Other People’s Rules of Storytelling

Each year I try to read at least one new book on craft. It could be on writing novels, or a screenwriting book, so long as it talks about story. Some good ones have been: Save the Cat (Blake Snyder—screenwriting), The Art of Fiction (John Gardner—literary fiction), The First Five Pages (Noah Lukeman—commercial fiction), and How to Write a Damn Good Novel (James N. Frey— commercial fiction).

I have two dozen more craft books on my shelf. They all have similar content. Some have new tricks or ideas, but mostly they’ve become wonderful reminders of the key elements of storytelling. I find that the best time to read them is after my first draft is complete. The books give you a great roadmap for the rewrite because you can turn to a section, say on setting, and run through the pointers from the book: ‘Did I engage all the senses?’ or ‘is my setting important to the book? Is it a character? How can I make it better?’

You’ll see that, when it comes to story, I use screenwriting and novel writing interchangeably. They are different media. But the rules of storytelling are the same.

Writing tips also abound on the Internet. Emma Coates, formerly of Pixar, tweeted her 22 rules of storytelling and Pixar aggregated them here.

Some of these are more screenwriterly, but I particularly like #s 3, 8, and 17.

#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.

#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.

#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.

I think we unconsciously have a sense of how to tell a story. It might not come out perfectly at first, but we have a strong sense of what’s working by the end. Writing really does require a lot of rewriting and that’s where these craft books can come in handy. Don’t be afraid to let your instincts carry you in the first draft, then come back and use the books on craft as a guide and a way of triggering new ideas to make your next draft stronger.

Get that first draft out. (Sometimes easier said than done!)

Another great tip is embedded in this clip.

Here the creators of South Park talk about the importance of evaluating plot using a very simple strategy: After each plot point they ask themselves what ‘words’ connect the current scene to the one that comes after. Is it ‘And then?’ because that isn’t good storytelling. They think it should be ‘Therefore’ or ‘But’.

So, for example, if you’re explaining your story to someone and saying ‘this happened and then this happened and then this happened.’ Then you’re in trouble. You should be able to tell the story as, ‘this happened and therefore this should have happened, but this happened instead and therefore …’ You get the idea. The relationships between scenes are causal or a reversal (a surprise twist). The action drives more action and reaction.

I’ve used this technique in writing a synopsis of my book and it’s helped highlight scenes which needed to be rewritten.

I’m a big believer in the adage that good writers are great rewriters.

Categories:   Writing Tips