Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Storytelling tips

Illustration by Tom Lovell, 1941
If you're interested in telling stories, you'll love these lists of tips:

The first list comes from storyteller Joel Ben Izzy, a contributor to the podcast Snap Judgment. Like Moth Radio, This American Life, and StoryCorps, Snap Judgment is one of the best sources for stories told out loud.

1) Have a clear conflict
In its most basic form, a story is about someone who wants something, and either gets it or does not. That character's desire brings out the conflict that moves a story forward. The appearance of the conflict is the beginning, the resolution is its ending.
2) Keep it simple
You can always elaborate by adding details and nuance to a simple story. It is much harder - and less satisfying - to simplify a complicated story. To make a long story short is to ruin it. Find the simplest version of your tale and build on that.
3) Take your time when you tell the story 
Beginning storytellers often worry about their audiences getting bored and sometimes try to avoid this by speeding up their telling. Unfortunately, this has just the opposite of the desired effect. Take your time in telling the story, let it breathe, and your audience will appreciate it.
4) Remember the sensory details in your story…
Your words are making a world real, and to do so you need to bring in all elements of that world - sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings. These are what root your listener in the world of the story you are telling.
5) …but don't get lost in extraneous details
…because extraneous details can make a story boring. The problematic details tend to be expository, giving information that is unnecessary at the time. Give your listeners information on a “need to know” basis, providing just enough to understand what happens next.
6) Every story is a mystery
A well told story is one where you can stop at any point and have the reader wonder “….and then what happened?” Each time a piece of the mystery is solved, another one appears, and that's what keeps us listening until we reach the ending. If you find yourself lecturing, step back and find the mystery.
7) Know the ending of your story
Know your ending line. And after you say it, stop.
More about storyteller Joel Ben Izzy at his website. 
The second group is from Pixar's story artist Emma Coates. I made a few slight edits for clarity.
#1: You admire a character more for trying than for succeeding.

#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 until you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. OR: Establish norm. Upset norm. Complicate & Escalate. Climax. Resolution.

#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 first 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 do 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.
Via Pixar Touch. Also, check out the book: The Pixar Touch


Unknown said...

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T. Arispe said...

These are some wonderful storytelling tips. I really appreciate you posting them; it was a great thought exercise to apply them to my own writing and check in on how I'm doing.

Anonymous said...

#23 Always have a chase scene towards the end.

Tom Hart said...

There's something I'm not getting about the way Izzy's point #2 is explained. Taking each of those sentences individually, I get the individual points. But some of the thoughts in that paragraph seem to contradict one another. Especially the sentence, "To make a long story short is to ruin it." It seems out of place. It's probably just me, but...

James Gurney said...

Tom, I see your point. What I understood Izzy to mean is that a story has to be as compact as possible, with no extraneous detail, but then the second act should have one interesting obstacle after another. That's the fun, entertaining detail that you've set up for in Act 1. To skip over that by 'making a long story short' robs the reader of all the fun.

Janet Oliver said...

My favorite is Pixar's #4. It reminds me of Dan Harmon's Story Structure 101, which he based on Joseph Campbell's idea of the hero's journey.

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we'd naturally do.

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Here we go, down and dirty:

. A character is in a zone of comfort,
. But they want something.
. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
. Adapt to it,
. Get what they wanted,
. Pay a heavy price for it,
. Then return to their familiar situation,
. Having changed.

Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it's hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

Harmon goes into more detail here: http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_104:_The_Juicy_Details

His language may not be suitable for everyone, so content alert.

Augie Pagan said...

Great post. If you want more insight into some of the Pixar story list, writer Brian McDonald has done lectures there in the past. His book Invisible Ink is an amazing read that will break down story in a very unique way. Check out his blog when you get a chance. http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/

David Glenn said...

Thanks Mr. Gurney. These tips will help me with my writing.

K_tigress said...

Love these types of tips. Saving for later. :)

Jim Martin said...

I just love your blog! It's one of my favorites! Thank you and please keep it up!