The Rules of Story Telling

During the Season One Episode ‘Fiasco‘ of the internet show ‘TableTop’┬áJohn Rogers, screenwriter and show runner for the television program ‘Leverage,‘ laid out what he thought of as the three rules for story tell. To those three I am going to add one more that I think is critical.

Rule One: What do they want?

For you story to have a plot it must have a character who wants something. In a very simple plot driven story this can be a purely external goal without emotional weight for the character. Most James Bond adventures fall into this mold, he’s emotional need to stop someone from cornering the gold market is not the real driver of that need. It is his job and it is important but not in an individualistic manner. However he does want it, and that is the key thing here. Characters have to have goals, they have to have something that they need to achieve or we’re just spinning pointlessly wheels

Rule Two: Why can’t they have it?

If the character can simply achieves their goal without serious effort of resistance that is a fairly poor story. There must be forces that oppose the character and thwart their aims. This is why a character of unlimited power and abilities, such as Superman, so often comes off as dull and uninteresting, creating a force that can thwart him is nigh impossible forcing the writer to violate this rule. The greater the force that prevents the character from securing their goal then, in general, the greater the dramatic tension of the tale. However an opposing force that is so great that only the intervention of dues ex machina can resolve the plot in the character’s favor renders a story frustrating and unsatisfying. In a lot of works by novice writers there is a tendency to forget this rule and they often have their characters skipping from success to success. Make sure that the character has to fight and that there is a credible chance of losing to have tension and drama.

Rule Three: Why should I care?

This is usually expressed in a character being ‘likeable’ but more precisely it is a character being engaging. I would argue that Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is not a particularly likable character but he is very engaging. The issue of ‘why should we care’ is a critical one because if your are not engaged with that character you are not going to continue reading or watching. I think to be engaging a character needs to be relatable and understandable. They can very flawed, look at any Cohen brothers script, but if we can relate to their problems, their concerns, then we can care about this fate and if they get what they need.

To John’s three rules I would add one more that is vital to strong story telling;

Bob’s Rule Four: How far will they go to fulfill their need?

If they care so little that they expend little effort or take only small risks then we aren’t going to invest very much emotional energy in their plight. The further the character is will to go the more compelling the story can be. This also opens the door to greater transformation for the character. I tend to think the best stories are about characters that change in such a fundamental way that by the end of the tal they are capable of taking actions unthinkable by their earlier selves. Handled poorly this degrades into an ‘Afterschool Special’ story, ham-fisted and overly moralistic, done properly these are the most moving of stories.