secrets of storytelling

The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling (That Writers Forget All the Time)

5 secrets of good storytellingI’m having a harder and harder time getting excited about stories these days. Not because I don’t love stories, but because I do love them—and because it’s ever-increasingly difficult to find truly great ones that employ all the secrets of good storytelling.

By “great stories,” I mean stories that are put together with intelligence, understanding, passion, and vision, so that we, as viewers and readers, have the opportunity to react to characters and plots that both emotionally engage us and intellectually stimulate us. I bet I can count on my fingers and toes the number of stories—both books and movies—that have given me that experience in the last 5 years (and maybe longer).

Part of the reason for this is a corporate mindset (particularly in Hollywood) that hedges its bets with spectacle, instead of risking any chips on meaty storytelling. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle in which new authors and filmmakers feel this is “the way to do it” and instinctively mimic these patterns. Much of the problem is simply a lack of understanding in those telling the stories.

I’ll admit upfront this post was inspired by Star Wars: The Last Jedi—which I thought was an unmitigated mess. Do I believe director Rian Johnson and others involved in its production were copping out to sheer spectacle just to chase the money? No, I don’t. I think these people love Star Wars as much as I do and sincerely wanted to tell a story that was, in every way, as great as the original trilogy.

Unfortunately, however, they missed the mark on several fundamental levels of good storytelling—as do so many high-profile stories these days.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, as writers ourselves, we have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to learn from these highly visible mistakes and use them to create better stories in the next five years and beyond.

The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling

Today, I want to talk about five principles of good storytelling. By “principles,” I mean basic storytelling truths that ring true in every story. If you want to write a good book or screenplay, these principles aren’t optional. There are more than just these five, of course, but these are arguably the most basic, and therefore the most important. They are also, unfortunately, the five principles I see neglected most often in well-meaning fiction that wants to hit the mark but lacks the grounding in strong story theory and application to make it happen.

All of these problems are blatantly on display in The Last Jedi. However, I’m not going to use direct examples from the movie—mostly because I don’t want to argue every point with viewers who were able to get past its problems and enjoy it. At the end of the day, viewer/reader enjoyment trumps any logical argument. If you enjoyed this movie, I’m happy for you. I wish I had too! I’m not trying to take away from that enjoyment.

But I would also encourage that you can and should be writing better stories than this. You can do that by starting with these five important not-so-secret secrets of good storytelling.

1. Every Piece Must Contribute to the Plot

Story is a unit. In order to be a unit, it must be cohesive. This is true most obviously on the level of plot and structure. Every piece—every scene—must link together, like a circle of dominoes, to create a unified chain of cause and effect. Any extraneous scene or plot twist will, at the least, be a speed bump in your readers’ journey through your story.

This is true of more than just scenes and structure. It applies to every element in your plot.

I’m always looking for ways to repeat motifs, pay off even the slightest bit of foreshadowing, and reuse settings and props in thematically meaningful ways. Most stories can support a few loose ends, but a good motto for any writer is: Everything matters.

This is nowhere more true than of your characters. Characters are the drivers of your plot, but more than that, they are the symbolic and archetypal representation of your theme (something Joseph Campbell helped George Lucas implement brilliantly in the original Star Wars trilogy).

As a result, every character needs to matter. You can’t just dream up a cool character, stick him in the story for a few scenes, then write him out or kill him off. That kind of character is like the nice guy who helps you jumpstart your car and then walks out of your life forever; his contribution to your story makes no lasting impression and his role could just as easily have been played by any other of a million passing strangers.

Check Yourself:

Structure gives you an easy way to determine whether you’ve added an integral story element or an extraneous one. The defining moment in any story’s structure is the Climactic Moment, which definitively ends the conflict.

Everything builds up to this. If you can delete a character, scene, or plot device and still get to your Climactic Moment in good shape—then you don’t need that character, scene, or plot device. However cool it may seem or however much fun it may be to write, it is dead weight in your story.

2. Plot Must Contribute to Theme

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Writing a cohesive plot is a major step toward writing a story that can at least keep its feet under itself. Many fun “situation” stories never go farther than that. But if you can go farther, if you can take your story to another level, then why wouldn’t you?

That’s where theme comes in. Truly great stories aren’t just entertaining; they are emotional journeys that leave their viewers/readers changed in some way, however large or small. In order to accomplish this, the plot must be engineered to contribute organically and integrally to a theme.

These days, however, theme is the orphaned child of the storytelling world. Everybody tries to be kind to it, but because nobody knows quite what to do with it, it mostly just ends up sitting in the corner playing by itself. It kinda/sorta seems like it’s in sync with the rest of the big, boisterous family, but all their attempts to truly accept and include it are just… awkward.

Just as your Climactic Moment should be the light at the end of the tunnel that guides your every decision about what plot elements to include, your theme should be the lighthouse that guides the plot itself to a meaningful and resonant destination.

Usually, plot comes first in stories, and because the storytellers have no idea how to mine that plot for a pertinent theme, they end up, at best, with a scattered mess that fails to offer any important commentary on either the characters’ struggles or, as a result, the viewers/readers’ own lives.

This gets even more complex when you realize the more characters and plot lines you’re including, the more important it is to weave all this stuff together to reach one meaningful thematic ending for all of it.

Check Yourself:

What is your story trying to say?

And, trust me, every story is saying something. There’s no such thing as “just a story.” Frankly, that is a naïve and irresponsible cop-out.

The real question is whether you will dig down into the hearts of your characters, be brave enough and disciplined enough to figure out what it is you’re really trying to say, and then do the often messy and difficult legwork of creating character arcs and plot that serve the theme—rather than the other way around.

