Tag Archives: storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful thing. Here’s what Thom Hartmann had to say a few years ago on his radio program:

It’s interesting. In preliterate societies, which is the majority of the history of the human race, we didn’t write things down. We told stories. Everything had a story. Every tree had a story. Every rock had a story. Every animal had a story. Every place had a story. Every family had a story. Story was how we transmitted culture and it was how we remembered things.

When I lived in Vermont—I believe it was the University of Vermont, one of the colleges there—I heard of the Abenakis, the Native American tribe there. They have stories of what happened 10,000 years ago, when the mountains of blue ice, the walls of blue ice, receded: what happened, where and when, the order in which it happened, and things like that. A bunch of geologists checked it out, and the memory was accurate. A 10,000 year-old accurate memory.

There are a number of anthropologists over the years who’ve pointed out how literacy has really been a curse in some ways, as much as a blessing, because when we started writing things down, we stopped telling stories. We stopped having these multi-generational stories. We stopped teaching our children. And it’s so important that there be some stories that transcend literacy, that transcend the written down, the “here, it’s in a book.” It’s so important that we teach our children stories.

Thom Hartmann
29 January 2009

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

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 very 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.