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Nine rules for effective storytelling

No matter their creed, people love a good story. Whether it’s on the silver screen or in the pages of a novel, a compelling tale can convey more truth than a sermon.

With the rise of independent publishing and e-books, more people than ever are attempting to enter the competitive field of storytelling. These nine tips have aided me in the craft, and I hope they can help you find your own stories.

  1. Know the goal of your story. To perch the reader on edge, to keep him or her turning pages to discover what’s going to happen next is the name of the game. The game’s rules are harder to define—they are few and they are flexible. The experienced storyteller learns the rules mainly to know how to break them effectively.
  1. Start with action, explain it later. This is an extension of Raymond Chandler’s famous dictum, “When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun.” To encourage the reader to turn to page 2, give him something on page 1: conflict, trouble, fear, etc. Save the background for chapter 2 and get the show on the road in chapter 1.
  1. Don’t go easy on your protagonist. Give him a worthy antagonist and make everything feel hopeless. Don’t drop convenient solutions in his lap. The tougher the opposition is, the more thrilling the ride.
  1. Give the protagonist a personal stake. The closer the hero’s involvement in the main conflict of the story, the better. His purposes should be in jeopardy. His own life or those of his loved ones are in danger, or his business empire is at stake, or he is the kind of character whose principles won’t let him sit by and allow injustice to harm innocents. Whatever the conflict is, if he loses, it’s going to cost him horribly.
  1. Give the protagonist a time limit, and then shorten it. When time is a factor, you have gone a long way toward heightening the suspense. When that time is cut in half, the tension is enhanced even more so, and every single step a character takes can be the difference between life and death.
  1. Doing your homework is absolutely imperative. Remember, as Tom Clancy says, the only difference between fiction and reality is that readers expect fiction to make sense. If you don’t do your homework, not only will you get a million e-mails telling you where you messed up, but you’ll also lose all credibility as an author.
  1. Know your ending before you begin. The principal weakness of many suspense stories is the letdown the reader experiences at the end – an illogical and disappointing anticlimax. It isn’t enough to set up intriguing conflicts and obey all the other rules if you don’t have an ending that fulfills the promise of the preceding chapters. It isn’t necessary to tie up every single loose end, but the climax should resolve the principal conflict one way or another.
  1. Don’t rush in where pros fear to tread. Observe not only what the experts do, but also what they avoid doing. The best storytellers do not jump on bandwagons; they build new ones. Yet, this should not be taken to mean every writer must obey the whims of fads, such as “Spy fiction is dead,” or “Historical novels are out this season.” A dead genre doesn’t exist because the human imagination is limitless, and there is never a famine of new ideas. The question is, “Is this idea strong enough to make my story different from its predecessors?”
  1. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. If you like to read westerns, write a western. Don’t write into a genre that you have no interest in. If you don’t like romances but insist on writing one, your contempt will show. If you thoroughly enjoy historical stories – even if you don’t know Abraham Lincoln from Lincoln Chaffee – you’re better off attempting to write a historical story because you’ll go into it with enthusiasm.

Good stories are the backbone of society, in both the fields of entertainment and education. I implore any aspiring writers to blaze their own trails while following these broad guidelines. The next great American novelist could be in our midst.

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