In his essay in Light the Dark, Jonathan Franzen offers a challenge to every writer:

I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.

3. Stuff Can’t Happen Just to Have Stuff Happen

Storytellers notoriously get sidetracked by shiny baubles.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read the transcripts from the story planning sessions in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan met to discuss Raiders of the Lost ArkI get an endless kick over how Lucas and Kasdan are calmly working their way through ideas and plots to arrive at the story basically as we know it—and all the while, Spielberg just keeps on throwing in all these wild and crazy ideas, like a little kid having the best time playing make-believe: “Oh, and then you know what would be really cool? We should have a giant boulder come out and squish this guy!”

It’s hilarious mostly because it’s so relatable. We’re all Spielberg. Not only do we want our stories to be as cool as possible for our readers, we’re also just really excited about the cool possibilities for ourselves.

But beware of cool. Cool is seductive and can lead far too easily to stories that are chock full of stuff—but stuff that doesn’t matter. And without meaning, cool really isn’t that cool.

This temptation is especially dangerous for speculative writers. The endless possibilities of science fiction and fantasy provide us the opportunity to throw in all kinds of cool stuff just because it’s cool. But as another Spielberg character says in Jurassic Park:

They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Check Yourself:

Why are you adding that gnarly new character? Why did your characters travel to that exotic new setting? Why have you included that funny little subplot? If your primary answer is Because… it’s cool?, stop and take a second look.

There’s no reason you can’t include all that cool stuff, but first you’ve got to make it matter to the story. It’s got to be so integral to the plot that if you yanked it, meaning would be lost. Even better, it needs to resonate on a thematic level. It needs to offer more than coolness; it needs to either ask questions or provide answers.

There’s nothing I love more than long, complex books or movies… when they work. When all that complexity comes together to create the warp and weft of a magical whole, it’s too delicious for words. But there’s also nothing I hate more than long, messy books or movies that drag me through the authors’ self-indulgent refusal to recognize and discard meaningless elements. This is even true of stories in which the pieces are great but ultimately detract from what might otherwise have been an even better whole.

4. Characters Must Change

Okay, I’m harping a lot on meaning. Stories have to have meaning. But sometimes that seems like a pretty vague directive. Authors are so deep in their own stories it’s often hard for them to know how to look for objective meaning. After all, the very fact that we are writing this thing means it’s already pretty darn meaningful to us.

The single easiest way to determine whether your story as a whole has meaning, or whether any particular element of your story contributes to that meaning, is to look for the arc of change within your story.

Story events that matter create change, either in your protagonist or the world around her. Lots of stuff can happen in a story, but if it doesn’t affect important and lasting change, then it’s just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Check Yourself:

Compare the beginning and ending of your story. What’s different? Which of your characters’ beliefs about the world have changed? How has this created change in their external actions? How have their external actions created change in the world around them? How have they changed physically? How has the world around them changed physically?

In answering these questions, look past the surface clutter. Maybe your characters fought an epic battle and a bunch of them died. At first glance, that seems like change. But unless that battle has changed your characters’ goals or proximity to those goals, nothing has changed.

This is often a particular challenge in series, since authors need to find a way to bring protagonist and antagonist into a climactic encounter in every story—without actually ending the conflict until the final installment. But the conflict must be advanced in each encounter; otherwise that particular installment is meaningless within the series.

5. Realistic Cause and Effect Must Arise From Character Motivation

Particularly in a plot-driven story, it can be easy to get so caught up in the external action that you fail to create meaningful character-driven reasons for those actions. You can’t have a solid plot without solid character motivations; it simply doesn’t work.

Characters can’t be at war just because, hey, wars are dramatic and interesting. Characters can’t recklessly dive into conflict just because, hey, reckless heroes are awesome. Characters can’t fall in love just because, hey, they’re both adorable, so why wouldn’t they fall in love? The more intelligent and experienced your characters are supposed to be, the more and more important this becomes.

Check Yourself:

If your Climactic Moment is the guiding light at the end of the story, then your characters’ motivations are the catalyst that sends them in search of that light. Those motivations need to be checked and double-checked in every scene you write. Are your characters making these decisions and executing these actions because they are in total alignment with their mission statements—their motivations—or are they deciding and acting like that just because it’s convenient for the plot and will let you stick in some cool “stuff”?

It is the author’s foremost (and arguably only) job to serve the story. That starts and ends with crafting meaningful character motivations and then adhering to them with honesty and conviction at every step.

5 Secrets of Good Storytelling That Readers Forget all the Time Infographic

Created by Mayumi Cruz.


Good storytelling should be hard—not because it’s impossible, but because it is a high-level skill that requires understanding, insight, energetically clear thinking, and absolute discipline when it comes to choosing elements that will support a worthwhile vision while rejecting those that detract.

Storytellers like you have the ability to rise above mediocrity, step into an understanding of the larger world of storytelling, and write the kind of stories that will save the galaxy. You’re our new hope.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the most important secret of good storytelling? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This was a very good post! I wholeheartedly agree with you and I’m relieved to say that I hit all of those points intuitively when writing – although the longer it takes to write a story, the more “cool” stuff I want to add. I’ve found that good storytelling is like a strip of bacon; trim the fat, keep the lean!

    I actually liked The Last Jedi, but I may have been too “in the moment” to notice many story shortcomings. As a fan of anime, I have seen several shows that look amazing and entertain, but fall apart when given a second viewing. It’s good to learn what not to do from stories like these; I’m curious, what did The Last Jedi miss in your opinion?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! Good for you. 🙂

      Last Jedi was not anywhere close to being the worst movie I’ve seen in recent years, but its failings (the most notable of which are the five I talk about in this post) hit me hard as a personal culmination of sorts in my frustration with mainstream storytelling. In a nutshell, I just felt like it was so much wasted potential–all kinds of stuff happening that ultimately went nowhere.

