Stories break the rules

Story Simplified

As a working first principle for this book / series of blog posts, I’m adopting the basic attitude that all of the various competing theories on how stories should be written and structured and why people like to read them and why authors fail if they don’t conform to certain rules – all those theories have something valid to tell us. But none of them are complete, or apply to all stories.

This does need saying – because there are many, many people writing ‘how to’ books for authors and writers and would-be novelists and screenwriters who adopt that ‘authoritative’ tone of voice and insist that they have the answer: their theory is the one that works and if you don’t comply with it, your book will be a failure. You will be a failure.

It is possible, however, there is no one master-key to all stories. There is no one structure that all great stories conform to. There isn’t one formula or design principle that works across the board. There are many types of stories. People read for many different reasons. It may just be that stories are too varied, too complex, too alive to ever be completely categorised and explained.

So, in these posts and in this book, I’ll be exploring what works and what is insightful. But none of it is the final word, or a hard and fast rule. Stories cannot be contained. They live, they breathe, they change, they deal with human nature and emotions and actions. They are as varied and as complex as we are. They cannot be shoved inside a straight-jacket of a theory without losing their essential essence.

Stories break the rules.

People read for the endorphins, and the cortisol and for ’emotional exercise’

Story Simplified

Are stories a kind of emotional gym, where we can do a workout and so strengthen ourselves, improving our problem solving and ability to endure stressful situations?

Or are they all about the glorious state of relaxation that washes over us once the story is over, and the stress and tension are relieved?

The answer appears to be: both.

In a blog post (which unfortunately seems to have been deleted – but is mostly still available here) author David Farland puts forward the theory that the reason story telling is so popular is that it activates not one but two of the three possible strategies for dealing with stress and problems. The three options are:

  • Direct action to get rid of the stress – for example, if we have money problems, go out and make money.
  • Escape – take your mind off things with a holiday, a night out, through booze or drugs etc.
  • Rejuvenation –  coping with the stress through the use of emotional exercises.

Story, Farland says, “lets you escape and rejuvenate simultaneously.”

“By reading a book or watching a movie, to a degree you escape from your own life, your own world, and become immersed in a fictive universe. You take an emotional vacation. Typically, this is most true in the opening of a story where the author spends a good deal of time establishing the setting and characters. There, the conflicts may be less significant and may appear more easily resolvable than at the end.”

As the story progresses and conflict intensifies, this triggers the rejuvenation:

“Your subconscious mind does not completely recognize the difference between your real experiences and those that occur only in the imagination. So, when you become Frodo Baggins walking the road to the Crack of Doom, chased by dark riders, the subconscious mind responds to some degree as if those incidents were really happening.

Indeed, the more completely you become immersed in a fictive tale, the more totally your body will respond.”

The body will respond initially with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The body then seeks to restore balance and helps you to cope with the (fictional) stress by releasing endorphins. These are naturally produced opiates which control and diminish pain.

So, when we are reading stories, we are, in a sense, like a drug addict, taking stimulants one moment, and ‘downers’ the next. But there’s one big hit still to come:

“At some phase of the story, you reach the “happy ending,” and your brain rewards you for a job well done—by releasing large amounts of serotonin into the brain, which makes you feel happy. It’s the same chemical released to the brain when you eat delicious foods. Only in this case, it’s the reward for defeating the “Dark Lord,” or overcoming a similar problem.

You’ve just performed an emotional exercise, very similar to a physical exercise. Reading is to the mind as aerobics is to the heart and lungs. Because you have performed this emotional exercise, you will be better able to handle the little stresses in your day-to-day life.”

So, people read stories partly because they want to trigger these natural body responses, and at one level the body can’t really tell the difference between what is really happening in the world and what is only fictional, but happening sure enough in the imagination. It goes through a stress response and releases the appropriate chemicals, but then the ‘antidote’ kicks in – the endorphins and finally the serotonin.

But we are also reading to strengthen our emotional muscles. Stories are a work-out. They are preparation for life.


Stories are about problem solving

Story Simplified

A story is about a person with a problem, and how they go about solving it. In order to solve it, they will have to change something about themselves or their outlook.

We use story as a way of examining how others tackled a particular problem, so that we can learn those lessons without actually having to put ourselves through the experience, or into that kind of danger.

Readers unconsciously expect these elements to be present. This is probably due to the ancient origins of story, which, experts reckon, originated as a means of sharing information that was vital to survival. For example, those berries might kill you, or that river is infested with crocodiles.

Because we are a tribal species, our relationships with those around us were also a matter of life and death. If you get kicked out of the tribe, your chances of surviving or mating were severely reduced. So the stories also contained elements of how to navigate the turbulent waters of the social realm. We use stories to understand what others might be thinking and feeling, what motivates them and how they might react.

Stories are a way to learn about the world and in particular other people. Perhaps that’s why we tell stories to children to such a huge extent. We read to them when they are very young, and they lap it up. We are anxious that they should learn to read for themselves as soon as possible, so they can launch themselves into the ocean of story telling that is all around them.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker says: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.  What are my options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

A story, then, is a way to watch someone go about solving a problem or tackling an issue, and seeing not only what they do, but also why they fail at first, and what they must change in order to finally succeed. Or, in the case of tragedy, why they can’t change, and how this leads to ultimate failure.


This post is part of a series called “Storytelling simplified” – which is intended to build, one day, into a book. For the introduction and idea behind the series start here

Fiction is about feelings

Story Simplified, Storytelling

One of the main reasons people read, listen to and watch fiction is to feel the emotions created by the story. This might mean that they identify with the characters, and share the emotions they are feeling. Or it might mean that they care for the characters, and feel emotions on their behalf.

For example, in a horror movie, we might feel fear when the character sees a monster and is terrified. Or, the character might be blithely unaware of the danger they are in, but we know the monster is stalking them, and we feel fear on their behalf.

Either way, people read for emotion. They want to be ‘moved’ – literally. The word “emotion” comes from the Latin “exmovere” meaning ‘to move” or “to disturb or agitate.”

The names of many genres are a clue to the importance of emotional content, since many of them speak directly to the emotions we feel while immersed in the story: romance, horror, thriller, mystery.

But don’t take my word for it. This is Dwight V. Swain in his seminal book “Techniques of the Selling Writer”:

“What should you as a fiction writer communicate? Feelings.

“A story recounts events. But those events can’t or won’t stand alone. They need to be explained, interpreted, evaluated, made meaningful. Above all, they must be translated into feeling.”

Karl Iglesias, in his book ‘Writing for Emotional Impact’  describes movies and TV shows (and we can add novels to the list) as “emotion machines”:

“Great storytelling is about one thing only—engaging the reader emotionally. Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it.”

He explains that to create a “good story, well told” we have to do two things:

  • We need to create the events, places, characters and imaginary world of the tale – this is the ‘good story’ part
  • And we need to create the emotional impact on the reader. This makes it ‘well told.’

He goes on to define three types of emotions:

Voyeuristic emotions – we use the story to “spy” on other people and their lives – in this case the characters in the tale. The emotions appeal to our “curiosity about new information, new worlds, and the relationships between characters.” This is probably the least intense of the emotional experiences, as we remain, in a sense, detached from them.

Vicarious emotions – this is when we identify with a character so strongly that we feel what they feel.

Visceral emotions – these are the ones that actually get the heart pounding. They are created when the techniques the writer uses are so effective, they have a powerful physical effect on the reader or viewer. The emotions might include: interest, curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, lust. (Most of his book are dedicated to explaining how to evoke these visceral emotions. It focuses on script writing for movies and TV, but is highly recommended for all writers).

So, we need to remember when we talk about, plan and create stories that we need to create emotions in the reader. The emotions of our characters are what the reader wants to experience – and the events exist in order to create those emotions.

Feelings should influence every story decision we make.

Story Simplified – introduction

Story Simplified

This is the first in a planned (very long) series of blog posts which will eventually build into a non-fiction book. I’m writing the book ‘live’ on the blog, and all the content is subject to change before going into book form. The blog posts themselves will also evolve.

But… why write yet another ‘how to’ book on story telling and fiction writing? There are literally thousands of books on these subjects out there already, and many of them are absolutely wonderful. I’ll be drawing on some of my favourites as we go along, referencing them so readers can check them out for themselves, and discussing their good and bad points.

So what will be different about this book / blog series? The clue is in the title: it will be ‘simplified.’

The aim is to reduce story telling to core ideas, which can be expressed in a few pages of a book  or in one, focused article or blog post, usually of less than 1,000 words. This will mean ‘chunking it down’ – breaking the fundamentals of story telling into bite size pieces which are easy to digest.

This will involve condensing everything I’ve studied and learnt about story telling down to basic first principles – to remind myself, to embed that learning, and to ensure I’ve understood it, by testing whether or not I can explain it clearly. The content will:

  • Provide a clear introduction to storytelling to anyone who is interested
  • Act as a refresher, reminder, cheatsheet and quick reference for writers and other storytellers.

The blog posts and book chapters will follow a number of key principles:

  • Make it simple enough that it acts as an introduction to the subject and one that can be read by a young person who wants to know more about how stories work
  • Make it complete enough to allow someone to start telling their own stories
  • Make it practical and useful – not a discussion piece, but a guide for those who want to write their own stories.
  • Make it true enough that even someone with years of experience telling stories, someone who has studied the subject extensively, can gain value from the material as a reminder or reference.

I also intend to refer to well known stories as we go along, because this is the best way to illustrate the ideas and information. Some of the stories that will be used the most include:

  • The Harry Potter series of books / movies
  • Star Wars (especially ‘A New Hope’ – the original movie and the 4th in the series)
  • The Silence of the Lambs – because of its superb structure, it’s a book and movie, it’s very well known and has been intricately dissected in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
  • Casablanca – because everyone has seen it. (You haven’t? Go watch, thank me later).
  • More … this list will expand in time.

Is Storytelling Insanely Complicated – Or Dead Easy?

Creating stories can seem like the easiest thing in the world: when you view a beautifully told tale, it can so inevitable, so perfect, it seems to have sprung into life fully formed. And indeed, some stories and the characters within them do spring from the sub-conscious with a life of their own.

And yet, there is so much to take into account: from climaxes and crisis, crucibles and conflict, character and complications through to narrative arcs and archetypes, plot points and protagonists, three, four and five act structure, theme, tension and show and tell.

Story is complex, but the same is true of so many things in life, such as driving a car, or hitting a tennis ball. These activities are also insanely complicated when you stop and think about. Indeed, if you start to think about your driving too much, you’ll probably be a danger to yourself and all those around you. Think about your tennis shots too much and you’ll fluff it, miss the ball entirely or end up with a bad case of the yips. The trick is not to think about. Your body and your unconscious mind know how to drive and execute tennis shots better than you do. Let them get on with, while you think about work, or love, or last night’s TV show.

The same goes for storytelling. Plenty of people have created brilliant stories without ever studying the techniques or reading a couple of hundred ‘how to’ books on the subject. One of the best ways to learn story is simply to read widely, internalise it all, and let your subconscious do its thing.

That may be all the advice you need: if you bought the book, you can return it now and ask for a refund. If you’re reading this on the blog, no need to bookmark it, your work is already done.

But there will be more advice to come, plenty of it, and much analysing of the techniques and craft of storytelling. Why? Because when we learn to drive or to play tennis, we could do it by watching someone else and copying what they do. We learn faster and deeper, and ultimately achieve higher performance, if we supplement that by also learning the ‘how to’. We need to know which pedal does what, what the controls do, the rules of the road, what the signs mean, how to behave in lanes in different situations. We need to groove our backhand and make slight adjustments as necessary. Only once we have developed the muscle memory can we go into flow and put our unconscious minds in charge. So there is a place for knowing the hows and the whys, the ins and outs, the methods, procedures, ‘rules’ and strategies.

So, ‘Story Simplified’ will be an introduction, a refresher, and a way of testing our understanding of how and why stories work, and how we can craft great tales that engross readers and fire their imaginations.

Do we have anything to say?


Everyone is a writer these days. But not everyone is writing for the right reasons.

Too many do it for money, or to sound clever, or to build an audience (and sell things to them), or to get famous or get laid or simply because they like the sound of their own voice.

But before we write anything, we should always ask ourselves the one critical question: Do we have anything to say?

Anything important, that is. Something different, unique, special, that the world needs to hear. If we don’t, then we might want to consider keeping quiet for a while, thinking hard, learning more. Otherwise, all we do is add to the babble of noise.

And there’s too much babble, too much noise. Too many people offering their advice and making sure they sound like an ‘authority.’ And too many people churning out fiction that has all the sound and fury of a great story, but none of the depth, none of the turmoil. Nothing to say.

Which is to say, no theme. No truth to show or to put on display, to bring to life and dramatise. It’s all very well knowing how a story should be structured and how to write narrative prose and what effective dialogue sounds like. These things are important. But without meaning behind them, it’s all just more noise.

There are too many books, blog posts, articles and social media posts that use words, but say nothing. If you and I are going to write something, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must ask ourselves: do we have anything to say?

How to live a meaningful life


Do you fear your life has no meaning? Guess what….

Life can appear meaningless when we examine it — or we’re feeling glum. The truth is that it almost certainly is meaningless in any real sense.

But… all the meaning you need is contained in awareness of what is real, here and now.

What is real? Not your worries, that’s for sure, not your thoughts or daydreams, or the stories you tell yourself.

What is real? Look around you, hear the sounds, be aware. The trees, the song of the birds, the roar of distant traffic, the wind brushing against your skin – these things are real. But more importantly, so is the awareness of those things. That comes from you, and that is real.

If life seems like a storm, then awareness is your anchor, your life raft, and your sails. Be aware of even the littlest things in your life, and it becomes meaningful.

If it’s dark, turn on the light


Moments of awakening are what make life worth living.

Unfortunately, many and maybe even most people, either go through life without ever having any such moments or, if they do, they barely notice or remember.

That’s a real shame, and our society is largely to blame because an important truth is hidden away, in plain sight admittedly, but hidden. I reachied the age of twenty-two before this truth, which should have been obvious all along, was presented to me in the pages of a book. The revelation was simple: we are not as we should be. Human beings live their lives asleep. We walk and talk and work, shop and cook and drive and make love all while relatively speaking unconscious. We are asleep, throughout our lives, sleepwalking towards death.

“It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.”

It’s only a metaphor, yes, but all the more important and powerful for that.

That’s why all of my books are ‘about’ awakening – even if it may not immediately seem that way. The books appear to be ‘about’ a prehistoric tribe or a talking dog, a tennis-playing android or a journalist with a dubious knack for finding dead bodies. But they contain clues and snippets and suggestions which point towards that big idea, the one that matters so much but which even those who know it keep forgetting. (I titled one of my early novels ‘Lost In Thought’ not only because that’s the core of the adventure, but also because it’s the simple truth of the human condition. In one sense, I wanted a copy of the book, title prominent, sitting on my desk where I would see countless times during the day. It acts as a reminder.)

I don’t want to pile obtrusive ‘meaning’ into my books. Themes need to emerge naturally through the characters and events, embedded into the stories. That’s why so many of them are, in some way at least, ‘about’ consciousness. The theme of awakening is alluded to, like the famous zen finger pointing at the moon.

Awakening is the most important thing you can do in your life. It’s worth doing for your own sake, because those are the only moments when life is real. It’s worth doing for the sake of all of those around you, because it is like a flame or a fire, and it can spread and enrich the lives of others. And in these troubled times, when many people are wondering what they can and should do to prevent our civilisation being consumed by hate, prejudice, war, greed and corruption… awakening will help.

As the Chinese proverb goes: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Or as Lao Tzu said: “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself.”

We can’t fight darkness and win. But we don’t need to, because darkness cannot survive in the presence of light.

If each of us, in our daily lives can be a little more conscious, a little more awake, it will make a difference. If we all did it, the world would be tranformed. We can’t organise that or make it happen by wishing, because we can’t control others. And there’s a strong case for saying that we have no right to even try to control others.

All we can control is ourselves, and that alone is a super-human struggle. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.


Pic: 'candle and darkness' by Arghadeep Chowdhury

WTF: There’s An App For THAT?

Opinion, TechStuff

An app to tell me when to drink water. A whole heap of apps to tell me when to breathe and how and why. Apps that tell me when to stand up and when to run around. What’s next? Apps that tell me when to pee? Or when to scratch my b******s?

Much as I like iphones and ipads and laptops, there is a risk of an over–reliance on technology. Do we have so many gadgets that now we have to search out reasons to use them?

We need to remain in control of our own lives – the simple basic things most of all. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking and feeling like a complete and utter plonker.


How to get e-books onto your e-reader


Many writers, myself included, give away free books to readers. But if you are provided with a book in this way, perhaps as a direct download from a website, or from a service such as Bookfunnel or Instafreebie, how do you get it onto your ereader?

Below you’ll find links to guides for various file types. First of all, however, you need to know which file type is right for your ereader.

  • If you have a Kindle, then you need a mobi file, which will end in .mobi or .azw
  • If you have a Nook, then you need a .epub file.
  • And if you have a Kobo device, then it will support either epub or mobi (and azw) files.

These devices also support text (.txt) files and PDFs – but the PDFs in particular are a bit clunky. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend trying to read a PDF on a dedicated ereader.

If you have an iPad or iPhone, then you have more options. You can read PDFs in a variety of apps: I like GoodReader and Documents by Readdle. You can read Kindle files in the Kindle Reader app, and epub files in the native iBooks app.

I’m not an Android user, but I’m fairly sure there are Kindle apps for Android, and dedicated PDF and epub reader apps. A quick search will probably throw up plenty of options.

If you’ve downloaded a free book from this site and want to get it onto your Kindle or Kobo reader, the easiest way is this:

  1. Connect the reader to your computer using the appropriate cable
  2. Open the ereader by clicking on the folder / directory
  3. For Kobo, just drag and drop the ebook into the top level folder / directory
  4. For Kindle, open the ‘Documents’ folder / directory
  5. Drag and drop the ebook into the ‘Documents’ folder.
  6. Eject and disconnect your ereader when ready (though you may choose to leave it connected until fully charged).

If you regularly load ebooks onto your Kindle, check out Amazon’s own app which makes loading files even easier. With a quick drag and drop on your computer, you can send a kindle ebook to any of your devices without having to connect them by cable. There are also options for sending web pages to your Kindle directly from a browser. And the service works not only with Kindles, but also with iPads and other devices that have the Kindle app installed and configured to your Amazon account:

The links below provide more detailed information for the various types of readers.







Photo 'These Dreams Inside' by Kevin Spencer via Flickr.