The award for “Sassiest Writing Advice” has got to go to the great English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who once described the secret to writing good poetry as simply putting “the best words in the best order.”
I mean, LOL. If only it were that easy, right?
We fiction writers have a similar problem, though. We know our books need great stories to succeed.
We need to write tight, forward-leaning plots that engage the reader and make them demand that all their friends read what they just read so they can talk about “what happened.”
That’s the key. Poetry may rely on the words, but stories are about what happens, scene after scene after scene.
To paraphrase Coleridge, the secret of writing great stories is simply putting “the right scenes in the right order.”
No sass intended here. This is practical, learnable stuff. In fact, learning to structure good stories is an essential part...
Big confession today, storytellers! It’s ALL A LIE.
I’m talking about fiction of course.
By its very definition, fiction is a made-up story. It’s not pretending to be factually true, although it may contain many details that are, in fact true.
But fiction not history, not memoir, not journalism.
It’s a story, pure and simple.
I often say that storytelling is how we tell the truth about what it means to be human, but there is so much about good fiction that is nothing like real life! Some quick examples:
In real life, our days can be repetitive. People are creatures of habit and our day-to-day routines are fairly predictable.
When something happens that is way out of the ordinary it’s a big deal, and often quite shocking, either positively or negatively.
In real life, we don’t always have a clear sense of mission. We minimize or...
There’s a key question that can make or break your storytelling, and it’s this:
How does your main character react to pressure?
These four strategies are psychological patterns that describe how humans react to stress, pressure, or trauma.
You may have heard them described as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
And how is this relevant to writing fiction, you ask?
It’s story structure, my friends! A story depicts a central character with important, high stakes goal who encounters obstacles along the way. The struggle to achieve the goal despite opposition creates a journey of meaningful transformation.
Or, to put it simply:
How your main character reacts to pressure is literally the plot of your book.
For that reason alone, this subject is worth...
True fact: I rarely leave a restaurant without a box of leftovers tucked under my arm.
I’m not sorry about it, either. I never like to let food go to waste. Even if there’s only a little bit left, it’s enough to pop in an omelette, or throw on top of a pasta, right?
And isn’t that how many of us treat our writing, too?
We hate to cut stuff. We worked so hard on those bits! Surely there’s a place to use them. Into the refrigerator they go.
And if we’ve been working on something for a while—maybe it’s our first whack at a novel—we hate, hate, hate to admit that it might not be workable at all.
One more rewrite? Ten? We know we can save it!
“Waiter, bring me a box to put this messy draft of a novel in! I don’t want any of it to go to waste.”
Now listen, dear storyteller. I have news for you.
Most of our work is not our best work.
In fact, most of our actual writing labor will never see the light of day at...
You probably know that I started my storytelling career in the theatre. When I was about to graduate high school and was auditioning for college acting programs, my brother Tom gave me a fantastic gift: a copy of a book by Michael Shurtleff called Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.
I still have that book, forty-odd years later. Thanks, Tom!
And I still think about one of the central ideas I learned from it, which is this:
Every scene is a love scene.
Shurtleff breaks this idea down for actors. But what does it mean for writers?
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: Every scene is driven by desire. Something is wanted. Something is pursued. Even when it's not a romance scene, there is desire on the page.
And something, or someone, or even some fearful or ambivalent part of our hero’s inner landscape—stands in the way. If it weren’t so, the hero would already...
Anyone who’s read my Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books knows I like making up words.
The most popular invention in that series was “optoomuchism,” which is the tendency to take optimism much, much too far. Spending your Powerball winnings before actually checking to see if you have the winning ticket would be an example of optoomuchism.
Well, today, dear storytellers, I have a new word for you: prodraftinating.
It’s what happens when we use drafting as a means of procrastinating.
Now, before you get all flustered, know that I want you to be drafting your books! I want you to have fun doing it, too. Creative work is a form of play, and it should feel like that while you’re drafting.
But what I want you to consider is that scribbling pages of words without making actual choices about what happens is a red flag. It’s using that good “look at me, I’m drafting!”...
Storytelling is everywhere.
Yes, it’s in the books we write and read, the movies we watch, the TV shows we binge and even the jokes we tell—but it’s also in politics, history, science, education, you name it.
Story is how humans think and how we make sense of the world. It's how we connect the dots between data points and turn them into meaning. It’s how we form our identities, individually and as groups, cultures, and nations.
Story is powerful stuff. And if you want to see a super-compressed, super-effective morsel of storytelling in action, I give you three simple words:
Just do it.
This trademarked ad slogan from athletic shoe brand Nike dates back to the 1980s and remains instantly, globally recognizable.
Why is that so? And what can we writers of fiction learn from this concentrated bomb of story energy?
In this livestream I unpack the...
I hear from a lot of writers, as you can imagine. And when I ask what holds them back the most, nine times out of ten the answer is: story structure.
This is all very fixable, of course. But here’s something fascinating: When writers do begin a serious exploration of story structure, they may soon feel taken aback.
There’s so much technique involved. So many concepts! It starts to feel like a list of rules.
Their early attempts to learn and implement this new knowledge may not feel very creative at...
I am just loving working with the new cohort of Path of the Storyteller students! What a terrific group. In our early explorations we’re taking story beginnings apart in a step-by-step way.
Which brings us to today’s question: How—and when—does a story truly begin?
My answer? Long before page one. In fact, your storytelling begins before anything happens at all.
Just as a farmer must prepare the soil before the first seed is planted, your first job as a writer is to conceive of a central character in a circumstance that does not merely allow a story to begin, but demands it. The situation is unsustainable. Something has to change.
I call this the crack in the foundation.
Failure to conceive of a premise that rises from this core instability is going to cause problems all along the way. What looks like first act confusion,...
Our creative impulses sometimes arrive all at once, like a wave crashing on the shore.
It’s an exhilarating feeling when it happens. Like there’s a perfect, finished version of our book floating right there in front of us, just out of reach. All we have to do is write it down!
And then comes the writing it down part.
What can I say but LOL, my friends! Right away we discover that we are not, in fact, “writing it down,” but assembling it in the dark out of rough materials we have to create ourselves.
We are inventing, experimenting, discovering, designing, building, choosing. We are wringing it out thin air, drop by drop.
Half (or more) of what we do will prove to be a dead end, and so we'll try again, but differently.
And then we get to revise all of that!
Writing fiction is an incremental process. We don’t do it all in one go. We don’t “get it right” the first time.
And yet so many writers...