      • The Last Jedi has too many main characters that have full blown arcs. Since Johnson tried to do each character justice it took away from the impact of having one really good main arc.


        I appreciated that each character had an arc in comparison to the force awakens which didn’t have a main character who was truly struggling to root for.

        Rey has a flat arc where she has her truth and has to fight for it. Fighting Luke first and foremost haha.

        Luke has the main change arc, which I definitely didn’t see coming.

        Kylo Ren is the low key main character of this trilogy with his arc being a tragedy, depending on how the third movie plays out.

        Not to mention Fin or Poe, just so many people.

        But if the story had just one main character arc it would be much better.

        If only Rey would have taken Kylos hand we would see who her character truly was.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          And who Kylo really is as well.

          • we’ll never know….

            The red room scene was awesome though you can’t deny that. Was a great turning point for Kylo as he cut Snoke in half with the monks chanting in the background.

            The scene would have been more powerful if we saw Rey come to after being knocked out with Kylo on the floor. Seeing her in a moment of internal struggle of whether to kill Kylo while he was unconscious or not, choosing not to, would have added a lot to the ending of the movie. I also believe that the story was designed for Finn to die which would have added some change to the whole story but they felt like they couldn’t kill him off because they liked him too much.

            It really should have been Poe going towards the laser independence day style and dying, going full circle with him learning from Jurassic Park Lady. And really fulfilling his arc of trying to always do the heroic successful thing, finding success in the failure of his existence.

            Then it would have felt like change maybe happened. Rey seeing the cause of her actions leaving Kylo alive. Saving everybody but also seeing the loss she caused.

            Maybe it will be in the directors cut. . .

        • Nice observation. Ensemble pieces often lack coherence. Monuments Men had lots of nifty stuff and interesting characters, but ended up with no focus.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes, great insights–especially about Po. His death in that scene would have done at least a bit to bring the story full circle.

  2. The force is strong with you, Master Weiland.

    Good fundamentals here. Haven’t seen the Last Jedi so I don’t have an opinion about it either way.

    “Everything matters.” I love this statement in it’s simplicity and profoundness. This one sticks pretty well especially since I’m a possibility-idea-generator-kind-of-guy.

    Motivation is KING. We’re always supremely fascinated by why people do things, whether fiction or reality. It certainly deepens the character and fuels the entire story. Protagonist and antagonist.

    I read a plot driven book by one of my favorite authors last year that didn’t mention the protagonist until chapter 12!! The plot was amazing no doubt, but it didn’t have enough the protagonist in my opinion. His motivation was clear but it was wasn’t enough to salvage the story. I was looking to sink my teeth into the hero and invest in them.

    Another example is from a great series I’ve been enjoying. I’m now realizing the entire second act is characteristically weak in each book of the trilogy. The first, third acts are juicy, but the middle is sagging. There are a lot of characters without much change or central arc to demonstrate it. I enjoyed it, but it certainly lacked because of few weak fundamentals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Second Acts are hard for a lot of authors simply because they don’t understand the structural underpinnings that make them work. This can and should be the meatiest part of the book, so it’s always disappointing when authors fail to take advantage of their Second Acts’ potential.

      • I’ve only recently discovered how critical the so-called moment of grace (MOG) is to the second act. It is to Act 2 what the Inciting Event is to Act 1. The difference is that MOG makes the story stakes intensely personal, elevating the psychological arc.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes! I call this the Moment of Truth. Arguably, it is the most important moment in the entire story. It is the swivel between halves (reaction to action) and the crucial linchpin in the character arc.

  3. Daeus Lamb says

    Well, my impressions of TLJ was dramatically different than yours…I actually thought there was a lot writers could learn from it…

    Still, there were definitely some problems with it, and I think this post helps me categorize those better.

    And these are good points to consider for any novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, it definitely had its good points. For instance, I really liked the mental interaction between Rey and Kylo, but was ultimately frustrated that it ended up doing so little to evolve either character–or the plot.

  4. Valerie Harbolovic says

    As I head to the library, your comment will be my mantra: “you have the ability to rise above mediocrity”.


  5. Bryan Fagan says

    To learn these tools a writer should go back to their favorite book or movie and ask themselves why they liked it. What did it do that drew them in ? Some of us are book nerds in a sense that we need to read lessons in order to create while others are visual nerds in that we need to watch movies to do the same. I’m nerdy in both in case you’re curious. The bottom line: Never stop learning.

    Thank you for this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Totally agree with this. And ask yourself why you *don’t* like other stories. If writers aren’t willing to figure this stuff out, we will never gain the ability to write *better* stories.

  6. Sounds good. I think it links well to ‘Crafting unforgettable characters’ which im getting into now. I think it is also important as it is easy to waste time on things not needed. Time is precious.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hey, glad you’re enjoying Crafting Unforgettable Characters! 🙂

      The irony is that in respecting our readers’ time, we often need to take a little more time upfront, for ourselves, to figure out which elements are intrinsic and which are not.

      • I feel its important to get the characters right early as it sets the rest of the writing up, so Crafting them well is intrinsic.

        Every part needs to connect and not just be there for the sake of it.

        Im reading the Divergent books now which helps explain and tie off various questions about the movies which I felt were missing especially from the second 2.

