Tag Archives: creativity

The 7 Elements of Great Storytelling

book-863418_1280What are the elements that make a story great? Recently, I sat down and decided to write the core elements that I feel make a story great, and I came up with seven.

1.      Writing

Writing a great story naturally involves great writing. This is why I put this as the very first element. If you’re thinking about having a career in writing, your writing must be good – a base level of proficiency should consist of:

  • Fluidity
  • Clarity
  • Purpose
  • Proper spelling and grammar
  • Expansive vocabulary
  • Appropriate word choice
  • Logical coherence

The good news is that almost anyone can reach this level with practice, which is actually encouraging. Unlike other disciplines such as singing or playing in the NBA, writing well has less to do with natural talent or physical attributes, it’s just a matter of putting in the effort. Stephen King wrote in his book ‘On Writing’, “the first million words are practice,” and I believe this to be more or less true. If you put in the work and show up every day, your writing will eventually improve.

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2.      Originality

Your idea or story has to be somewhat original and interesting. I say ‘somewhat original’ because it’s very difficult to come up with a completely original and interesting idea. Most great storytellers borrow ideas from others. It’s okay to be inspired by others and borrow ideas – I borrow ideas all the time, but I make reference of them to give credit where it’s due. In my Prodigy book, I use themes from Plato’s Republic, but I make sure to reference them to let the reader know that I’m not trying to steal Plato’s ideas and pass them off as my own. Instead, I’m paying homage to something that inspired me.

To improve originality, it’s important to be well-rounded in terms of your interests and your scope of knowledge. So try to be very broad with your understanding of things, especially areas where you have relatively no knowledge, whether it’s science, religion, cultures, economics, history, geography… It’s also helpful to be:

  • World travelled
  • Read books
  • Hang out with different types of people
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Watch documentaries
  • Challenge your opinions and assumptions – be critical and objective about your thoughts
  • Be observant about the world
  • Develop a new hobby such as archery, yoga, ballet, rock climbing…

Over time, you will uncover things, learn new truths, and develop original thinking in areas where you would otherwise not have gone down if you just stayed in this narrow lane of topics that interest you.

man walking

3.      Characters

Your characters have to be well-defined and relatable. Part of having well-defined characters means they should each have their own distinct voice and unique set of characteristics that separate them from other characters in your story. Here are some things to consider:

  • Your characters shouldn’t all sound alike
  • Each character should have their own point of view
  • Your reader should be able to tell who’s talking without you telling them
  • Your characters should generally behave in a consistent manner

One method I use, and a lot of other writers use, is character profiles. These are simply one or two page summaries of each of your main characters. Start by selecting an image of what your character looks like (you can draw it if you like or find an image online). Next, write down the answers to the following questions:

  • What are their beliefs or values?
  • What is their background?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their goals?
  • What are their interests or hobbies?
  • What are their opinions?

You can then have a few quotables, something like, “I’m working part-time and going to school to become a doctor,” “My girlfriend is a painter,” “I really don’t like how lazy I am, I want to change.” This will help cement the idea of their true nature in your head.

When you take the time to write character profiles, you can put your characters in any situation and have very good understanding of what they would do and how they would behave in that situation.

Biker through tunnel

4.      Pace

The pacing of your story has to be such that the reader does not get bored easily. Make them want to keep reading. I often use the metaphor of a monkey swinging from vine to vine – when it swings from one vine, and that vine has reached its maximum extension, there should be another vine within reach, ready to be grabbed and allow the monkey to carry its momentum forward.

So if you have a really lengthy and verbose opening that describes the house the person grew up in, the colour of the carpet, their lovely neighbours… and you go on and on and on about minutia, then it’s going to be boring for many readers – it’d be like starting a race with your feet in mud. Why have your readers slog through mud at all. They should be able to take off with your story and maintain that momentum (or have the momentum increase) until the very last page.

