Storytelling Tools

Rule one: If you aren’t entertaining your readers, you’re doing it wrong.
Rule two: There are no rules, only tools.

I recently recommended a few books to another author… okay, I dumped them in his hands, and when he stared at the size of the to-read stack, I said, “You don’t have to read them all at once, but these will help you with some craft tools to use.”

And that’s the thing. There is no one right way to write a novel, no one perfect novel for every man, woman, and child out there. Any time you read any how-to book on the craft of entertaining, the point isn’t to learn The One Right Way, it’s to peek into that writer’s toolbox, and see if there are any nifty tools that you can got out and acquire for yourself.

(This isn’t confined to writers. When aircraft mechanics get together and swap tales, there’s often a show and tell of unique tools that get That One Job done. And sometimes when you get hit with That One Job several years later, it saves a ton of skull sweat, frustration, and billable time to go “If I just weld this to that, then I can…” or “Hey, Snap-On has that left-handed offset ratcheting…”. Someday, I’ll tell you about borrowing a big pocking wrench from a DC-3 mechanic that was capable of removing a cotter-pinned nut on a Cessna 185 when the cotter pin had decided to break off and rust in place. It includes visuals worthy of Steampunkery at its finest… but it worked! Full details require ethanol and absence of official recording, and are far more embarrassing and hilarious.)

That said, here’s 22 tools that were tweeted out by a then-Pixar story artist about 6 years ago. Emma Coats tweeted these one day, and it was a nice, handy list that’s disappearing off people’s radars with the passage of Internet Attention Spans. I’m sticking it here for folks who’ve never seen it before, those who forgot it existed, and as a reminder for the rest of us.

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
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 very 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 ___. And ever since that day, ___. *
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
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.
10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
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.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

*This one comes from Brian McDonald, who got it from improv actors – in the tweeted list, Emma left off the last part. More here.


  1. Machinists do the same thing – I’ve enjoyed listening in to ours talk about how he machined tools to help machine the needed parts

    And just last week I leave through a nice, big Wera catalog. Now I need to find a Knipex catalog – and someday get a Knipex pliers wrench.

    Tools vs rules also applies to other areas such as software development – a good developer will choose an appropriate tool (or learn a new one or sometimes create a new one) from his toolbox of knowledge, instead of trying to apply a trendy method as a universal hammer

    1. BTW some authors stand out as examples for specific areas. Wodehouse’s style and word choice are amusing. OTOH thinking about two mediocre stylists – Tolkien works because of his world and genre (prose epic), Arthur Ransom’s matter of fact style works well enough for Swallows and Amazon’s. (I’m having fun imagining both works as written by Warehouse)

  2. Nice list, thanks! Anything that helps us improve is good! 🙂 And congrats to Peter for ‘getting back on the horse’, so to speak. 🙂

  3. OK, I confess to having had deities intervene to get a character out of a pickle. On the other hand, it was telegraphed well in advance, and it fit the story. If I tried that anywhere else? I’d be hearing the sound of e-books slamming into walls. (“Oh, we need the McGuffin? You know I found this box back in chapter one but didn’t mention it to anyone before now, even though it needs a trailer to move it. I wonder if it is the McGuffin? Let’s open it and find out!” Yeah, I have not read anything by that person since, and I think I know why they disappeared from the shelves 20+ years ago.)

    1. Well yeah, but you also set up that the deities were present, powerful, and active. So it wasn’t a complete Deus Ex Machina, in the traditional sense. (Although, how present and powerful did the Greeks think their deities were? Would they have been far more okay with the original Deus Ex Machina than we, in our scornful age, are?

      1. That would be interesting to know. On the other hand, the Greek Gods were also some of the biggest jerks out there.

        1. The “Kindly Ones” and the Fates seem to have been more feared than the Olympian gods. They are also possibly older, going very far back into Indo-European beliefs.

          You didn’t want to get on the gods’ bad side, but the Fates and the Furies were a whole ‘nother level of trouble.

          1. Then there were the “Good Folks” who were called that so to not annoy them. 😉

      2. In one of Euripides’s plays, characters are escaping, and an unfavorable wind is holding them back, enabling recapture, so Athena appears to order the pursuit to stop.

        He introduced the wind for no other reason than to give Athena a reason to appear.

  4. I really like #9 – figuring out what wouldn’t happen next. I never thought of approaching a problem that way. I’ll throw it in with my tools of taking a shower or going for a walk.

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