0: none of this is true unless you find it to be true.
1. If you’re bored, we’re bored.
2. Characters at every level of the story want something — love, revenge, cake, whatever — and when we meet them we’d better soon know what that thing is. Especially if it’s cake. We can all get behind a character who will kill for cake. I’d kill for cake. Wouldn’t you?
3. Are the characters feeling safe? Good. Now make them feel unsafe.
4. Do something unexpected in the story. Yes, right now. If not now, then soon.
5. If the audience trusts you, dear storyteller, you done fucked up.
6. The best tension isn’t the kind that comes from cheap tricks or lurid manipulation — though hey, those things are totally fine, shut up — but from the feeling the reader gets from believing that the entire story is on unstable ground. This is a kind of existential tension, the fear that the audience doesn’t quite know the rules, hasn’t sussed out the laws of this place. That is the tension of the reader who wisely distrusts you.
7. When you do something unexpected in the story, it has to work in the character and the context and the confines of the story you’re already telling. It can’t be out of fucking nowhere — a cat doesn’t become a dog, but a dog can become a wolf, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean then *gesticulates wildly* there did my flailing hand movement convince you?
8. What I mean is, storytelling is magic. It’s not the magic of sorcery — you’re not a Druid summoning swamp-elves from the murk. You’re a stage magician. Practiced in the art of illusion.
9. One of your greatest skills is misdirection. You seed the truth of the magic trick early on in the story. Then you convince the reader that the truth isn’t the truth at all — until the time comes to reveal. And okay yes fine sometimes you are a Druid summoning swamp-elves out of the murk. Sometimes writing is sacrifice, not magic trick. Sometimes it’s all of those things.
10. The story presents opportunities to pivot — to change the expectations. To change the overall shape of the thing even as you’re drawing it. These opportunities come at, roughly, 33%, 50%, 66%, and sometimes 75% through the story. Mark interesting story shifts at these times to battle the dread beast known as the Mushy Middle. Which is basically a blob of pink, sluggy mucus that will gladly bog your story down like gum on a hot fucking sidewalk.
11. We don’t give too much of a shit about Big Things in stories. THE IMPERIAL DRAGONSWANG HAS COMMANDED A DECREE THAT A SPACE RANGER MUST TRACK DOWN THE SOUZAPHONE OF UNHOLY SHITFIRE and yawn boo bored who gives a hot cup of soup about all that. We care about characters and their problems.
12. Love, hate, jealousy, life, death, betrayal, lies, revenge: these are the widgets, levers and flywheels that keep the story running, and that keep us coming back. Lubricate the gears with blood and tears.
13. You can do whatever you want in a story but you have to convince us why it works. You have to earn it. Every bit of a story has to dance for its dinner.
14. A problem with the end of the story is a problem with the start of your story.
15. Characters must earn their victories.
16. Characters must also earn their losses. These things do not happen in a vacuum.
17. If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story. “It had a great plot” is the sign of a story that’s been over-engineered — like pancake batter you mixed too hard and now the resultant pancakes are as beaten down and lifeless as a pair of ratty underwear on a well-traveled highway.
18. Make me care. That’s your job. It’s not my job as a reader. Make me care.
19. We care about characters we understand. So: make me understand.
20. Pretend while writing that your job isn’t to tell a story but it’s to manipulate and emotionally injure the audience. Because that actually kinda is your job. You monster.
21. Every character is a rabbit hole. Every character goes all the way down if you let them. Not every character demands falling down that hole — but every character should feel like it’s possible. Every character should feel like they possess hidden depths and secret motivations and a great big history all their own.
22. Fuck you, be interesting.
23. “Write What You Know” isn’t an obligation. It’s an opportunity.
