Friday, May 27, 2011

Top 10 Tips for Stories that Grip!

Today, I'm honored to have a guest post by David Baboulene!

David Baboulene is a published author of two humorous books, two children’s books and The Story Book - an academic work on story theory. He also has three film production deals, two in Hollywood and one in the UK.

He works as a story consultant with training and development organizations, aspiring and established writers and producers. He is also working at Brighton University on his Ph.D. on the critical importance of subtext to a story’s power. David writes extensively on his subject, including his monthly column in Writing Magazine and Writers' News.

The Top Ten Tips for Stories that Grip!

In my work I have been fortunate to have conversations with famous people who have made their money from stories, including:

• Bob Gale (scriptwriter of Back to the Future);
• Lee Child (16 million Jack Reacher Novels sold);
• John Sullivan (TV comedy writer of Only Fools and Horses; Just Good friends; Citizen Smith…);
• Mark Williams (Actor in The Harry Potter films; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations...);
• Willy Russell (Theatre supremo and writer of Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine…)
to name but a few. So, from the insights from these fine gentlemen, from my own experiences getting published and writing The Story Book, my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in Story Theory, here are my top ten tips for writers.

1) If you want to be a writer, read a thousand books.

2) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it work very hard, are professional and productive.

3) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or rule book or guru can tell you how to write. There's only one person who can tell your story your way, and that's you. Those who make it have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn about STORY - where story power comes from, how stories work, why they exist, how they resonate, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to take responsibility and write your story YOUR way.

4) Yes, understand story structure, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don't let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story; then later, use your understanding of structure in problem-solving and optimizing your story.

5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the higher a story is rated by the audience. Fact.

6) Stories are about Character Behaviours. Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when he takes action will define his true character, and what a character does when he takes action will also provide the action. Character behaviours meld plot and character into a single entity (story). Get this right, and your story telling will be tight, cohesive and greater than the sum of its parts.

7) All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewer). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this is actually your real story, and this is what resonates with your readers and elevates your story. Latest example – The King’s Speech. There is nothing to this story except the character growth, but that was enough to take it to the Oscars.

8) True character comes only from putting your players under pressure to make difficult decisions. For Luke Skywalker to kill another dozen bad-guy stormtroopers is not great story. But if one of them he must kill is… his father… that is a story. This is called ‘conflict triangulation’ and it’s the most powerful tool in the box. Sit your characters on the horns of a dilemma wrapped in a choice of evils and sandwiched between rocks and hard places and your readers will be gripped...

9) It's really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection...) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories... then develop and develop some more... because they are so scared of the Judgment Day that comes the moment they admit it’s finished. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it or give up now. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:

A) Write the best stuff you can.
B) Send it off.
C) Go to A.

It ain't rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or else you won't get anywhere. As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL be recognised... and you WILL get a deal! And I promise you - once you’ve had 10 rejections, the 11th doesn’t hurt so bad!

10) If you would like more detailed information on any of the above, get in touch with me and I will send you a free chapter from The Story Book on any topic you like, or I can blog on the subject if it is of general interest.

Very best of luck with your work. Oh, before I go, I think there might be just one more tip we could all benefit from...

11) Get off the internet and go do some writing!

You can visit David at his blog:

Also, check back here on May 30th (that's MONDAY!), for my full review of David's book.

Thanks David for the great information.


  1. Hehehe I love this post! I really want to get my hands on The Story Book, but have no idea where I'll find it. :-(

    These tips are a great reminder of how I should be thinking about writing stories.

  2. Thanks for imparting your wisdom, David. I'm intrigued by the 'conflict triangulation' and would love to hear more about it! The biggest obstacle I've faced recently with my own writing has been developing my characters and their relationships enough to carry them through the story.

  3. Great advice! Writers can never be told enough to keep writing and trying!

  4. This is fantastic~ what great advice! I love David's top ten tips with examples (and John Sullivan's three steps in a writer's life). Thanks to David and Margo!

  5. Wonderful post- I'll have to delve deeper into subtext...maybe I'll try it out on my blog when i learn more. thanks for posting!

  6. Thanks Margo, for hosting David! What a great post full of direct inspiration - nothing wishy washy. I love John Sullivan's 3 steps!

  7. Fantastic post. (= Now I need to get mack to my WIP! (=

  8. Great Post! Thanks Margo for introducing me to David and his fantastic list of top tips.

    I especially like #9 since I'm coming up to that stage :)

    Christi Corbett

  9. Quick note to thank you all for the kind comments and of course to thank Margo for letting me be part of this wonderful blog.

    To address a couple of points in the comments: The book is only available in hard copy in the UK at present, but I can definitely undercut Amazon by sending you one directly for about $18 including postage. Contact me for that.

    Conflict Triangulation is really important. Once you know about it you regularly spot it as defining THE key iconic moment in a story. Think of the point in Back to the Future where George opens the car door and finds himself offered a choice of evils: take a beating from Biff OR leave the woman he loves to be abused by Biff and lose any chance of ever being with her. He decides to make a fist, and that single 20 second scene defines everything that happens in the whole trilogy (including character growth - number 7 - he's' the one who learns and grows!). Watch it again (it's always worth another view) and think about that. It's quite something for a writer to realise. I'll blog on triangulation.

    Laura, characters and their relationships rely totally on good conflict. Often stories I am offered depict horrible bosses, bastard of a boyfriend, mother with cancer, dog gets run over... all 'true' to life, and all challenging conflict, but it's not meaningful, because it isn't triangulated. We learn nothing of the character except how tough life can be. Not story. I'll blog on this too, and pass it to Margo, if she'll have me again!

    And before I take over entirely, a quick note to say RIP John Sullivan, who died last month. A wonderful man. He didn't think he was going to be any use to me on the technical/academic side of story, but he was solid gold. He had invited me to work with him, but of course it can't happen now, and I'm very sad about his passing. Remember his advice - simple and effective, and exactly right!

    Thanks so much Margo, and to all of you for the welcome.