Tag: story

Pixar #Storytelling Tips – and my favorites

Via Pixar storyboard artist, Emma Coats. I picked my top five seven to include here on Unleaded. But you should check out the full list  here: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5916970/the-22-rules-of-storytelling-according-to-pixar


#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 v. 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 ___.

(Note from Day: I really like this fun little “blank” exercise above. It just lets you play and at the same time offers a very basic throughline for a story. How fun is that?!)

#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.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.


Also the image below is Pixar Star Wars. Although not related to the “22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar” I couldn’t resist.


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Video Saturday – Robert McKee’s 10 Problems to Avoid with Dialogue

I have Robert McKee’s “Story.”  Actually, to be honest, I used to have it.  I loaned it out and it was never returned.  That would be my second copy.  🙁

Robert McKee, is a creative writing instructor who is widely known for his influential “Story Seminar” and his book “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” which is sometimes thought of as the “screenwriters bible.”  It’s a great if THICK and analytical tome.  As described in Wikipedia (the font of all Internet knowledge…when you’re in a hurry), it describes the book thusly: “Rather than simply handling “mechanical” aspects of fiction technique such as plot or dialogue taken individually, McKee examines the narrative structure of a work and what makes the story compelling or not. This works equally as well as an analysis of other genres or forms of narrative, whether as a screenplay, or short story, or novel, or even non-fiction as long as they attempt to “tell a story”.”

For those of you who may be skeptical, McKee’s former students include 36 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 19 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 16 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners.

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Submitting your Writing – Paying Markets Only?

I was recently in a discussion with a colleague about where to submit my short stories. I’ve had a few sales but am still very much the “shiny new writer.” Her suggestion was to publish wherever, get my name out there, and my work seen. Then I become more of a known quantity and at least for some collections and editors, have a greater chance for that  “extra second” in the reviewing process or potentially, an invitation to submit somewhere.

Less than a week later, I ended up in a similar discussion with a colleague from my writing group. Her response was – Absolutely not! Send your work to paying markets.  It doesn’t matter if your story is a perfect fit for this anthology’s theme or what they’re looking for; you should be looking for paying markets only.  If one doesn’t take it, keep sending it out.  Better to take time and receive rejections until it finally sells rather than “throw it away” on a non-paying market.

Now I’m somewhere in the middle of this argument.  Some of you may have read my post about using a Submission Matrix to determine where I send my writing to (although that mechanism doesn’t work particularly well with the rising number of anthologies – paid, unpaid, and “prestige” currently out there).  It’s a combination of looking at pay scales and publication reputation (based on awards such as Hugo or Nebula winners) to prioritize where I submit to.  Although I will say I am occassionally tempted by some themed anthologies, even if they are no-pay because the subject or issue interests me.  That’s where it becomes difficult for me to determine whether or not to follow through on submitting to that market.

So, when it doubt, I sought the advice of the internet and Harlan Ellison answered my question.  Albeit rather vehemently.  🙂  He says, writers should be paid and agreeing to work for nothing is amateurish and destructive for writers as a whole.  It isn’t just about money, but about respect for the work, and recognition that writing IS work.  I have to admit, I found his argument relatively persuasive.

What do you think?  Will you send you blood, sweat, and written work to non-paying markets?  Why?  Does this really benefit the “new” writer?  I’m curious to hear from other people.

Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy Kills Girl’s Parents or Complexity in Stories

Note from Day:  The post below is actually a reprint/repost (with permission) from the site of author and editor Robb Grindstaff.  His post about “Complexity” is a great  follow-up to some of the discussion this week on Unleaded – Fuel for Witers about novels and short stories.  Other than length, one of the differences between a short story and a novel, generally speaking, is that a novel gives the write more place for increased depth and complexity.  (And right now I can imagine all the comments that’ll be posted highlighting complex short stories, but as I said, GENERALLY SPEAKING, that’s a major diffrence).  So, how does one add that complexity?  How do you add those additional layers to a story to move it to a novel? 

From Robb Grindstaff, Book Editor:


First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex Robb Grindstaff Headshotand just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge [either here or at RobbGrindstaff.com] . The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me). And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’ Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well.

Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot. Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.  Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past)…The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women. So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer. To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share. This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life. The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story? Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time. I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

– The Group protagonist

– Two or more timeframes

– The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

– The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction. I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.


Another Note from Day:  You can comment below or on Robb’s original post.  Make sure you check out his website and blog.  Thanks for sharing!



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Edgy Writing or Glorified Pornography? (Kij Johnson’s “Spar”)

spaceships and vortex by Jonathan BetancurA while ago there was a bit of a brouhaha about a story that came out in ClarkesWorld magazine (2010 Hugo Winner for Best Semiprozine). The story is “Spar” by Kij Johnson.   WARNING: The story is exceedingly explicit.  And while my example is specific, the issues it brings up aren’t new. 