If you want your book to hit with a lot of people, you need to hook them in immediately and maintain a steady pace. This may not come easy to you in the first draft, but it can be done in the editing process. For instance, maybe in the revision you decide that the first three chapters can be combined into one chapter, or better yet, one paragraph. This gets the story started as deep into the story as possible.

girl reading

 

5.      Story Arc

The story arc must be suspenseful. By nature, human beings are really attracted to suspense. In most stories, the hero always wins, and yet despite knowing this, we still love watching movies and reading books. That’s because it’s not necessarily the payoff at the end that we live for, even though that is satisfying. What we truly crave is the uncertainly of the drama.

In his book called, ‘The Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama’, David Mamet talks about this hypothetically perfect ball game in which he does a very good job of describing the kind of natural tension that we love.

He says, “The perfect ball game – what do we wish for in the perfect ball game? Do we wish for our team to take the field in thrash the opposition from the first moment to the final gun? No, we wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen retroactively to always tend toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion. We wish, in effect, for a three act structure.

“In act one, our team takes the field and indeed prevails over its opponents, and we, its participants feel pride. But before the pride can mature into arrogance, this new thing occurs – our team makes an error. The other side is inspired and pushes forward with previously unsuspected strength and imagination. Our team weakens and retreats.

“In act two of this perfect game, our team is shaken and confused. They forget the rudiments of cohesion and strategy and address that made them strong. They fall deeper and deeper into a slew of despond. All contrary efforts seem naught and just when we think that the tide may have turned back the other way, a penalty or adverse decision is rendered, nullifying their gains. What could be worse?

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“But wait. Just when all else seems irredeemably lost, help comes, which is act three. A player, previously believe to be second rate, emerges with a block, a throw, a run, and offers a glimmer of that possibility of victory. Yes, only a glimmer. But it is sufficient to rouse the team to something approaching its best efforts and the team indeed rallies. Our team brings the score back even and makes the play that would put them ahead, only to have it called back yet again by fate, or by its lieutenant, a wrong-headed, ignorant or malicious official.

“But see, the lessons of the second act were not lost on our team. People might say that it’s too late or the clock is too far run down, our heroes are too tired… yet they rouse themselves for one last effort, one last try, and do they prevail? Do they triumph with scant seconds left on the clock? Oh, they do. They all but prevail. As the final seconds of the play, the outcome rests on the lone warrior – that hero, that champion, that person upon whom in the final moment all our hopes devolve. That final play, run, pass, penalty kick. But wait. That hero that would have been chosen for the task, that champion is injured. No one is left on the bench…”

There is the perfect game as described by David Mamet. It’s very interesting and obviously points to these kinds of ebbs and flows, this tide, this yin this yang, this push pull tension where they’re up, they’re down, they’re up again, they’re down again. And just when it appears there is no hope, somehow by all odds stacked against them, they come back and become triumphant in the most unsuspecting way in the final seconds of the game. So if you can, your story could follow a similar arc as well.

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6.      Conclusion

Your story must have a satisfying ending, which is indeed difficult. When I write, a lot of times I don’t know how the story will end. I may have an idea, but I usually discover it when I get there. I just wing it and hope for the best. It’s difficult to have a satisfying, original, and unpredictable ending that pays off for the reader. If you build up the story adequately, the ending must deliver so that the previous efforts are not lost. You want your reader to finish the book with a smile, unable to contain their joy – they can’t wait to tell their friends, read the sequel, learn everything they can about you… A good ending can also save, or make up for a lackluster climax. An average story with an amazing twist ending can bolster the story in ways that no other part of the book can.

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7.      *Bonus* — Timing

If you incorporate the first six elements of storytelling into your book, you may come close to creating a masterpiece. However, I think one bonus element could be included in the list that may elevate a great book to a nearly perfect book – and that is well-timed comedy or drama in appropriate places. By this I mean, if you’re writing a really dramatic scene with lots of tension, a great way to keep the reader engaged is to inject some comedic relief (or if your book is funny, inject some drama in certain places). Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is an excellent example of this. And if done well, it could really take your book to the next level.

