- A story begins with somebody who wants something. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that. We start off wanting to write about a girl and her horse, but what does the girl want? A really famous writer once said, everyone needs to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. It’s really good to have a character who wants something in opposition to what another character wants. Because…
- You need obstacles that the main character can overcome. The girl starts off wanting a horse, but you have to give her obstacles to getting that horse. An obstacle should lead to other obstacles.
- Details are really important in story. You create a scene that the reader can see or the listener can be part of. The right amount of detail draws your reader into the story. Too much and you will lose their attention. Too little, and they won’t be able to picture what’s going on.
- Stories have repetition. The first time you mention something, it’s just a detail. The second time you realize there must be a reason it’s coming up. And the third time, you bring it in to show its significance.
- An Ending. At the ending, the character either will or will not achieve their objective. It ties up the story threads and lets the reader know they’re done.
As a storyteller, you have to do certain things for the listener and reader, because people have an intuitive need for things to happen a certain way.
These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar's story artist. Number nine 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. 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 until 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 opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7 . Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. 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 first thing that comes to mind—and the second, third, fourth and fifth. 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 and 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 do you rearrange them into what you do like?
21. You must identify with your situation and/or characters; you can't just write "cool." What would make you act that way?
22. What's the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Mark Jay Harris
Mark lives in Smithfield, Utah with his wife and 5 children.