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Some Simple Advice for the Novice Storyteller

Part of my job these days–my actual job, for which I get paid–is being a writing coach. Obviously that’s most of the motivation for this site, too. And now that I’m finding some success as an indie writer, I even have fans contacting me to ask for tips on getting started as a storyteller.

I received one such question this morning on Facebook, and I answered him on the spot. If you want to get started writing, here’s the easiest way to do it:

  1. Start with a hero (your protagonist), then figure out something your hero really desperately wants. Make it absolutely clear to the reader that the hero would do anything to get this thing, then keep him from getting it until the end of the story.
  2. Give yourself a villain. It’s like giving yourself a Christmas present. Storytelling is so much easier with a definite antagonist. Put someone in the story who desperately wants to make sure the hero doesn’t get the goal you described in item 1. Introduce the antagonist often, and keep him in the story throughout.
  3. Write in simple past tense. Write in third-person, and stick close to a single character’s point of view for the whole story (third-person limited). Tell the story in order from start to finish, and tell each scene in order from start to finish.

Now…I’m not trying to provide the absolute definition of a “good story.” There are brilliant stories told in first-person present tense with reverse chronology, where the protagonist’s goal shifts from scene to scene, and the antagonist is a wide array of interchangeable villains but, deep down, the real antagonist is the hero himself. And, y’know, I made my fortune on a first-person narrative.

So these rules aren’t meant to reveal the right way to write a story. This is the easy way. Once you’re a master storyteller, you can experiment with variations, but following these rules lets you focus on the story. (Otherwise, you’ll get distracted with the telling.)

But if you commit to following these rules, then writing gets a lot easier. From a completely blank page, you dive right into describing the things in item 1 (introduce your protagonist, and introduce his goal), and as soon as possible you threaten him with the introduction of the antagonist. After that, the story should just roll from conflict to conflict until the protagonist finally gets what he wants.

Then you write “The End” on a line by itself, and you’re done. Voila! You’re a storyteller.

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