a time…
  3. Find your passion. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?
  4. Know when to edit. Have the guts to cut. If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
  5. Be yourself. I find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, when I sound like what I am.

Diana Athill

  1. Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).
  2. Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.
  3. You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings—those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page—but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect—it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Roddy Doyle

  1. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
  2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph.
  3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety—it’s the job.
  4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
  5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies—unless it’s research.
  6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
  7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
  8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
  9. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.
  10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog—”He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Brian Garfield

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you start out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.

Read More

Part I, Writing Rules
Part II, Rules for Writers

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist