steering the craft

The obstacle is the storytelling

conflict second acts Aug 04, 2022

In the mood for a little Stoic wisdom? Check out this quote from Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor, a philosopher, and in this case, a source of some spot-on advice about storytelling:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Isn’t that great? Of course, Marcus Aurelius was talking about real life, which he rightly observed was full of obstacles. 

We often think of obstacles as misfortunes, setbacks, or strokes of bad luck. Not our normal condition, but a rough patch we have to get through so we can resume the smooth sailing that we think of as our due. 

Marcus Aurelius asserts that's not so. The obstacle is the way. There is no other. 

Which brings us to the topic of story structure. Yes, there are three acts, and stages of the hero’s journey, and character archetypes, and arcs of transformation—all of these are incredibly useful and practical ideas that...

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Big wants, little wants


What does your hero want?

This is the core question of storytelling, but writers don’t always find it easy to answer. 

What do any of us want? To be happy, or happier. To love and be loved. To achieve some particular goal that has meaning to us. (Whether this goal is an admirable one depends a bit on the person wanting, of course!)

Put it all together and we all basically seek to live a life that feels like it matters, to avoid suffering and to experience contentment, achievement, and connection along the way. 

So: If we all want some version of same things, what is it that makes our hero’s wants story-worthy? How do we use these wants to shape our plot, not only on a book-length level, but scene by scene?

What I want today is to talk about wants as they pertain to your storytelling! There are big wants and little wants, and they are (or should be) pulsing on every page you write. 

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The pattern interrupt (and the myth of “flow”)

pace tension Jul 27, 2022

Many of us don't like to be interrupted. And yet, all of us are guilty of interrupting others on occasion. Some people consider interruptions to be profoundly rude, an act of not-listening. Others consider it a normal part of boisterous, engaged conversation. “We finish each other’s sentences” is how we might describe someone with whom we feel especially attuned.  

So is interrupting good, or bad? More importantly, what does it have to do with writing?

The concept of the “pattern interrupt” is well studied in the field of communication. Briefly put, when we shake up people’s expectations by doing something unexpected, we get their attention. And we also make them more open to new experiences. Once one pattern is broken, all the rest become more negotiable, too.

Yet I cannot tell you how many times writers talk to me about seeking “flow” in their writing. They want the language to “flow.” They...

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They stole my idea!

originality Jul 14, 2022

I was looking back over the seventy-plus livestreams I've done over the last two years.

(That’s more than seventy hours of free training, storytellers! If you’re not subscribed to the YouTube channel, please do that by clicking here.)

Can you guess what the most-viewed topic is? 

It’s this: Have All the Good Stories Already Been Written?

I was surprised too, but I guess shouldn’t be. The scary subject of originality comes up again and again for writers.

Why does it always seem to happen that when we start working on a great idea for a story, all of a sudden we discover ten other books about to come out on the same subject? 

For many writers this can be deflating. It was OUR idea, after all! It’s not like we stole it. 

But it’s not like those other writers stole it, either. 

So how should we think about the inevitable discovery that we may not be walking on untrodden ground with our subject matter? Should we...

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The truth about head-hopping

narrator point of view Jul 07, 2022

Writing in the third person raises complicated feelings in some writers! There are just so many possibilities.

Some writers cling to the side of the pool and write in third while sticking closely to a single viewpoint character. They toggle in and out of that character’s head, and that’s as far as they’re willing to go. 

This is called writing in close third (also sometimes called limited third). It’s a good and necessary thing to know how to do, but if that’s all there is on the page, it’s sometimes a sign of that a writer lacks either the craft or nerve to venture into the deeper expressive waters of third person POV. 

And then there are the daredevils! Into the deep end of third person they dive. Every character is a viewpoint character! With “omniscient!” as their battle cry, they zip freely from the inside of one character’s head to the inside of another. In between, they offer all kinds...