  7. This is a very good “checklist” – both for keeping in mind while writing and for pinning next to the screen when revising. The principles are familiar to me from your posts/books and from other things I have read, but as always, one or two lines just prompted a “wait a minute”-moment and some frantic scribbling – now I found a beautiful role for one of my minor characters in the climax – thank you! (And I have not even started revising yet, as I am still working towards the climax…)

  8. Eric Troyer says

    Great post, Katie. I’m a little disappointed you didn’t go in for some “Last Jedi” bashing, but I understand. I saw it with my wife and son. They really liked it…until I pointed out all the things I didn’t like about it. They may never invite me to another movie again!

    I tried to restrain myself, but the more I thought about some of the stuff that happened in the movie, the more it annoyed me. I can overlook silly stuff that’s not integral to the plot (pole vaulting a steep canyon to a thin ledge in order to…catch a fish?), but when it’s integral to the plot (great Jedi distracts the enemy so the forces of good can escape…but neglects to tell the good guys?) I can’t overlook it. OK, I’ll shut up now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Heh. Yeah, some of the people I went with weren’t too happy with me either. 😉

    • About the fish . . . I’m pretty sure he was showing off.

      • Khanh Huynh says

        Life experiences it is still fresh and didn’t have complete thoughts and still study English and harder buried emotions in the pictures and thank you advise very raw this time and time will make it better next time

  9. Don’t worry, my fellow blogger. You’re not alone. I’m planning to also do a post on my own blog about how I felt on TLJ. Like you, there were moments I loved and wished I could go back to, and others that just felt eh. (a.k.a Canto Bight and certain moments of “humor”) But that’s okay. At least we can learn a lot from this starry mess…
    P.S. I loved this post. Got great points all round!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The saddest part is that there’s no reason this film couldn’t have been *great.* It’s a very regrettable wasted opportunity.

      • One thing I really appreciated with `The Last Jedi’ was Po’s story arc. Of course, that shifted Po into the main character, since he changed the most, and his change seemed to reflect the theme most. (The idea that sometimes to win long-term you have to let go of short-term victories -even if doing so makes you appear cowardly.) Rey doesn’t seem to connect to that theme (I’ve only seen the movie once, so I could be mistaken) which makes her seem more like a sub-plot than the main character, which is what the last movie set her up to be.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Po’s arc would have worked a lot better for me if it had seemed like a better continuation of the first movie. The fact that his relationship with Rey was central in the first and nonexistent in the second was jarring. That may be helped some on a second viewing, but it definitely felt like the two films were the products of totally different creative visions.

          • I think you’re thinking of Fin. His relationship with Rey was a huge part of the last movie. Po is the one who was barely in the first film because he spent most of his time being presumed dead.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Oh, of course, how could I forget that? I do love Finn. 🙂

      • Definitely. Both Finn and Poe had something to bring in both movies, but due to a lack of focus and execution, none of their character arcs really brought a huge fulfillment in the last act.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Even Rey’s climactic arrival to save everyone felt extraneous. At that point, I was like, “Oh yeah, I totally forgot about you.”

      • Khanh Huynh says

        Love is blind can’t blame on it at least I try or never did risk but I have a lot short story the love story more deeper but sometimes still scared the writer’s

  10. These are good tips to keep in mind. I think a lot of people are guilty of number three. Don’t we want to see our precious darlings looking awesome and cool? My hardest spot, though, is number one — making sure everything actually matters to the Climactic Moment. Looks like I may have some cutting to do.
    I have the give The Last Jedi credit for holding my attention for the whole movie (not much does). However, I was trying to track the story structure mentally and it seemed to me like they skipped over the starting-to-take-action Second Half of the Second Act and went straight the picks-up-and-never-slows-down action of the Third Act.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, I gave up on doing the structure pretty quickly. If I see it again (and right now that’s a big if), I’ll post my findings in the Story Structure Database.

  11. Jim Griffith says

    Feel vindicated you agree with my style. I like number three, no campfire talk or action, just to have something to write because it sounds good. I have stopped reading books where talk and action have nothing to do with the plot. I know right away it’s campfire talk because the book slows to a halt, and you learn nothing about the plot or the characters. Close book go to the next.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. Although, that said, it’s still important to include slower “sequel” scenes, in which characters process their reactions. Much good character development happens in these scenes.

  12. This was a great post (as usual).

    Like many, I had a gut reaction of horror with The Last Jedi. But then, after thinking about it, a lot of what it was doing makes much more sense to me than it did in the moment.

    Still, the movie had enough cringe moments, that it was hard to see what was being done thematically.

    I want to rewatch the film with this list in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The fact that I was so unemotionally engaged by the Third Act that I was actually bored makes me reluctant to rewatch, but, like you, I feel like I should.

  13. I saw The Last Jedi and I thought it was ok, but not great. I wondered what you would think of it, Katie.
    The two problems I had with it were:
    1) I couldn’t tell who the main character was. The structure and character arcs gave me conflicting clues.
    2) We are told Kylo is incompetent and weak. We see he is conflicted which causes him to seem incompetent and weak. An incompetent, weak villain who is (possibly) relatable detracts from everything. He is a shade of grey and so are most of the main characters, so there is not enough contrast, IMHO.
    I spent yesterday arguing about it with an aspiring author friend who loved the movie. She loves epics with large casts of equally important main characters, lots of plot twists, and lots of internal conflict even for the villains. I’ve never been able to persuade her to consider story structure. Given how successful The Last Jedi was, she seemed to think that she had won the argument over the (un)importance of story structure. It was most provoking. No doubt she won’t be the only who learns that creativity trumps structure.

