22 Rules of Storytelling According to Emma Coates

Emma Coates is a storyboard artist for Pixar. This is a list of storytelling rules and tips she has shared with the world via Twitter. Some of them may seem pretty obvious, but when you take the list as a whole, chances are you’re going to find ways to make your current creative project better.

Here we go!

#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 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 ___.

#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 d’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.

I think the one that I have to watch for more than any other (that’s not to diminish any of them) is #18. I can fuss over a stretch of prose indefinitely. One of the reasons I created Jer’s Novel Writer was to easily mark places where I felt the need to fuss, so I could fuss over them later, and get on with writing. The confidence that I can fuss later allows me to move on.

I also like #9, about making a list of what would not happen next.

I came across this list via a commercial email that credited io9 for collecting the tweets. io9 doesn’t credit anyone else for doing it, so we’ll give them a hearty thumbs-up for the actual labor required to make this list happen.


Jer’s Novel Writer 1.1.10 Released!

It’s a big milestone for me, getting back on track maintaining Jer’s Novel Writer. For those of you who are not familiar with it, JersNW is a word processor with features to help my scattered thoughts fall into some sort of coherent form. It’s based on three principles:

  1. When I get an idea, I want to be able to jot it down without losing my train of thought.
  2. I don’t want to have to remember stuff, and when I need to find something I wrote before I can look it up without getting caught up in the part of the story where it happened.
  3. When I’m stuck on a line or know it could be better, or need to check a fact, or need to track continuity, I can flag it and know I’ll be able to get back to it later.

There are features to help with the mechanics of writing as well (drag-and-drop chapters, flexible database, and so forth), but mainly I just want to keep my momentum when the creative juices are flowing and know that when nitty-gritty time comes I’ll find the places that need attention. Man that’s liberating.

If you’re interested, you can learn more at Jer’s Software Hut. Enjoy!

Oh yeah, it’s Mac-only.


Jer’s Software Hut Returns!

Deep below the Earth’s surface, in a steaming chamber somewhere between the Hayward and San Andreas faults, there is motion in the dancing shadows cast by the guttering torchlight. Dark, twisted creatures stir. They move slowly, their once-lean haunches soft from months of torpor. They shamble from their stony sleeping-nooks into the work chamber, and one by one they take their accustomed positions on the capstans. The great wheels resist at first, then start to turn with a shriek that slowly fades to a rumble.

From the throats of the horde comes a deep ululation punctuated by coarse barks, a sound that reverberates through the chamber until it has no source, merely presence. It is enough to weaken the knees of even the stoutest hero, a sound to chill the most stalwart heart.

The creatures are singing.

Though fearsome in sound, it is joy they express; the sublime joy of one who had no purpose being useful again. Far above them, in a peaceful neighborhood San Jose, those turning capstans once more power the forges and shrieking spark-throwing wheels of Jer’s Software Hut.

On the slab in the middle of the laboratory a figure stirs; what once was dead now breathes again.


Jer’s Software Hut Falls Silent

The shadowy, misshapen minions have all gone home; the vast underground chamber that once rang with their chants as they turned the giant wooden capstans has fallen silent. The river of lava flows unimpeded, the precarious rope bridges spanning it falling into disrepair. Above, the streets of Sky City Research Facility, once teeming with antigravity cars, are empty, the crystalline architecture acquiring a layer of eagle guano and dust that is transformed into gritty runoff when it rains.

The crudely-crafted Web site at jerssoftwarehut.com no longer accepts payment for Jer’s Novel Writer software licenses, and bears the following statement:

Well, it’s happened; I have a regular job. As I slave away working for the man I often wonder if things might have been different had I only worked harder at making Jer’s Software Hut a business rather than a hobby. Probably now we will never know. It was a good run but it’s time to ackowledge that development is stalled and customer service around here has been really awful.

That pretty much says it all; despite thousands of happy users, some of whom even paid for the software, when it came time to have a steady income again I took the safer path of working for someone else. (The ironic twist to this narrative I will leave for another time.)

It was a good run, and as I get my work life under control I hope soon to at least return to using Jer’s Novel Writer for its intended purpose – as a writing tool that helps me create fiction. Until I do that I can’t even consider opening the shutters on the Hut and throwing the big switch that raises the lightning rod into the violent midnight thunderstorm, while sparks fly and the turbines spin faster and faster, the needles on their gauges creeping ominously into the red. Maybe someday, though. Maybe someday.