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Raise those stakes

stakes Jun 22, 2022

“High stakes” is one of those phrases that gets flung at writers a lot. 

We know our stories are supposed to have them.  “Life and death” is the go-to metric for the kind of stakes that seem the highest. But how do we lift our stakes to this level if we’re not writing the kind of story in which murder or fatal disease figure anywhere in the plot?

Must we always strive for life and death stakes, even when it feels forced?

And, conversely, are there stakes we can aim for that rise even higher than life and death?

High stakes are how we keep our hero actively striving against obstacles, and how we keep our readers turning pages, too. 

How do the stakes in our storytelling measure up? And how can we turn up the heat, if needed? That's the topic of today’s talk. 

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Ten things to ask yourself—about you


We have a little saying in the Path of the Storyteller community: Know your tendencies!

I'm not the first person to advise this, of course. Socrates memorably advised his followers to “know thyself,” and probably some of them weren’t even writers!

But you and I are writers. And, In the pursuit of being ever better at what we do I'd say we have a particular responsibility to be curious observers of ourselves, in ways both mundane and deep: our work habits, our sensory life, our favorite phrases (kill your darlings!), our blind spots, our noble excuses, our enduring themes. 

Writers live for feedback, but If we don't take the time to know ourselves, who else will? In this livestream I run down a list of the top ten ways writers must know themselves. These are questions only you can answer! Can you guess what they are? Listen in and find out.

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The cure for sick writing

writing craft Jun 08, 2022

Do your characters sigh a lot?

Do they roll their eyes? Catch their breath?

Do their hearts race and their stomachs tighten?

Do chills and goosebumps frequently arise on their tingling skin? 

Do they gaze, smile, and smile some more? Do they smile while gazing? Smile while gazing and feeling tingles and racing hearts, during which they can barely breathe?

My dear storyteller, you are not alone! 

Who else does this? So. Many. Writers. It’s practically a rite of passage for writers to start out their illustrious careers by generating prose that is jam-packed with this kind of stuff.

I call it symptomatic writing. In real life we’d head off to the urgent care to find out what’s wrong. In fiction, our well-intentioned efforts to put emotion on the page can too easily result in all this clichéd physical expression, which quickly becomes tedious (even to us).

What’s worse: A bad case of symptomatic writing deprives our readers of...

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Who’s telling this story, anyway?

narrator point of view Jun 02, 2022

The question of where we writers end and our writing begins has been coming up a lot, lately. 

I talked about it a bit last week when discussing why our heroes might tend to be passive as we learn how to cut that fictional umbilical cord between the observing, interpretive stance of the writer and the active, transforming role of the fictional hero we’re writing about.

Another great question recently came in from a member of the Path of the Storyteller community, who wonders whether the narrator of our books is, fundamentally, us?

Today I’d like to talk about this fascinating and somewhat metaphysical topic: Who is the narrator of our books?

Is it us? Is it some nameless entity we invent? Does this entity always lurk there beneath whatever mask we place over it (a first person narrator, perhaps, or an intrusive narrator?), or is it a unique and temporary construction that we erect for each book? 

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Is your hero a couch potato?

passive hero May 26, 2022

Have you ever been told your protagonist is too “passive?” If so, please know that you’re not alone. The passive hero problem is one that many (and I mean, MANY) writers have to work their way through. 

What do I mean by passive? 

  • Your hero tends to spend pages ruminating about things from the past (“but I need the backstory!”)
  • Your hero tends to spend pages observing and interpreting what’s going on around them (“but she’s the viewpoint character!”)
  • One or more secondary or sidekick-type characters seem to have all the best lines and best ideas about what should happen next (“maybe I should make her the hero?”)
  • If asked what your hero wants in a particular scene, the best you can come up with is “to be left alone” (“but she’s anxious/shy/sad, that’s her flaw! Isn't she supposed to have a flaw?")
  • When confronted by problems, your hero suffers but does not spring...
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