    • I think the main character was Rey. There were multiple character arcs however. The prequels suffered from the issue of not having a primary character as well, but this one is suffering more in that it’s a “three act second act.” While it can be handled well, the middle of the story can feel like this when taken out of context of the whole.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Rey was the main character, but the clutter of the secondary storyline(s) dramatically weakened her ability to control the story and drive the plot.

        Totally agree about Kylo. He was finally almost interesting for about two minutes there, before they wiped out all his development in his final fight with Rey. The sad thing there is that he had the opportunity the be an interesting and unique villain–except he wasn’t setup well from the very start of this trilogy. (For my money, he was also badly miscast.)

        There’s a time and a place for sprawling, complex stories, but the thing that holds them together and makes them work is structure and, especially, theme. The problem, as I note in the post, is that these badly-executed stories have become the norm to the extent that they’re influencing and even controlling storytelling culture. We’re so inundated with them that we instinctively want to mimic them. I have to guard against this myself. That’s why it’s so important for authors to be grounded in a conscious understanding of story theory. We can’t execute stories the way want to until we can first articulate what it is we want to do and why it will work.

        • I partially agree. Kylo was miscast and the problems started in the first postquel movie. I thought the prequel trilogy was about Annikin and how good people turn bad. Annikin was miscast for the second two films, but I thought the major plot line was simple enough. The sub-plots in these second two movies were a nightmare that defied my comprehension.

          In terms of the theme, I read a review suggesting the overarching theme for the trilogy was legacies. It makes the plots and characters hang together better, but I’m not sure that legacies is necessarily a theme that resonates with many people. Sure George Lucas and Star Wars fanatics have it at the top of their minds, but I’m not sure about everyone else. It’s not something that appeals to me but maybe I should care given this push away from the old storytelling ways towards a new convoluted storytelling path.

          For the record I thought Rey was the MC for the first one and possibly Poe for the second. Looking on Wikipedia, I see they thought Rey was the MC for both. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I don’t think it reflects well on the film-makers that the audience is confused. I’ve also considered the possibility that the entire trilogy has Kylo as the MC.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes, I never thought I’d say this, but the sequels are starting to make the prequels look good. The sequels are much better executed on a surface level, but the prequels have them beat on a fundamental storytelling level. (Which is not to say, on any level, that I endorse the prequels. :p)

    • Creativity trumps structure…until it suddenly doesn’t, to everyone’s shock and dismay. The consequences of being seduced by niftyosity will be severe and expensive.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Which is why a grounding in fundamental story theory is so valuable. When authors stand on that, they have the security to go out in creative limbs, while knowing exactly what they risk and how best to fulfill their vision.

  14. I haven’t seen TLJ yet, but we saw the new Jumanji. It was hilarious and while I watched it I didn’t give a thought to story structure, etc. But thinking back, the character arcs were well developed. I’m curious to see who agrees with me.

  15. Lyn Alexander says

    Good points, K.T., as always.
    Five hundred years ago John Donne said it slightly more succinctly; and it would be well for a novelist to keep these words in mind while writing that epic.
    For ‘man’ read ‘word’. That says it all. Every word is part of the whole…………….
    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

  16. I totally get why you didn’t get into your problems with TLJ. Don’t want to kick that hornets nest!
    But I do have to say, I get a lot more out of your articles when you give examples (especially when they are all from the same book or film). I guess I’m just that type of learner. Still going to try and apply these to my writing. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Maybe after a little more time has passed and folks aren’t so fired up about it–one way or another. 😉

      • I really enjoyed `The Last Jedi,’ but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate your analysis. You might be right about waiting until the hype has died down a bit, though. It’s easy to get very passionate about stories. I do enjoy the way everyone here seems to have a lot of respect for differing opinions and the like. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I think this was a very emotional story for a lot of people (for me too). I know I need to calm down and see it again before I can offer a balanced critique of its point-by-point problems.

  17. Great post, especially for someone who is going through her first draft and wondering “should this be eliminated?” thank you.


    I don’t have anything decent to add to this. Other than to say I agree. But it reminded me of a ‘Manga’-style novel I once reviewed. The first chapter was great; dragged me right in. A female protag who lands in a new land and has to somehow survive. It was mysterious and tense. The start of the second chapter reverses and completely destroys this mesmerism by having the girl instantly fall in love with the first sexist, misogynist, jackass she meets. And all it took was a ten-second look into his eyes. I groaned, and howled incredulously the rest of the novel. Unfortunately for the author, she instantly becomes a third-wheel in an otherwise boring set chapters where the guy is doing ‘manly’ stuff to impress the girl and saving the world from a stupid, alpha-male beast. In my head, I was creating scene after scene with her growing increasingly annoyed and angry with this idiot for the way he was treating her and in last chapter chopping his head off with her magnificent, jewel-encrusted broad sword which he never let her use once the entire story. That would have been a fitting end to the story given the author made her wallow through an entire book of stupidity only for her in the to fade away into oblivion. “Off with his stupid head!” I screamed in my review. But no one, including the author, seemed to appreciate my reaction to his story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a perfect example of why it’s so important for stories to set up reader expectations right from the start. Even should the rest of your story be able to stand on its own merits, if it’s not what readers thought they were supposed to get, they’ll often reject it.

  19. I was excited to see if I could document the plot structure while watching The Last Jedi, but after my writer friends went to see it and noticed these things, I think I’ve changed my mind. But maybe I’ll watch it with these tips in mind so I know what not to do!


