22 helpful tips for better storytelling and writing from David Mamet, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Robert McKee

Figuring out what makes a good yarn can be confusing and daunting. Save yourself the trouble and keep this list of 22 tips from the pros. The art and craft of storytelling will thank you.

From David Mamet (link via an e-mail my from friend at Bad Feather, a Brooklyn design firm doing impressive work):

  1. The audience will not tune in to watch information. The audience will only tune in and stay to watch drama.
  2. Drama is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him or her from achieving a specific, acute goal.
  3. The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder and be interested in what happens next, not to explain to them what just happened, or to suggest to them what happens next.
  4. Writers must ask themselves these three questions of every scene: a) Who wants what? b) What happens if he or she doesn’t get it? c) Why now?
  5. A scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem. It must culminate with the hero finding himself or herself thwarted or educated that another way exists.
  6. A scene must be dramatic, must be essential and must advance the plot. It’s not all three? Rewrite it.

From Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I barely rewrote some of the tips and rearranged the points in my order of importance:

  1. Make sure your audience members do not feel like you’re wasting their time.
  2. Every character needs to want something. It doesn’t have to be big (even a glass of water works), but desire must be present.
  3. Every sentence must reveal character or advance the action, two gauges that could help you determine if your scene passes Mamet’s “essential” test.
  4. You must have awful things happen to your leading characters so their strengths and weaknesses are apparent to your readers.
  5. Give readers at least a single character they want to succeed.
  6. Write to please one person. Trying to please everyone will turn your tale into a pile of words awaiting a broom and dustpan.
  7. Start as close to the end as possible.
  8. Give your readers as much information as soon as possible. They should know so much about your story that they could finish it themselves should their Kindles explode before they read the last few pages. But I say heed Mamet’s warning (point #3 in the Mamet list).
  9. Break all of these rules as you see fit, except the first one.

From Robert McKee, whom I’ve written about before. This collection of inspiring quotes provides more technical insight into the machinery driving the power of drama. They’re taken from his book “Story.” Here you go:

  1. “Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? How is that value charged at the scene’s start? How has that value changed at the end of the scene? If the value-charged condition failed to change, nothing meaningful happened. Why then is the scene in the story?” (p. 35-36)
  2. “A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of value.” (p. 33)
  3. “Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.” (p. 34)
  4. “A story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of value and achieved through conflict.” (p. 34)
  5. “Every true scene changes the value-charged condition of the character’s life, but from event to event, the degree of change can vary greatly.” (I lost the page.)
  6. “In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.” (p. 111)
  7. “A story climax brings about absolute and irreversible change.” (p. 42)

What are your storytelling tips? Share them in the comments.

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