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The Clues to a Great Story

If you haven’t listened to Pixar Filmmaker Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk “The Clues to a Great Story,” it’s revolutionary for writers. I first learned about this talk through author Rebecca Stead, author of Newbery Award winning novel When You Reach Me, when she guest lectured at my MFA residency. REBECCA STEAD!!! How could I turn away from the advice of this master storyteller? 19 minutes later, this TED Talk forever changed the way I approach my role as a storyteller. So it comes as no surprise that I recommend it to many of my clients in hopes that it reshapes their vision for themselves as writers, too.

Stanton breaks down the elements of good storytelling, which wind up being a bit of a set of commandments.

Some of the TED Talk’s highlights:

  1. We must work hard to make our readers care about the story early on. Whether that’s hooking them with a question about how the plot will turn out, or whether it’s making them care so deeply about our protagonist that they must read on, we need to make them care. Ideally, they care about the plot and our protagonist.

  2. We must leave room for our readers to work. This is a big one, and one we are often guilty of as writers. Instead of overly inserting ourselves as the storyteller, we must drop clues. We must use dialogue that’s not on the nose. Use body language, scenery, and the objective correlative to allow readers to intuit characters’ inner worlds. We should slowly assemble our plots piece by piece so that they reach an unpredictable but inevitable ending.

  3. We must make a promise to readers in early pages that the story we’ve written is going to take them somewhere that is worth their time.

  4. We must resist the urge to explain everything to our readers. We shouldn’t give them all the pieces. As the TED Talk says, our job is to give them 2+2=? Our job isn’t to solve the equation. It’s critical to give our readers the respect and space to solve the equation on their own.

  5. We must organize our plots like well-oiled machines. Capable writerly hands take readers from the opening scene through the finish line with scenes that connect via cause and effect. We should deliver our readers to an ending that moves them and brings them to our story’s truth.

In other words, master storytellers know exactly what to reveal and exactly what to withhold. They know which clues they need to provide and which ones their readers will be able to fill in on their own.

Of course, this takes skill and revision, lots and lots of revision. But the payoff comes in delivering a story that only you can assemble and inviting the reader into it as an active participant, writing the story alongside you.

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