So there they are, the 7 elements of great storytelling. If you have any other insights or feel I missed some, please let me know in the comments below.

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How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters

How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“Are there any ‘good’ ways to have smooth transitions between chapters so that the story flows in an understandable way for the reader?”

First we need to understand that there are two different types of transitions that can occur when a chapter ends:

A.) transitioning from one scene to a completely different scene

B.) transitioning from one scene to a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter

Biker through tunnel

In scenario (a) if there are large gaps of time between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, then I usually say something like, “The last 6 months had been rough for Joe. He kept his head down and worked hard…” This is my “establishing shot” so-to-speak. It provides context for the reader and lets them know that the scene has now jumped. The next paragraph after that, I will have Joe doing something and engaging in a new scene.

My book The Art of the Hustle does this quite a bit since I cover 10 years in the book. In one scene, there was so much of a gap (like 4 years), that it was weird to just transition from one chapter to the next so I made a new part. So the book starts out with Part 1 – Chapter 1,2,3,4…. then about halfway, I introduce Part 2 and mention that it has been 4 years later. man walkingIn some cases, it may be more fluid to not have a chapter break, but instead just have a text break. So an example would look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

***

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

With this technique, you don’t have to be all that smooth since the separator lets the reader know that you’ve transitioned into a different scene. If the gap in time is not that large, say the character is at work in one chapter, and then at home in the next chapter, I may just say “Joe was exhausted. He sat on the couch as he usually did after his shift and watched sports highlights…” hot air balloon at nightScenario (b) — a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter — is much easier. I actually prefer this ‘cliff-hanger’ technique as much as possible to encourage people to continue reading. TV shows often end this way as well. So if a chapter ends like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” I’ll end the chapter there so the reader wants to keep reading to find out who was standing behind Joe.

Then, in the next chapter I would begin by saying something like, “Joe couldn’t believe his eyes as he was now staring at a man he long presumed dead…” So basically you just pick up where you left off. In fact, I often write the scene straight through and then later pick some moment which I feel would make a good cliff-hanger and then end my chapter there.

Some writers have an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot and they stitch it together like a zipper. So in my above example, you would say something like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” End chapter. Then the next chapter would be the ‘B’ plot — a completely different scene altogether.

Then once that chapter ends, you pick up where you left off with the ‘A’ plot. I tend not to do this, but it can add more excitement as the reader now has to read an entire chapter just to get back to where they left off in the story. Blog banner

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How to Build an Audience as a Writer

The following is a list of advice that can improve your writing.

1069921_10100669193867131_531800510_n1. Practice Makes Perfect

Think about how much practice it requires to be really good at something. If you want to be exceptional, then you need to put in the same effort into your craft as Kobe Bryant puts into basketball – you need to write and edit everyday. To give you an idea, I write or edit around 11 hours nearly every day. There’s a really good quote I like to use often, it’s from Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up – he says, “Be undeniably good.” If you are undeniably good at what you do, then people will find out about you.

2. Take Your Time

A common mistake a lot of new writers make is they release their work too soon. RESIST THE URGE TO DO THIS!! To give you an example of what I do, I wait at least a year before putting any book or short story out, but usually longer. From the time I write something until the time it goes public is around two years. This is such an important point and should not be overlooked. Trust me, you need some separation from your work and within that time, your skills will have improved. You’ll go back to stuff that at a time represented your best work, but a year later will be complete rubbish. So if you want to make the maximum impact with your writing, it has to be good, and a story hot off the press usually isn’t good.

3. Make a Good First Impression

You’ve heard the saying ‘You only get one chance to make a good first impression’. Make sure your writing is very polished. You won’t be able to do this on your own so you must get editors to review your work. This also applies to the cover art as well. Make sure the product you’re representing is indistinguishable from a professional book. If your writing is of a poor quality, and then your next book is the best book ever written, you may not get that second chance from people.

