Art Holcomb’s Favorite Bits of Storytelling Advice in 2013

If you aren’t familiar with Art Holcomb, use the search function (right column) and be amazed.  He’s a regular contributor to Storyfix, with some of the best content here or anywhere else. 


The advice business for writers can be a minefield. 

Some things work, some don’t. But we always seek to give writers bits of knowledge that will mean something when the moment comes and they need inspiration the most.

I’m no different.  Neither is Larry. 

Writing is a lonely task and we all need guidance from time to time. I know I do.

As a gift for the New Year, I want to share with you 20 pieces of advice that I have found most helpful in my own writing in 2013.  They come from teachers such as Xander Bennett, Scot Myer, Michael Hauge and others. They made a difference in my writing.  Perhaps they’ll find a home with you as well.

Lessons from 2013

1.      Every once in a while, step back from theory and plot structure to think about your story’s place in the overall culture. What do you want your story to say, and why do we need that message right now?

2.      What you write belongs to you. Every word is a decision, and every decision is a reflection of yourself. Never forget that.

3.      Actors are trained to think in terms of scene goals, and you should too. If a character is speaking and acting at cross-purposes with their goal, it’s probably because they’re being influenced by some unspoken inner need.

4.      Everyone knows the villain is supposed to act like she’s the hero of her own story. But so should the romantic interest, the henchmen, the mentor and the supporting characters.

5.      Don’t cater to the slower members of the audience. Move fast and force them to keep up.

6.      A character should either A) strengthen what we know about them, or B) challenge what we know about them. If it doesn’t do either, maybe it doesn’t need to be in the story?

7.      Don’t feel bad about destroying large parts of your story world. You created it; you can un-create it.

8.      If you don’t like a character, nobody else will. If you’re not attracted to a character, nobody else will be. And if you don’t hate the villain, don’t expect the audience to either.

9.      Your job is to convince others that what you see in your mind’s eye is important, feasible, and makes narrative sense.

10.  A great idea is nothing without great characters.

11.  Good villains don’t just make it worse for the protagonist. They make it personal.

12.  You’re the one in control, not your characters. If they start “doing something you didn’t plan”, make them stop. Inspiration is great but not if it wrecks your carefully crafted structure

13.  Act Three (also known as “Part 4” in the Story Engineering model for novels… it’s the same thing exactly) doesn’t necessarily have to be bigger. It just has to feel bigger to your protagonist.

14.  A story without real emotional moments will ultimately feel hollow. Remember to slow down every now and then to let your protagonist feel something.

15.  The more fun your villain appears to be having, the more the audience will hate her (and love her at the same time).

16.  The first thing your protagonist says is at least ten times more important than how they look. Write accordingly.

17.  When writing a historical story or biopic, try to put emotional truth before literal truth.

18.  When it comes to difficult story problems, start by assuming that everything you already think you know is wrong.

19.  Be honest with people about your schedule and how quickly you can write. Under-promise and over-deliver. That way if you miss a deadline you only have yourself to blame.

20.  Each time – Every time – show us something we’ve never seen before.

All the best in the New Year – and keep writing! 



Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)

Larry’s add to Art’s bio: when he’s not on set doing rewrite work or chasing a deadline for a studio script assignment, he’s also a major screenwriting teacher at the University level, a story development coach and a sought-after workshop facilitator at writing conferences around the world.



Filed under Guest Bloggers

13 Responses to Art Holcomb’s Favorite Bits of Storytelling Advice in 2013

  1. Lisa

    Wow. These are all excellent. Good food for thought here, thanks for sharing!

  2. Tessa

    Thanks. Excellent advice xx

  3. #5. Oh, oh yes. If they can’t keep up with me, they’re probably not gonna be fans for long anyway.

    Excellent stuff. Newslettering this.

  4. Great tips! I LOVE number 12. I hate when the writers I coach tell me they changed something “because the character told them to” or say they have to “listen to what the character wants.” NO! You don’t let your characters tell you what to do, YOU tell them what to do!

  5. LOVE! Especially 11, 15, & 16. 🙂

  6. Yes on 5. That was one thing that really rankled when I was writing to grade level. #5 is how I think, talk and live, so why not write that way as well??

  7. This is great, thank you. Especially the one about my bad guys having fun and making it personal for the protagonist. LOL.

  8. MikeR

    The best way I ever heard of “point #4” went something like this:

    “Make sure that they’re all really people. Not just the ones who are destined to bask in well-earned glory at the end of your show, but also the ones who are just there to draw minimum wage, and also the b*stards. Especially the b*stards. If your hero’s going to ‘lock horns with a worthy b*stard and win,’ and your reader feels absolutely no pangs of regret for the b*stard who ‘locked horns and lost,’ then you left a full two-thirds of the potential of your story unfulfilled.”

    Hmmm …

  9. Daniel

    Another excellent post. I love lists as well so twice the delight. Number 16 will be highlighted along with 3.

    Happy 2014 to all storyfix readers and contributors. Hope great writing comes your way all year long.

  10. Pingback: Favorite Bits of Storytelling Advice, and Questioning Maslow | Someday Box

  11. Robert Jones

    Some great tips, Art.

    My villain really has earned his title. Even with a tightly planned structure and outline, even after spending a great deal of time getting to know and understand what makes him tick. When it came time to write this guy, all his files and dossiers littering my desk and computer just didn’t do him justice. He needed a unique portrayal. Not necessarily a big-name actor to put him over the top, or attempt to win an oscar, this guy was out for that sort of game. He needed to win for himself, for his own twisted cause.

    I think this is hard for a writer to get behind sometimes. Because we have to be the ones under their skin, making them have fun (#15) with things that go against the grain of not only what an audience stands for, but what we stand for on several moral levels. Yet, if we don’t crawl into that snake’s skin and find a way to make our writing sing from within, all our careful planning and understanding just goes into a guy doing bad for the sake of doing bad. We may intellectually believe that he believes himself the hero of his own universe, but we aren’t really connecting on a level where it’s fun.

    But when you get to the point that many actors have gotten to, where they say playing a villain can be more fun than the hero, where this guy/gal really does seem heroic–and disturbing–when you can sit back and say, this is just awful, but awfully cool in terms of that character’s portrayal, then you might just be on the right track.

  12. Pingback: Around the internets: January edition | LETTERBRANCH

  13. #12 – grey area. One of mine kicked something in the grass as she was walking away from a confrontation, and I had no idea what it was. (says as much in my notes.) Turned out to be something that has continued through 3 books, and been important to the plot in all of them. My rule of thumb is now: don’t be too quick to dismiss, but be ready to if it doesn’t go anywhere!