World Fantasy Convention!

Well, it’s official; I’ve paid my money and everything. I’m going to this year’s World Fantasy convention, and I’m not at all sure how to prepare. It’s the sort of event I should have been attending for years now, and being able to do stuff like this is a fortunate side-effect of living in North America.

On that subject, aren’t these things supposed to have wacky names that end in ‘con’?

So what is this convention? As far as I can tell, it’s an event where boatloads of writers and publishers and agents and other industry folk gather for three days of… stuff. Elbow-rubbing. Looking for deals. Writers trying to get published, publishers trying to find writers that don’t suck. Panel discussions and whatnot. A few key people who are paid to come and encourage the masses. Others who have come simply for the love of the genre.

If all that sounds pretty vague, it’s because I’ve never been part of one of these things before. It’s an important part of my chosen profession, however, and contacts I make at this thing could turn my career. Or not. Or maybe I’ll make an impression with someone that pays off years from now. You never know.

I do know it pays to be prepared. To have things to hand to publishers and agents that they will love, things that at a glance will tell them that they are just dying to read my novel. “Stop the presses!” they will shout into mobile phones, “we have to rearrange the 2010 catalog!”

Another opportunity I have is to impress people in person in ways that anonymous submissions never can. I can talk to important people and leave them thinking “That guy’s an intelligent, articulate guy with a refreshing vision of the fantasy novel.” This will simultaneously be the easiest and most difficult thing for me to do. Once I get into a conversation with the right people, I’m sure I’ll do well. (I’ve been lying awake at night devising my elevator pitch.) The thing is, I’m really, really bad at getting into those conversations in the first place. I’ve been to other industry conventions and utterly bombed at networking (even at the conference about networks).

So, anyone out there have any suggestions? Both for specifics that I should take with me and for the more general hob-bobbing? Any help will be greatly appreciated!

Getting the Hut Back Up and Rolling

Um… actually two releases. The first didn’t last long.

It’s been a while since I’ve really knuckled down and worked on Jer’s Novel Writer, but after wrestling with the script to extract data from iBlog to export to WordPress, my brain has been sliding into technomode, and it was nice to work in a programming environment that was less frustrating than AppleScript. I had a version of Jer’s Novel Writer that I’d done some work on a while back, but it took a while to get myself back up to speed on just what was going on in the code.

I missed something on my first try. Happily a loyal user caught it almost right away, and one day later version 1.1.8 is out there, helping people write. Whew! Slowly things are returning to the balance I’d managed to keep for the last few years. The last few months have been… less balanced. (Obviously I’m operating in the geek hemisphere right now. No metaphors for you today!)

Meanwhile, a few days ago I got this!


Thoughts while Sitting at My Desk

I am sitting in our office right now — I am at my desk and That Girl is behind me, working on a project of her own. This is a very satisfying way to be, for a wide variety of reasons.

First, of course, is the very presence here of a place called ‘my desk’, to be found in ‘our office’ in a home that also contains That Girl. The second satisfying thing is the presence of That Girl’s desk in the same office. Third, there is the fact that we are both able to be productive in this arrangement. (Your definition of ‘productive’ might not match mine — for instance I consider writing this blog to be productive.) So that’s all good.

It’s critical that we can get things done in this arrangement, as That Girl was laid off while I was out stomping around in Kansas. If you don’t count the whole “no money, no security” part of the equation, it’s working out pretty well. That Girl has been ramping up her online poetical presence, working to market herself and maybe even get to where she can support herself doing what she loves most.

I’m hoping to get to that place as well, of course. I’ve been spending the last week working on Jer’s Novel Writer. A recent operating system update made a few pieces work oddly. (Yes, that is a euphemism for ‘wrong’.) While I had the hood up I wanted to fix a couple of other issues. The software is nearly ready for release, better than ever, but that hasn’t left a lot of space in my brain for using the software for its intended purpose, which happens also to be my intended purpose.

Once I get this release out, I will be turning back to my writing (and, ideally, blogging). I have a whole bunch of things to work on. At the start of the week I thought, “I’ll get that bug fixed and then get one thing ready for submission per day for the rest of the week. Here it is Friday and there’s not much rest of the week left.

If I sigh really heavily, sometimes That Girl rolls across the office and gives me a hug.