Monthly Archives: March 2012

Six Core Storytelling Competencies: Good… Better… Best.

Ask anyone who writes fiction how many issues an author needs to think about, how much stuff there is to know and execute, and you may get an answer that amounts to dozens, even hundreds of things.

That’s pretty accurate, actually. Few who have tried it are tempted to over-simplify.

You know my theory, my story development model:

All of those dozens of things, or hundreds of things, can be categorized into six discrete buckets of elements, nuances and requisite functions, each of which is essential to a successful story. I call them the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling, and they really do cover the whole fiction enchilada.

Think of something you need to know, and it’ll fall into one of those six buckets.

That said, each of them is a matter of degree. For each thing within any of the six buckets, you can cover the base, or you can hit it out of the park.

Or six parks, for that matter.

Toward that end, it’s good to inventory your six buckets of storytelling strategy, and all their inherent nuts and bolts of content and technique… if nothing else to make sure you’re not taking anything for granted. You want your story to be the best it can possibly be, and it’s easy to settle in one category while pursuing excellence in another.

What follows is offered as a sort of checklist, organized as a good, better and best description under each of the Six Core Competencies. That’s 18 opportunities to improve your story.

My hope is that you’ll find something you can take to the next level.


Defined: the Big Idea of your story… the basic what if? proposition… the dramatic landscape… the window into plot… the source of conflict… the compelling question… the enticing situation… the promise of the story… the stage upon which character finds something to do.

Good: the reader is inherently drawn to the proposition through an attraction to the answer to the dramatic question posed.

Better: the reader can inherently experience the hero’s journey in pursuit of that answer. They can live the hero’s journey vicariously.

Best: the reader not only experiences the hero’s journey, but empathetically feels what’s at stake. The reader relates to the consequences of the resolution of the story.

Example: The Hunger Games. The concept alone is a home run. Then again, a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom relies more on character than concept (yes, it has one).

Lesson: the deeper you are within a genre — any given genre — the more critical concept becomes. Concept is the stage upon which character is allowed to unfold.


Defined: the protagonist of the story, presented with layers of backstory, inner psychology, outer dimensions and a journey that will allow her or him to become heroic as they evolve as necessary to eventually serve as the primary catalyst of the story’s resolution (which is what heroes do).

Good: a protagonist we can root for.

Better: a protagonist we can relate to.

Best: a protagonist who feels what we feel, fears what we fear and steps into the hero’s role as we would hope we would… in other words, a vicarious juxtaposition between hero and reader on an emotional level.

Example: Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye. He’s us, at our most basic level of humanity.


Defined: the relevance and transparency of the human experience through the dynamics of the story, both in terms of character and conflict.

Good: a story that shows life as it really is. One that allows us to recognize the dynamics of being alive in whatever time the story reveals, while illuminating universal truths in any case.

Better: a story that shows the virtues of heroism as it plays out on a thematically rich and realistic stage.

Best: a story that pushes buttons, doesn’t flinch, one that demands the reader see both sides and all the options that attach to the hero’s choices, and teaches us truth and reality in the process.

Example: John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, which exposes both sides of a polarizing issue on a level that defies politics and religion and doesn’t flinch from consequences on either side.

And of course, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a clinic on theme.


Defined: the expositional unfolding of the story in a sequence that deepens stakes, presents twists while defining the reading experience.

Good: a solid four-part sequential presentation of the story: set-up… response (to the first plot point)… a proactive attack on the problem… resolution.

Better: a sequence that allows the reader to get lost in the story in a vicarious way, which is the deepening of the effectiveness and compelling nature of the four parts that comprise it.

Best: a story that surprises, intrigues, captures, and then rewards the reader on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Example: Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code. Love it or hate it, the story blends all six core competencies in a way that, literally, readers could not put down. All 80 million of them.

Scene Execution

Defined: blocks of narrative exposition that move the story forward in an optimal way, with equal attention to characterization and dramatic tension.

Good: scenes that are logical in order, that blend into subsequent scenes.

Better: scenes that play like little one-act dramas, each with a set-up, confrontation and resolution. Scenes that deliver one primary, salient point of plot exposition while contributing to characterization.

Best: scenes that cut quickly to the point of the scene, that resolve a moment while setting up a subsequent deepening of stakes, urgency, options and character arc.

Example: anything by Michael Connelly, Nelson Demille, or Jodi Picoult.

Writing Voice

Defined: the flavor of the writing itself (the prose), from the reader’s point of view.

Good: exposition that is clear, direct and uses adjectives and description sparsely yet effectively. Prose that is not conscious of itself for the sole purpose of stylistic effort. Prose that readers don’t really notice as they get lost in the story.

Better: prose that illuminates the sub-text of the moment, and of the characters involved.

Best: prose that goes down easy, with a hint of humor and spice, with nuance and subtletly where required, and the power of a blunt instrument when called for.

Example: John Updike was the modern master of voice.  Read Colin Harrison, too, who sets the bar here higher than anyone still breathing.

If you are drafter (pantser), you can discover these opportunities as you go, and revise and optimize as you do future drafts.

If you are planner, you can (and should) think of these at the both macro-story (plot and character exposition) and micro-story (sub-text and scenes), making sure they all seize their inherent potential to enrich your story.

Either way, all of these things will find a way onto the page by the time you’re done. The real question is… will they just show up, or will they be the best they can be?

Go deeper. Harder. Be in command of every moment of your story.

Can you think of other examples of stories that are stellar in any of these core competencies?

