Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 2

This is the conclusion of last week’s post on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling. If you want to refresh yourself on the first 11, click here. Otherwise, read on.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth. Get the obvious out of your way. Surprise yourself.

I’m not certain I completely agree with this, unless it refers to the revision process. I don’t know that the first thing that comes to mind is the obvious or that the obvious is unacceptable. I do agree with “Surprise yourself.” If you let yourself be surprised by your writing, you could get something magical.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive and malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poisonous to the audience.

Think back to the seemingly most passive character you’ve ever read. Jane Eyre, for example. A mousy, repressed, prim young woman who molded herself into compliance at the horrid school where her aunt sent her, we find she has definite opinions about Rochester and her life at Thornfield. Or Miss Marple. She always seems to sit placidly by while murder happens all around her, but when she lays out the evidence and fingers the murderer, she is almost vicious in her opinions about the suspects. Giving your characters opinions gives them depth, makes them real, because we’re all human. We have opinions. Just ask my friends.

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.

I know the feeling of having something eat at you until you write it down. Sometimes the why isn’t clear until you write the story; then, it all becomes apparent. That’s a great feeling. At a recent panel on creativity, I mentioned how these two characters who are spies tapped me on the shoulder and told me to write about them. My stories about them feed off my sense of social justice, and that’s why I write them.

15. If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

This isn’t the same as being in your character’s head. This is you, dropped in the middle of your story, but chances are the way you react is the way your character will react. The reader will believe that.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Let’s face it, a story would be pretty dull unless the character had obstacles to overcome. We don’t ease through life, so why should our characters? Besides, stacking the odds against them is rather fun. And who says a character always has to succeed? That’s the one issue I had with Miss Marple–didn’t she ever make a mistake?

17. No work is wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later.

It seems I let go and move on a lot, but it does usually come back around to be useful. It’s more than just saving every version of your story or novel. It’s being able to know when something’s not working. For me, it’s staring at the computer screen, unable to compose or revise. If I belabor it, it only becomes worse. Time to move on, but I know it’s waiting for me when I know the time is right.

18. You have to know yourself. The difference between doing your best and fussing over the story is testing, not refining.

“Fussing over the story” is an interesting concept, and it is a fine line between useful refinement and second-guessing every word. I’m definitely guilty of the latter, but as I’ve come to know myself as a writer, I’ve learned to recognize which side of the line I’m on.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

I’m sure you’ve been in the middle of a suspenseful story, the proverbial runaway wagon full of women and children headed for the cliff, and the writer doesn’t resolve it in a challenging way. Think of that season of the original TV show Dallas where Bobby Ewing was dead the entire season, but we find at the beginning of the next season it was all a dream. I know I felt cheated.

20. Exercise: Take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you do like?

That would certainly be a tremendous exercise in creativity. Consider how many movies you’ve left thinking that you’d wasted your money. Now, think about how you’d rewrite them. I know I wish–and I suspect Disney does too–someone would have rearranged the building blocks of John Carter.

21. You gotta identify with your situation characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

This is a corollary, I think, to number 15 above. If you have a character do something, you have to think about what would have to happen to make you do the same thing. Otherwise, the character has no depth, and the reader won’t be interested. When I had a character cross a moral line in a story, I did wonder what I would do if faced with the same situation. The result was no coincidence.

22. What’s the essence of your story, the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

At a recent workshop I attended on creating a world in a short story, the instructor described how a writer he knew one time just wrote the dialogue for a story, no exposition, no character descriptions, just dialogue. That was the economical telling of it, and he went back and added exposition and description–only where it was needed. Maybe the essence of your story is a list of character traits, maybe a location. Whatever it is, recognize it as the infrastructure of a really great story.

So, there you have them. Twenty-two rules to make your writing phenomenal–and without going to work for Pixar. How will you incorporate them in your writing?

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Later this week, look for a post about the very first Press53 “Gathering of Writers,” a one-day intensive workshop in Winston-Salem, NC.

I live for your constructive comments.

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