  20. Pleased I’m not the only one who watched The Last Jedi with a story-critical eye. I felt like nothing much happened in it- the potential for a big change of heart for characters was teased and snatched away, and the theme seemed to be “people die frequently”. I struggled to find the story in it. Disappointing for me as a fan, but satisfying to feel that I could describe what was missing rather than just being left feeling unsatisfied.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, one of the biggest criticism we could level at it is that it advanced the story very little (despite all its sound and fury). To all intents and purposes, we end in basically the same place as we started.

  21. I know there were a lot of mixed reactions to The Last Jedi. I went away feeling moderately entertained but still wholly unsatisfied by the end. In my mind, it amounted to a not very good movie that had a few cool things happening in it. It’s good to know I’m not the only one, and indeed someone whose view I respect felt similar.
    I’ve heard some people say the lack of appeal was due to a more predominant female cast, but honestly, I didn’t feel that way. In fact, Rey was one of my favorite characters in the movie and her story had the most drive and focus behind it while many of the other characters I found pointless or confusing.
    You may get some criticism for it, but I would enjoy a post with specific examples of what you felt were some of the major failing points, as you’ve done for other movies.
    All that aside, I do appreciate these storytelling secrets and really wish we saw them being used much more often in film and TV.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, Rey has so much potential (as does Finn). Honestly, I think Kylo could have been incredible too had he just not been done so very, very wrong.

  22. Lewis Jorstad says

    I would be very interested to hear your criticisms of TLJ later in the year, when there is some distance from it. One of my deepest issues with the movie (that hasn’t already been mentioned) is how Leia was written. She kept showing up, seeming like she was about to take some important action, but then would fade into the background again. I don’t feel she contributed enough to Po’s character arc (which I felt was kind of jumbled and not well communicated anyways) to justify that as her reason for being included. When Luke walked out to face Kylo it felt like it should have been her, that that was what she was being positioned for throughout the movie. Without any climactic role for her, her reason for even being in the movie fell flat to me. I would be curious to hear your thoughts, especially in regards to the arcs of the many characters in TLJ.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I loved the moment when she gets blown out to space, then turns out to have enough understanding of the Force to save herself. *That’s* the Leia we all knew she’d turn out to be–rather than a relatively staid woman in a fancy gown who slaps her irresponsible commanders like schoolchildren rather than dealing with them like a focused and powerful leader.

  23. I haven’t seen TLJ. When I do, I had hoped to enjoy the sensationalism, but now it will be somewhat dimmed as this post filters through my mind. Sometimes I dread reading your posts as they subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, change how I look at books and movies.

    Only if I could write all of these gems into my novels.

    Great post!

  24. “..risking any chips on meaty storytelling. ” Maybe I Connected dots. Maybe not. But, as you pointed out. …drill down into the plot you can find the theme.

    My hunch. Drill down deep enough into the theme and you will find the positive/negative charge that might offend. Mass market chips won’t be placed on that number.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Mass market media has always played it safe, but perhaps never so safe as it’s trying to do nowadays. It’s become a stagnant pool.

  25. Ms. Albina says

    Good post. I am not a Star Wars fan but a Star Trek fan. I like watching fantasy movies like the new jamangi film. I am currently working on my WIP journal story in first person will be three books. When writing first person for you do you write something like this-at the age of seventeen, I trained to be a healer. This is Leilani’s voice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, first-person narratives are written using an “I” pronoun for the narrator.

      • Ms. Albina says

        Okay, thank you. I also only using the first person since Leilani is narrating the story. For my book, I am using my name, B.L. Albina for my pen name. Is your middle name Marie?

  26. Claire Tucker says

    Wow…so true. One of the curses of being a writer is that we tend to subconsciously study every story we come across, be it a movie, novel or kid’s story. And in doing so, we tend to see things a little differently from everyone else….
    The comment “Everything matters” is definitely important. One thing I want to start doing in my writing is start putting a monetary value on every word I write. Because then I know that I’ll carefully consider each line of dialogue, each description, each scene and each character, and will cut those that don’t matter. Leaving the ones that do. Making for a good story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t see it as a curse. It is like looking into a larger world, and that does come with certain responsibilities. But I see it as a blessing. It allows me to experience stories–especially the good ones–on a much deeper level than I used to.

  27. I fully expected Kylo Ren to snarl ‘Potterrrr!’ at some point during the movie. The physical resemblance to Alan Rickman’s Snape in the Harry Potter-movies was striking in my opinion (or am I the only one who picked up on that?)

    I quite liked The Last Jedi though it definitely wasn’t without flaws. But then again, I also liked Rogue One, and quite a few people dislike that one as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah, I know, right? :p I just have a hard time seeing Adam Driver as a possible child of Leia and Han. It’s hard to feel the familial bond (such as it is there) because he just doesn’t seem to fit into that family, in any sense. I think even Darth Vader would be irritated with him. :p

  28. John Cryar says

    To state that The Last Jedi was a mess is an understatement. Oh, I give it credit on visuals but visuals cannot cover bad storytelling. . . duh! Sorry, I’m an original trekkie and eagerly await each new release, but someone needs to go back to the drawing board. I think it is a sad tribute to Leah.

  29. Will you be doing a review or breakdown of The Last Jedi as you’ve done with the previous SW films?

  30. Excellent post, KM. I find these insights both encouraging and infuriating (which is often what wisdom feels like). I understand these strategies; I see their importance to storytelling. But execution is a different elusive beast. I want to ask how writers get better at this, but it seems like the obvious answer would be to practice. “Where do I start?” might be a better question.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Practice is definitely the ultimate answer. You can get something with your head without getting it in your heart (so to speak). I’ve written ten novels at this point in my life; it took me eight of them to “get” all of this in a way that felt natural and instinctive in the execution.