24. Try to be funny sometimes. Stories that have no humor at all feel like a brick to the mouth.
25. Humor is the hardest emotion to get right. Here’s a tip: don’t treat it like humor. Humor is funniest when the characters don’t find it funny. They’re not telling jokes. They’re not self-aware of the humor or the absurdity. To them, it’s dreadfully serious. Sure, YOU think it’s funny that they’re fighting a bunny rabbit with giant human nipples for eyes and loud, eruptive fart sounds every time it attacks, but THEY don’t think it’s funny and in fact they’re probably really terrified.
26. Do not write any scenes involving bunny rabbits with giant human nipples or farts. What is wrong with you. Why would you do that? Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anything I’m saying.
27. Every scene is multipurpose.
28. A scene moves the plot.
29. A scene gives us more about the characters.
30. A scene dials up or dials back tension.
31. A scene sets the mood and pings the theme.
32. If a scene doesn’t do all of these things, then consider punting the scene out of the airlock. Watch it scream soundlessly into the void of the stars. Cackle and laugh, for ejecting unworthy parts of our story is as much a cause for joy as writing the worthy stuff.
33. Characters are not role models. Characters should never ever ever be role models.
34. The audience doesn’t have to like the character. They have to believe in, care about, and be willing to live with the character for as long as the story exists. When you violate these things, the reader may close the book and never again open it. And then they’ll probably do something else.
35. There’s always something else for the reader to be doing. You are not competing against other writers or other books, but you are competing against the infinity of options open to your audience: games, toys, social media, sex, sex toys, sex games, corn murder, bee wrangling, monkey punching, gambling, sex gambling, exotic drugs created from household cleaners, falcon training, sex falcon training. Treat your reader as exalted. They have given you money and time. Do not punish them for their choice.
36. No part of the story is an island. All connects. Chekhov’s Gun is not about a gun, but about any element you introduce that must come back to haunt the story somehow. Everything returns.
37. Embrace dramatic irony: when the audience knows something characters don’t.
38. Every scene, every chapter, every part of the story — make sure to be answering questions and then asking new ones. Mystery is an open door we cannot help but walk through. The question mark is shaped like a hook for a reason.
39. Stories are a combination of entertainment and enlightenment.
40. Theme is the argument that the story is trying to make. Theme is a deep well of secret water feeding the roots and beasts of the narrative above. Theme is what your story is really about. Not the plot. Not the “WELL IT’S ABOUT THREE PENGUINS WHO GO ON A ROAD TRIP TO FIND THEIR BEST FRIEND, A LOST PIZZA DELIVERY ROBOT NAMED JIMJAM 9000.” It’s the deeper meaning of that. It’s what the story is really saying. You have beliefs. You have ideas. Use them. Mine them. Whisper them between words and sentences.
41. End chapters interestingly. Which means with uncertainty, suspense, excitement. Lace the end of a chapter with the equivalent of narrative heroin. Readers will turn a page to get the next hit.
42. But don’t always give them the next hit. Keep them waiting. Tantric storytelling. They want you to keep driving straight. So, for a little while, take a hard right. Make them want it harder. Give the audience a straining story boner. Narrative blue balls or whatever the equivalent to lady blue balls is. Cerulean Clitoris, perhaps.
43. Listen to how people tell stories.
44. Listen to how people tell jokes.
45. When characters speak we should ideally know who’s speaking even if there are no dialogue tags to identify them.
46. But please still use dialogue tags. Just use them sparingly. Remember too that dialogue and action speed up the narrative, while description and exposition slow it down.
47. Stories are written, not read, but in our heads we’re still reading them out loud. Which I know doesn’t make sense (OUT LOUD but IN OUR HEAD) and yet I don’t care. Life is full of abstractions and impossibilities. Get used to it, sucker.
48. The stakes of a story are what can be won or lost by all the characters and even by the world itself. Establish stakes early. Complicate the stakes throughout. Change them, even, if you must. But if you change them they must become bigger and worse, not smaller and easier.