At what point does using profanity or sex or violence cease to enhance a story and becomes merely a “shock tactic?”  Does that line differ for sex versus violence?  How about genre, does that impact acceptability?   When is something an actual story and when is it just author gamesmanship?  How do we know when something is edgy or just crass?  This story is just one example but I found myself thinking about my own personal convictions and how I defined “story.” 

In summary, a woman is trapped in a lifeboat with an alien and they have sex for a few thousand words. And action-wise, that is about all that happens in the tale. It has coarse language, harsh imagery and potentially some interesting/offensive themes – depending on your perspective. I can’t say I’ve completely made my mind up. You can get a feel for the narrative from the very first sentence: “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.”

Let me give a few quotes from responses to the story:

“Oh My God! That crap won a 2009 Nebula? It’s virtually pornography with a little SF thrown on for icing. It’s barely concealed bestiality (actually, I believe the definition would be miscegenation, but there’s little indication the thing she’s screwing is even sentient so bestiality might be appropriate).  There’s hardly even a story in there anywhere that I could see.”

“This strikes me as literary exhibitionism. I don’t like the regular kind, why would I like this?”

” It’s stupid. I don’t get it. It is vulgar fo the sake of being vulgar. Sexual for the sake of being profane. Perhaps, PERHAPS it can be seen as edgy and unique but to be nominated for a dang Hugo??? Drivel.”

And on the other side:

“Personally, I found the story unique, provocative, and very well written (not a fan of the ending, but whatever.) I can easily see how, if you’re reading hundreds of submissions every month this story would stick out from all the rest.”

“The story does a great job of depicting how awful it is to have nothing but such horror to cling to like a broken spar with the captain’s body tied to it from a shipwreck…some people can distance themselves from the slime and snot to see it as a metaphor for being stuck in an abusive relationship or mired in grief.”

“My first impression of the entire story was that I thought it was quite creative, and so I understood why it won the Nebula award, but that I didn’t particularly like the story. I felt better about feeling that way after reading Kij say that she herself doesn’t like it at all. A fuller quote from her is: “This is a story I love without liking it at all … It’s a difficult story to read, and it’s hard to see past the graphic aspects to what the story is really about.””

And then, there are the in-betweens: 

“The story itself, while a nicley crafted piece of writing, just didn’t have enough ‘story’ for my tastes.  To me, it seemed more of a thought experiment than an actual story.  I kept waiting or something to happen, and then the piece ended.  The premise is utterly horrifying, and I think it would have been right at home over at PP.  I understand that the MC had been more or less stripped of personality, and nearly her mind, by her ordeal, but what was left wasn’t much of a character, awful as her situation was.  Gary was certainly the lucky one.  I might have been able to connect to the story better if it had started before the collision, but as it was, everything was pretty much done by the time we see the scenario.  So, a well written scene, but it just doesn’t hit me as a story.”

So, what is Kij Johnson REALLY trying to say?  What is she as a writer trying to do?  Thankfully, she doesn’t keep us guessing and you can find some of the behind-the-scenes from her interview in ClarkesWorld.  I have to admit, a small part of me would probably have rather enjoyed it not being explained but for those of you who HAVE to know, check out the link.  Also, there is some great discussion on the EscapePod Forums as people really try to come to grips with a “beautiful-ugly” story.

 My thoughts probably most closely echo Adam Calloway although he definitively calls it a “story” where I’m not so sure – “While the “story” part of it leaves me feeling filthy (not in a good way either), the language makes up for it (although that also makes me feel filthy). ”  It is vicious and visceral, leaving you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and imagery in your head that you might prefer to forget. 

So…is this a story?  And if it is, does it have any value?


To date, Spar is a 2009 Nebula Award Winner, 2010 Hugo Award Nominee, and 2010 Locus Award Finalist.

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Is Character Really King?

I found an old Associated Press Poll about how when it comes to Presidential candidates, character trumps policy for voters. It really isn’t about the issues or the promises. Why does that not surprise me?

Okay, cynicism aside, although this may sound like a strategy for campaign managers, it occured to me that this poll just highlights something that writers need to be aware of. Character should be the #1 item on our list when comes to things that make a successful piece of fiction.

Old Dutch King of Hearts Card

Old Dutch King of Hearts Card - Photo by Michiel2005

I started thinking about how a story is molded by the choices the protagonist (and sometimes antagonist) make. Star Wars would not be what it is without Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. The story is good, but we relate to the characters. The same for Bridget in Bridget Jones’ Diary and yes, even Harry Potter. Stories are interesting, but it is memorable characters that we, writers and readers both, will fall in love with and remember decades later.

It is an interesting almost contradiction if you think about it, particularly for those of you who, like me, are lovers of genre fiction. Genre fiction, perhaps more than any other, has been identified by how it has taken political, economic and social issues of our time and put them in a “safe” format for exploration. Off the top of my head, I can think of books like “The Invisible Man,” “Frankenstein” and the lovely distopias I loved reading as a child. But looking back, I remember more the characters, rather than than the book’s story arc.

No real conclusion, just some jumbled thoughts. What do you think? We all know character is important but does it really trump everything else?

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