      Analyzing your reactions to books and movies is also extremely helpful. Always try to figure out *why* you liked or didn’t like something in a story. What did the author do that made you feel a certain way? That’s a question that always has an answer.

  31. Jenny North says

    Maybe I’m missing something but the theme of TLJ seemed pretty clear and consistent to me. Back in Episode II (God help me) Anakin described the Sith as being selfish and the Jedi as selfless, and this seems to get back to those roots. That’s way more interesting than “Jedi=good, Sith=bad” since “good” people can now do “bad” things and “bad” people can do “good” things:

    – Poe’s arc takes him from selfish glory hound to understanding the need for selfless leadership.
    – Finn’s arc took him from selfishly wanting to run away to the point where he tries to selflessly sacrifice his life for the Resistance. (Meanwhile Rose dared to flip the theme by selfishly saving him!)
    – Finn and Rose’s (overlong and heavy-handed) subplot beat to death the selfishness of the war profiteers and the slicer who betrayed them.
    – Luke’s redemption arc takes him from selfish where he’s lost his way to selfless self-sacrifice.

    Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren–who embody selflessness and selfishness–surprisingly meet in the middle before committing to their paths. Both defined themselves by their ancestry and felt disillusioned by it. Both turned to their mentors, who again disillusioned them. So now they’re left to make their own paths. When Ren asked Rey to join him, I could totally see her being tempted by it, perhaps to temper his anger and cruelty. Back when Darth Vader asked Luke to join him, it never rang true since Vader was at best an abusive absentee father, but here I feel like it tested Rey’s resolve. So Rey and Kylo Ren went from passive followers to now defining their own destinies, and now we get to the Jedi and Sith reborn, not just return.

    I’ll happily admit the movie’s got problems, but thematic consistency and character change looked good to me…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The movie definitely presented themes. In fact, it had a lot of meaty ideas to work with. But the execution in the plot left a lot to be desired. As you say, much of it was heavyhanded and very little in the varied plotlines came together into a single cohesive thematic finale.

      • Jenny North says

        Gotcha. That’s interesting since the plot and subplots all seem to honor the overall theme, but I can see that the individual threads never really wove together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not so much that they were thematically inconsistent or the characters didn’t grow, so much as they didn’t grow together, thus making for a disjointed third act. Do I have that about right?

      • Jenny North says

        Oh, and thanks by the way for having indulged me a little on this. I know you wanted to avoid getting deep into TLJ (for obvious reasons), but being able to peek under the hood definitely helps me to cement the great points you’d made!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, I really do believe the filmmakers here tried to create something with interesting and even cohesive themes–but ultimately failed because the plot(s) and theme were not symbiotic. This is a problem I see so often. Writers understand there should be a theme, but don’t understand that making it a resonant part of the story is the job of the plot.

  32. I can’t remember where I found it, but here’s a pretty interesting secret of storytelling:

    “Good characters have simple outlines with intricate interiors.”

    It’s so simple! There’s no need to outline a whole bunch of non-physical character traits, only one or two and perhaps a profession for each and a (few) setting(s). From there, you can quickly see which Dramatica elements fit which characters and the themes and plots start to come together as well. Of course, you can complete the picture with memorable physical traits, quirks, etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love it! The problem with overdone exterior complexity as we find in TLJ is that the very least of its problems is that it leaves no room for even greater complexity within powerful subtext.

  33. A long thread, so I’ll be brief.
    I nodded off during the final battle in The Force Awakens. I will not be seeing The Last Jedi. I’ve read about 50 reviews and it’s not a pretty picture, with weaknesses at the story level revealing another level of failures below that. What went wrong? My guess is that people took their eye off the ball. Can they get away with this one more time? I’m guessing not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m guessing they will. As long as movies like this keep raking in record amounts of money, there’s no reason for filmmakers to question their methods.

  34. Excellent article! I learned so much.

    Thank you for sharing!!

  35. This is hands down the best post I’ve ever read on writing fiction. Thank you!

  36. You posed this question: “What do you think is the most important secret of good storytelling?”

    I’ve had a day to think. My answer: Tension. By this, I mean all those elements that keep an audience glued their seats like a half-eaten Abba Zaba: suspense, hooks, cliff-hangers, implied menace (the gun over the fireplace), setups and payoffs. Theme will not do this. Premise will work for the first five minutes. Spectacle and other dramatic elements may work for varying lengths of time. But for beginning to end engagement, nothing works like tension.

    Okay. Your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t disagree, but I look at tension as more a means to an end. Tension will keep readers/viewers in their seats only insofar as they are emotionally and intellectually engaged with the story. For example, by the time The Last Jedi‘s Third Act rolled around, I was so *not* engaged that I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters–even though, arguably, the tension in this film is very high.

      I also think that even though tension has the ability to keep readers engaged throughout the story, on a certain level, by itself it can’t produce a sense of lasting satisfaction. We’ve all watched movies that we enjoyed well enough for the first viewing, only to walk away realizing how empty they were on reflection. (I often think of a review I read of Dark Knight Rises that said something along the lines of: “It’s a great movie until you start thinking about it.”)

      So, in short, my take is that although tension *is* a crucial storytelling element, it can’t support a great story by itself. But, then, that could be said of any element. 🙂

      • I’m thinking of “The Verdict,” which was engrossing and had me thinking, “that was great,” as I stood. By the time I’d made it to the aisle, the doubts started piling up. And as I entered the lobby, I thought, “No way.” “The Verdict” wove a spell that fell apart when looked at in retrospect.