49. Embrace Pyrrhic Victory: characters can win, but must ask, at what cost?
50. Don’t meander. Don’t wander aimlessly like a baby escaping the crib. You can wander a little — a butterfly temporarily drunk on nectar. But have a point. Have a direction. Be like a wasp diving toward its prey. Quick with a sting.
51. If you don’t have a point or a direction, try outlining. Even if you’re in the middle of the story — outline the road behind and the path ahead. Try it. Just fucking try it. Don’t look at me like that. I know you don’t want to do it but life isn’t about doing all the things we want and none of the things we don’t. I don’t want to have to go to the DMV or the post office but sometimes we just have to swallow our medicine and quit grousing about it. *flicks you in the nose*
52. Let the characters talk as long as they want to.
53. Be prepared to cut a lot of what the characters say.
54. If you don’t know who a character is, write extraneous chapters with them. Chapters that don’t matter at all and may not even be real. They’re just exercises. Take the character on a test drive.
55. Invoke every paragraph with threat and uncertainty. Even safety should feel a little bit unsafe. As if things are good right now, but they might not be — *checks watch* — any second.
56. Storytelling is the balancing act of telling just enough to keep the reader reading, but also keeping information away from them in order to — you guessed it — keep them reading.
57. Reveal too much and a story becomes boring.
58. Fail to reveal enough and a story becomes bewildering.
59. Stop reading only in the genre you’re writing. That is the Human Centipede effect of genre. (AKA, “Gobblepoop,” or “Poopgobble.”) Just eating the genre and shitting it back into the mouths of the audience. So gross. Don’t do it.
60. Characters must make mistakes. But they cannot make only mistakes. They must have triumphs, too. A story isn’t an endless array of failure and disaster — we must have some sense of success to know why it must above all else (and against all odds) not be lost.
61. Stories can be therapy. But they mustn’t read like therapy.
62. Characters operate with or against each other. Parallel or perpendicular.
63. Characters who run parallel to the other characters may change and run perpendicular. This is how drama and conflict is born. Opposing desires, motivations, needs. Characters in competition.
64. Characters do not operate in a straight line. Forget plot. Think of it as a web of characters — they exist at every intersection. Over here, Dave does shit and tugs on the web and that has effects all the way on the other side. And now Shirley hates him. And Jimjam 9000 wants to murder them all and turn them into delicious Human Pizza.
65. Challenge the characters and the storyworld at every step. Take things away. Pit them against each other. Challenge their beliefs by the events they undergo.
66. The best villains are the ones we adore despite how much we hate and fear them.
67. The order of operations — the sequence of revelation inside the narrative — can heighten tension and suspense. Consider in what order you tell the reader things.
68. Point-of-view is our gateway in — it is a character-facing part of the story. Choice of POV impacts mystery, conflict, tension. It limits what can be known to your benefit and to your disadvantage. It exists at every level of the story and so its choice matters greatly.
69. If you’re having trouble with the story, switch from one POV to another. First to third, third to first. Intimate to impersonal. Or jump characters inside the text. Let us live with another character for a while. Demonstrate the character web that I was talking about.
70. If the opening of your story sucks, it’s dead. It’s like taking a first step and then twisting your ankle and falling face-first into a puddle of steaming horse piss. It’s awkward and everybody will laugh and nobody will believe in you ever again. Get the opening right.
71. Get the rest of your story right, too. Take the time to make it sing.
72. When in doubt, break your story up into segments. Parts, books, chapters, sequences, episodes, whatever. Maybe you use these so that the reader can see them (PART THREE: THE BUTTSTOMPENING. SEQUENCE FOUR: THE REVENGE OF STORG AND JAPERTHA). Maybe you spackle over the seams so they remain unseen. But a story is easier to envision when it’s less a sprawly, monstrous thing and more a thing you can get your hands around. For strangling. What? I didn’t say strangling. You said strangling.
73. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. This is the blood and bone of storytelling. Character wants shit, does shit, shit happens. Character discovers character is not the only character in the world and is in fact in a universe dominated by many other characters who want shit, too.