4. Expose Yourself

If you’re writing for the sake of writing, that’s great, but most of us want others to read our work. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with trying to make a living from your art. However, to do this is very difficult. To build your fanbase, you must first reach some kind of audience – a large number of people who will evaluate your work and decide whether or not they like it. One way to do this is to be featured on a website that reaches a lot of people. You want the spotlight on your book for as long as possible to give people a chance to read your words. If your book is featured and appeals to people, you may even make a ‘trending’ list or a ‘hot’ list. This is also a great way to gain exposure. It also helps if you can be number one on those lists, but anywhere in the top ten is good.

Edward Mullen Prodigy #1

Another great way to expose yourself is to have multiple avenues where people can access you, and don’t be afraid to give your stuff away for free. Be active on as many social media accounts, respond to fans, have a podcast, have a YouTube channel, a blog, and be candid. People are usually really good at spotting fakes. If you want success in anything, you have to be authentic to who you are. Don’t be afraid to expose your personality and even your insecurities, because those things are what make you unique.

5. Explore the World

Writing well is not only about constructing grammatical sentences, your ideas have to be engaging and interesting for people to read. Interesting ideas, interesting points of view, and interesting ways of describing things comes with life experience. As a teenager or young adult, your experiences may be limited so I encourage you to experience new things. While you are exploring the world, remember to be observant and take notes. Observe how people behave, how systems work, what the inside of an office building looks like, and capture your ideas in digital form or on paper for later review. The more experiences you have, the more reference points you will be able to draw from in your writing.

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Edward Mullen

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EG on Creativity

In this talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert argues that genius and this so called “divine creativity” are not found within a person, but are external. She further says that the idea of creativity coming from within puts a tremendous amount of undue pressure on artists which has resulted in “killing off our artists for the last 500 years”. I disagree with these claims and will be defending my position.

Admittedly, there are many instances throughout history where people agree with Gilbert’s claim (i.e. “creativity is not from within, it is on loan to you”). The following is a short list of some known examples of this.

  • In Greek mythology, there are the Muses – nine goddesses which were thought to inspire men (humans) with creativity in art and literature.
  • Nikolai Tesla claims to have been walking in a park when a flash of light in the sky revealed the perfect blueprint for an engine that would make alternating current.
  • When asked how he came up with the song ‘Billie Jean’, Michael Jackson simply said, “from above”.
  • Edgar Cayce is perhaps the most well known example of someone who tapped into the Akashic Records (a non-physical database supposedly containing all knowledge in the Universe).
  • Wernher Von Braun (a German rocket scientist for the Nazis) and Hermann Julius Oberth (a German physicist and engineer) are considered the founders of rocketry and astronautics and created rocket technology that was so far ahead of their time. They are both on record saying that all the technology they created was channeled from other solar systems.
  • Many other writers and artists (including myself) have mentioned this phenomenon – how we don’t even feel right taking credit for the things we create because it is like we are merely channeling creativity from somewhere else.

Elizabeth Gilbert does not mention any of these cases but provides a few of her own examples. The important point is that all these cases share an undeniable similarity. However, it is also likely that all these people (myself included) don’t know what we’re talking about. Maybe it just seems like creativity comes from above when really it comes from within. That is the Occam’s Razor version. I believe that the brain and the origins of thought are not well understood. In traditional human fashion, when something is not well understood, we attribute the answers to something from above. Every culture in the world does this. The Greeks are notorious for it; they had thunder gods, love gods, and so on. Today, we are following suit and coming up with a kind of creativity god to explain what is difficult to explain.

Addressing her other point (i.e. the pressure of creativity coming from within is killing off our artists), I disagree with this claim as well. The real issue is that it is hard for artists to sustain a decent living. That is why the word ‘starving’ often comes before the word artist. In addition, many societies look down on people who choose to pursue the arts as a career (perhaps because it is so difficult to make a decent living at it). Therefore, a lot of people are deterred from being artists. So if it is true that our artists have been dying off (not literally) for the past 500 years, my guess is that it’s an economic issue than anything else.

