Storytelling Class notes by Carol Brennan King June 3, 2020

6 Rules for Great Storytelling

As if the corona virus was not enough to contend with, our nation was slammed with the murder of a black man by a white police man in Minnesota, an event that provoked nation-wide protests, looting and property damage. So we talked about it in class and listened as some of our classmates read the pieces they wrote in their own personal response to the very tough week. As writers, there may be many things we cannot do, but we can document our history and share it with others.

After this initial work, we went on to talk about 6 Rules for Great Storytelling borrowed in part from Pixar. See the URL below.

1.Great stories are universal
Great storytelling is about taking a piece of the human condition (things like birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict) and conveying it in a unique situation.
Acclaimed Pixar director Pete Docter puts it perfectly: “What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”

In other words, understanding yourself and how you respond to different situations is a key to great storytelling. When you integrate that self-knowledge into characters you are writing, your readers will see themselves as well. That makes for interesting writing, storytelling readers can relate to.

2.Great stories have a clear structure Part A (Structure) One of my favorite ways to develop a compelling story is to use “The Story Spine” formula created by professional playwright and improvisor Kenn Adams.


  1. Once upon a time there was
  2. Every day
  3. One day
  4. Because of that
  5. Because of that
  6. Until finally

We used the George Floyd story in class to illustrate this. George came to Minnesota for a better life.  Every day he went to work and was respected by the people who knew him. One day a policeman stopped him, made some wrong assumptions and finally killed him. The reactions to this caused a nation-wide conversation about how little the treatment of black citizenry has changed over four centuries.

You may well be using such a formula already. Remember the introduction with characters and setting that we talked about recently. Then there is a small conflict, and another one building the one that finally leads to the resolution of the story. Does this sound like anything we talked about just now? Still, some people find the above chart even more helpful.

and purpose Part B (Purpose)

Think about why you must you tell THIS story? What core belief or passion is pushing you and feeding the impulse to tell this story? What greater purpose does this serve? What values does it teach?

When you are writing a story that means something to you and that carries a message that could change the world for the better, even for one moment or even one small part of the world, you stories will have bigger impact on the world.

  1. Great stories have a character to root for (an underdog)
    Believe it or not, people want to root for your main character, and we all love a good underdog.
    When your character is battling against all odds, facing adversity, or their back is against the wall, you have yourself the makings of great story.
    We all enjoy a good “rags to riches” story, so give the people an unexpected hero to root for.

4. Great stories appeal to our deepest emotions. Psychologists generally agree that there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness,

sadness, and surprise.
If you ever watched the Pixar movie Inside Out, you’ll recognize these emotions as characters in the movie.

Consciously being able to recognize these various emotions in yourself —and think about the “why” is key to writing about them. Think about why you feel the way you do when you neighbor gets a new car, or loses a job. Think about how hearing a friend has a terminal illness makes you feel, especially if that illness is the result of poor health care.

Now, once you explore why you feeling that way, consider how you can use that scenario to inform your story. The exploration of your own emotional reactions is a worthwhile exercise in the development of authentic characters inhabiting authentic or believable stories.

  1. Great stories are surprising and unexpected.
    We’ve all seen the classic “fairy tale” story line which have happy ever after endings, endings we could have predicted about three pages in. These stories may still work for our children, but not for adults or even teenagers.

What makes modern stories compelling are when our perceptions of reality are challenged or changed in some way.

Readers are looking for those topics or themes that are surprising and unexpected, something new to think about long after the book is finished.
When you are looking for something new to write about, start making a list. As tempting as it is to jump into your first idea, a thousand others have had that same idea. So run down your list and don’t stop before you get to idea number 6. Don’t settle for what is easy or obvious.

I encourage writers to keep a notebook or a file of story ideas or newspaper clippings that could be the seeds for something new.. Browse through them. Put something real with something from your imagination. Give your main character a challenge that does not show up in the first chapter of a hundred other books lining the library bookshelves.
Challenge yourself to dig deep.

Great stories are simple and focused
We, as audiences, know a good story when we see or hear one. When we talked about this in class, we talked about “writing tight.” We have talked about avoiding adverbs and adjectives. The point is to use nouns and verbs that go beyond “The man moved toward the intersection.” Was he an old guy? Then he might have limped. He might have staggered. He might have hurried, skirting slower traffic.

Choose the most meaningful words to show your characters in action, not tell about them.

And simplify, simplify, simplify. If any line in your story, and phrase, any dialogue tag is not necessary to the outcome of the story, lose it. We are not laboring to write those 1000 word essays in high school where we worked so hard to get enough words.

Now the goal is to tell the story with just enough of the best words we can find to satisfy the reader that our story was worth his or her time and money.

See you next week with more of your nest writing, writing informed by this week’s class.

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