74. If you wanna know how to do any one thing about storytelling better, find a story (book, comic, movie, game, whatever) that you think does it well, then read it again and again and cut it apart with scalpel and hatchet until you think you know why it works. Then read it again. Then try to emulate. Then after all that try to do it your own way.
75. Fuck your fear. Write confidently. Go big, bold, weird. We don’t want timid storytellers.
76. Cut stupid shit. If the characters are being stupid, stop them. The audience learns to despise truly foolish characters — especially when those foolish characters are foolish only because the plot demands. Let them fail smartly. Let them make intelligent mistakes, not dumb ones.
77. Characters do not act according to “plot.” They don’t know there’s a plot. They only know what they want and what they’re willing to do or lose to get it. Full stop.
78. If you’re taking too long to get somewhere in the story, stop now and figure out how to get there faster. Stick a rocket booster up the tale’s ass and light the fuse.
79. Try to outguess your readers. They think you’re going somewhere with the story. Try to figure out what they would guess — or better yet, engineer it. Then? Go the other way.
80. Though sometimes you gotta go exactly the way they expect you to go. Some parts of a story are inevitable and that’s okay, too.
81. Facts don’t matter in fiction, but authenticity — meaning, the convincing appearance of truth — does. You can do or say whatever you want if you can convince me it’s true.
82. You can actually break any rule out there if you do it well.
83. Always wonder: why is this story happening now? Why is it urgent and necessary?
84. Are you having fun? Why aren’t you having fun? Find a way to have fun. I COMMAND YOU TO HAVE FUN. *points gun at you* *pulls trigger* *gun shoots fun particles into your mouth*
85. Shut up and get to the point. Stop dicking around.
86. Distrust plot formulas or preconceived story shapes. They’re useful when they’re useful. They’re dull, lifeless prisons when they’re not. Note I didn’t say not to use them. Simply distrust.
87. Actually, distrust most everything except yourself.
88. Active over passive. Character agency over character inertia.
89. All things beholden to rhythm. Music isn’t just a cacophony of notes garbled together to make a shrill, shrieking burst of endless static. Instruments meet together to form a symphony of sounds. Up and down. Fast and slow. Loud and quiet. Stories are this way, too. Listen to music. Emulate what you hear there. Across all things: character, tension, theme, mood, and so on.
90. Storytelling is an act of breaking the status quo. The story is itself a violation of the expected order. That is why This Story exists Right Now. Because the Way Of Things has been broken. If the status quo persists, then you have chosen the wrong part of the story to tell, or a story whose existence will never feel necessary.
91. All stories must feel necessary.
92. Leave things out of the story. The readers want to do work. Let them.
93. Don’t cheat. We’ll fucking know it, you Cheaty McCheaterperson.
94. Don’t be dishonest about yourself or about us or about the entire world as you personally perceive it. Come to the page with bold, bald honesty. About you. About everything. About what your ideas big and small. Authorial vision is a real thing. Don’t shy away from it.
95. Pat, tidy endings are the worst endings. Because we don’t believe them. Not even in fairy tales.
96. If you’re stuck, go do something else for a while. Get out of your own head. Have a different experience. Get the blood flowing. Eat some cake. I already told you that cake was awesome. Do not disbelieve me about cake. Fine, carrots are also pretty tasty. Especially in carrot cake.
97. You need to care about the story that you’re telling and if you don’t care, you need to figure out why. Tell the story that lives in your heart. It is a story that insists upon being told. It is the story that wants to jump out of your chest like a bloodslick xenomorph.
98. Storytelling is a series of promises, some broken, some fulfilled. Know which is which and know why each must be the way it must be. Fulfill more promises than you break.
99. The best stories make us feel giddy and afraid not only when we read them — but when we’re sitting there writing them, as well.
100. Stop fucking around and finish what you begin. Commit to that act: if you choose to begin, then know this means you have also promised to finish the story. Always go the distance.
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