If you’d like more on the Six Core Competencies, please consider my book, “Story Engineering.”

See you this weekend at the Rose City Writers (Portland, OR) conference. Me and 200 romance-minded women talking story over four sessions totaling 10 classroom hours… doesn’t get any better than that.

If you’re looking for a workshop presenter for your next writing conference, let’s talk. I describe my workshops as intense, surprising, entertaining and, sometimes, slightly disturbing. Experiences that change your life usually are. References available.


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Playing with The Neighbor Kid’s Toys

A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

This is about the craft of writing stories in another person’s universe .

For ten years – between 1994 and 2004 – in addition to my work in comics and screenwriting, I was among a number of writers asked to pitch story ideas to Paramount Studios in Hollywood for all four of the recent STAR TREK shows (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise). 

Now, writing for such a show came with a number of restrictions:

–           The STAR TREK characters are well-known to millions of viewers and readers;  who they are is set in stone, and could not be altered through the course of any one story; that is, their natures could not change;

–           As in any serialized story, the writer must start the characters off at “Point A”, run them through their paces, complicate the heck out of them, but always return them to that “Point A”, wiser but unchanged. It was like borrowing a friend’s car to go on a trip, but having to make sure that you refill the tank, have it washed and park it in the same place when you’re done.

–           Any story I might create could not interfere with any continuing plotlines and upcoming story arcs that the staff writers had already created for the main characters.

–           I was never going to sell anything that is too expensive in terms of elaborate sets, specific actors or costly special effects.

–           And, above all, I could not violate the internal logic of the show. (Think: phasers and time travel were possible – dragons, not so much)

So . . . Ten years.

Hundreds of story ideas.

Thousands of hours – many of which felt as though they were spent putting square pegs into round holes or trying to write a haiku with only eight words. Especially hard at first for someone who had been used to creating his own characters and storylines.

But the opportunity was exciting and the training invaluable because every month I wrote and pitched new ideas to working TV story editors or producers and got detailed and pointed feedback on my work. These experienced, working writers’ sole job during these meetings was to find and develop new ideas for a show.  The stories they liked were then sent “upstairs” for review by the Executive Story Editor.  Many stories were dismissed as not suiting their needs, but all were discussed and critiqued and I was often sent back to take another pass at some of them for further review.  What was always scheduled to be a quick meeting sometimes went on for hours and I was dedicated to learning as much as I could here – in the time I had – from the very people who had the kind of job I wanted.

And it paid off.  I got better at writing in another’s universe and went on to sell more comic books and an animation script in part because l better understood the form, but also because I had learned how to pitch a story and how to be comfortable talking to people in power (more about that in a future post).

I found it took a large number of ideas to come up with every viable story, and the process taught me how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Eventually, the harvest of ideas became more bountiful.

From the experience, I discovered some approaches that could help you develop new story ideas, for your own characters/universe or someone else’s:

(1)   UNIQUE COMBINATIONS AND CONNECTIONS: I started out by making a chart to look at all the possible character interactions for any possible points of conflict or interest.  Picard vs Riker, Picard vs Troi, Riker vs. Troi and so on.  This made me focus in turn on each interaction separately.  By concentrating on just two characters to exclusion of the others,  points in their backstory popped out – points that sometimes led to new insight and ideas;

(2)  FILLING HOLES.  Backstories are not airtight; some small facts casually mention in an episode could have excellent story possibility. That’s why reading the show bible and watching the episodes closely are part of a professional’s job. In addition, all characters have their own cast of backstory players: a stern parent, lost or wayward sibling, a favorite uncle/mentor/childhood friend. Like real life, these players float in and out of the character’s lives causing stress and conflict.  Make this new person unique and the problem compelling and you’ll find plenty of motivation there.

(3)  ASIMOV’S QUESTIONS: Isaac Asimov, the prolific author, said that all science fiction stories turn on three questions:

  1. What if ____________ happened?
  2. If only ___________ would happen?
  3. If __________ goes on, then __________ must happen.

This approach worked well with both the technical and scientific aspect of this science fiction world, as well the natural extension of human beings and their lives together: characters fall in love (if even for just an episode) and they face death, longing and the failure of dreams like any of us. Not being a science-type guy, I tended to concentrate of the human stories, which worked out well for me later on, and these tools work just as well for alien attacks as unrequited love;

(4)  THE PROXIMATE FAILURE: “And when that fails, ___________ will happen.”  I like this one especially as it makes me think about consequences. Consider for a moment: a Hero fails most of the time in any given story. Those failure had better be the catalyst for the Hero’s next move, but each failure opens up the possibility for more innovative action by the Hero as well as the Writer.

(5)  SUBSTITUTION:  Sometimes changing one word of a log line can give you a great new idea.  For example, the Christmas story would have been quite different if “three wise GUYS came out of the East” rather than the traditional “wise MEN”.  Whole new set of images and possibilities.

I think that freedom in choices in a story can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing. It makes for so many possibilities sometimes that you can become paralyzed from the variety of choice. Restrictions can be a good thing if it forces you to focus on structure and characterization.  These restrictions made me find better, tighter stories and develop new skills, because it increased the pressure to perform.

More pressure.  More heat.

That’s how diamonds are made. And stories, too.

Let me know what you think.

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel, and a comic book author, including Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. A number of his recent posts appear in Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life. He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions.  His most recent screenplay is 4EVER (a techno-thriller set in the Afterlife) and is completing a work book for writers entitled The Pass:  A Proven System for Getting Quickly from Notion to Finished Manuscript.

He lives inSouthern California.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)