Five Rules of Great Storytelling

Words of wisdom today from Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, the animated movie people. With followup comments from yours truly.

1. Readers admire characters as much or more for trying and failing as for succeeding. This is a storytelling rule I’m using now in my new novel. Failure can often point us in the direction of our true gifts, in the “something better” we might have missed had we succeeded. The heart of the story is in the struggle toward the goal and in what your protagonist learns about himself, others and the world in the process.

2. Write what is interesting to the reader, not what is fun for you to write. I think Ms Coats is correct, up to a point. After all, what is the point of writing stories if readers aren’t interested in what you have to say— but I would hate to write thousands of words every day and not have the process be any fun. My storytelling rule is to choose something that interests you and figure out how to tell a story around it that will interest your readers, too.

3. Theme is often discovered during rewriting. I can’t remember where I first heard the term “discovery draft” but for me the first draft is exactly that. When I begin a novel, I have an idea of theme that I want to explore, but that theme often expands as I work. In writing EVERY PERFECT GIFT I thought I had figured out the theme, but my brilliant line editor saw another facet of theme that I had overlooked, one that added complexity to the story once I refined it during line edits.

4. It’s okay to use coincidence to get your characters into trouble, but using coincidence to get them out is cheating your readers. Much of our everyday lives are made up of coincidence. Standing in line at the movie theater, you run into a friend  you haven’t seen since high school. You discover that you and your next door neighbor share the same birthday. Either of these might turn into a way to make trouble for a character, but getting out of it should be accomplished through wit, courage and intelligence.

5. Look for the most economical way of  conveying the heart of your story. Ernest Hemingway was famously economical in his storytelling. In his day he was widely admired, though more recent critics have not been as kind. The  story of his being challenged  in a bar to write a complete story in six words is widely told. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a beautiful illustration of the power of economy in storytelling. Here is the six word story Hemingway supposedly  wrote:  For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

What do you think of Ms. Coats’ rules?  Have you applied them in your own work?