For those who carry on with their creative endeavors despite the deterrents (and let’s say become über successful – and die) it is still probably not this crumbling under pressure which Gilbert talks about, it probably has more to do with not being able to handle fame and succumbing to temptation (drugs and alcohol), not being equipped to manage their ego, and being around fake people that don’t have their best intentions at heart…

I argue that psychological issues can breed creativity. If this is true, then most artists would therefore be broken to begin with, and the ones ill equipped to handle the pressures of fame, money, yes-men, and temptation, and so on, fall victim to it. Doing what Gilbert suggests would not likely save them from that, since separating oneself from the creative adulation was never the issue to begin with.

Article by Edward Mullen

Author of The Art of the Hustle and Destiny and Free Will

Host of The Edward Mullen Podcast

www.EdwardMullen.com

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EG on Creativity

In this talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert argues that genius and this so called “divine creativity” are not found within a person, but are external. She further says that the idea of creativity coming from within puts a tremendous amount of undue pressure on artists which has resulted in “killing off our artists for the last 500 years”. I disagree with these claims and will be defending my position.

Admittedly, there are many instances throughout history where people agree with Gilbert’s claim (i.e. “creativity is not from within, it is on loan to you”). The following is a short list of some known examples of this.

  • In Greek mythology, there are the Muses – nine goddesses which were thought to inspire men (humans) with creativity in art and literature.
  • Nikolai Tesla claims to have been walking in a park when a flash of light in the sky revealed the perfect blueprint for an engine that would make alternating current.
  • When asked how he came up with the song ‘Billie Jean’, Michael Jackson simply said, “from above”.
  • Edgar Cayce is perhaps the most well known example of someone who tapped into the Akashic Records (a non-physical database supposedly containing all knowledge in the Universe).
  • Wernher Von Braun (a German rocket scientist for the Nazis) and Hermann Julius Oberth (a German physicist and engineer) are considered the founders of rocketry and astronautics and created rocket technology that was so far ahead of their time. They are both on record saying that all the technology they created was channeled from other solar systems.
  • Many other writers and artists (including myself) have mentioned this phenomenon – how we don’t even feel right taking credit for the things we create because it is like we are merely channeling creativity from somewhere else.

Elizabeth Gilbert does not mention any of these cases but provides a few of her own examples. The important point is that all these cases share an undeniable similarity. However, it is also likely that all these people (myself included) don’t know what we’re talking about. Maybe it just seems like creativity comes from above when really it comes from within. That is the Occam’s Razor version. I believe that the brain and the origins of thought are not well understood. In traditional human fashion, when something is not well understood, we attribute the answers to something from above. Every culture in the world does this. The Greeks are notorious for it; they had thunder gods, love gods, and so on. Today, we are following suit and coming up with a kind of creativity god to explain what is difficult to explain.

Addressing her other point (i.e. the pressure of creativity coming from within is killing off our artists), I disagree with this claim as well. The real issue is that it is hard for artists to sustain a decent living. That is why the word ‘starving’ often comes before the word artist. In addition, many societies look down on people who choose to pursue the arts as a career (perhaps because it is so difficult to make a decent living at it). Therefore, a lot of people are deterred from being artists. So if it is true that our artists have been dying off (not literally) for the past 500 years, my guess is that it’s an economic issue than anything else.

For those who carry on with their creative endeavors despite the deterrents (and let’s say become über successful – and die) it is still probably not this crumbling under pressure which Gilbert talks about, it probably has more to do with not being able to handle fame and succumbing to temptation (drugs and alcohol), not being equipped to manage their ego, and being around fake people that don’t have their best intentions at heart…

I argue that psychological issues can breed creativity. If this is true, then most artists would therefore be broken to begin with, and the ones ill equipped to handle the pressures of fame, money, yes-men, and temptation…fall victim to it. Doing what Gilbert suggests would not likely save them from that, since separating oneself from the creative adulation was never the issue to begin with.

Article by Edward Mullen

Author of The Art of the Hustle and Destiny and Free Will

Host of The Edward Mullen Podcast

www.EdwardMullen.com

 

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