  37. Great article. I don’t want to argue about Star Wars, I’m just curious as to what you think the theme was for the latest movie. My husband and I are discussing it, and it seems unclear. Maybe that there is no good or bad and that we all just think we are doing the right thing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It kind of waffled around with a different theme for all its various subplots. Others, in the above comments, have posited their own takes. If I was going to throw out just one unifying idea it would probably something in line with: overcoming your own false perceptions of yourself.

  38. Kate Johnston says

    Great article! Totally understand your decision to not break down TLJ point by point in a discussion of what did or didn’t work. I miss your examples though! 🙂 I think I learn better that way, but I get the general gist.

    Regardless, looks like everyone here has a great mix of opinions which has made this comment thread a very fun read!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m tossing around an idea of doing a series on all the Star Wars movies, same as I’ve done with Marvel. We’ll see what shakes out. 🙂

  39. Jenny North says

    This question may be a little broad for a comment thread, but are there any pitfalls to avoid to make sure that the story’s theme is evident to the reader? For instance, I might write a story about soldiers in wartime with subplots about childhood bullying and a woman’s alcoholic mother and people may think I’m all over the place when I’m like, “No, it’s all about man’s inhumanity to man, see?” I’m not saying this is what happened in TLJ, but the comments here have got me wondering…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The theme will always be proven by your protagonist’s arc (her Lie vs. Truth, or Truth vs. Lie–depending on whether it’s a Change or Flat Arc). Subplots must support the protagonist’s journey to her the Climactic Moment of both plot and theme–or they don’t belong in the story. More on integrating subplots here: 5 Tips for Organizing Subplots.

      • Jenny North says

        Thank you! You’ve no idea how much this helps. I’ve been stuck on plotting a story (the third in a series) and the supporting characters have been giving me fits. They felt disconnected, like an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the A and B plots don’t connect. (“We have to save the mining colony from that rogue comet! Also, Troy’s mom is visiting.”) Since it’s a series I couldn’t just cut all the characters and subplots, but this definitely helps give me ideas to pull them closer into the mainline plot and gives me a sense why my earlier ideas weren’t resonating!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It does get tricky in series, since readers want to see old familiar faces–but the old faces don’t always fit into the progressing stories.

  40. I haven’t seen the movie as yet and only stopped by to review the ‘start with antagonist’, ‘it’s always their (protag’s) fault’ and ‘the lie they believe’ posts.

    What stopped me and prompted me to post was your closing comments about how ‘Good storytelling should be hard’. No, no it shouldn’t. It should be skilled, not hard.

    A skilled chef will outperform one who’s laboriously mastered technique but lacks love for/artistry of creation every time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, but gaining those skills is always hard in that it requires discipline and dedication to get to that place of mastery.

      • LOL… not it isn’t! 😀

        The training is neutral, it is set. What determines difficulty is the ability and desire of the one acquiring the skill. Do they really want to be there or not? Why are they there? Who’s the teacher? Drill sergeant or role model?

        To some acquiring the skill set may have seemed challenging/invigorating and not difficult in the least, while others thought it was like slogging through Dante’s nine levels…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I suppose it’s arguable. 😉 But I’ve met very few writers who would say that gaining mastery was straight-up easy.

          • lol… I’ll take that minor concession! 😉

            Maybe hang out with cooks/chefs… at least watch Migrant Kitchen on PBS… draw from sports… whatever. People who have a love for whatever, the obstacles may be the same, the challenge is perceived differently. (Time goes faster when you’re having fun, as an example)

            Storytelling should be challenging!

  41. I feel like I learn so much from every single post you write so thank you for all the work you do to break down storytelling fundamentals. I am curious though… What stories come to mind when you think of storytelling done well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some of my favorite authors are Patrick O’Brian, Brent Weeks, Charles Dickens, the Brontes. Jane Eyre is a masterpiece, as is Wuthering Heights. Favorite movies include The Great Escape, Master and Commander, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, It’s a Wonderful Life, Secondhand Lions.

  42. Thank you K.M! My boyfriend and I saw the Last Jedi and were both like “…um… what the heck is this?” Then just about everyone we knew raved about it and we legit thought we were going crazy!

    I’ve listened to Creating Character Arcs a few times now and love your insights into Story and Character so I feel completely vindicated and not crazy. 🙂 If K.M. agrees then the rest of the world can go jump in a sarlacc pit.

  43. Good movies with interesting stories and characters are definitely rare. I scroll through movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime and struggle to find something that ‘grabs’ me. I watched ‘The Godfather’ again and was very impressed with it, barely realizing that almost 3 hours goes by for that movie. Some of the ‘classics’ still deliver.

  44. Jeff Chapman says

    I felt similarly unsatisfied with TLJ. I thought there were some interesting elements and interesting elements, but the whole felt like an incoherent mess. It seemed to lack a sense of proportion. The least important things were presented with the same weight as the most important things.

    I’ve decided that the easiest way to solve the problems with the plot would have been to cut out the Finn narrative entirely. If you think about it, you could drop that entire subplot and it wouldn’t affect the main plot at all. This was his plot:

    1) He goes to the casino planet in order to find a code breaker.
    2) He gets captured.
    3) He escapes (through a ridiculous action sequence which brought me right back to the pod races of #1)
    4) He goes to the enemy space ship
    5) He gets captured
    6) He escapes (and once again, wackiness ensues (including the awful anacronism, “Need a ride?”)
    7) They never disable the tracking device. Instead, the rebel ship turns around and rams the hell out of the bad guys. So the entire subplot is utterly irrelevant. Except, of course, it allowed Rose to fall in love with Finn over the course of one day.

    I figured that they had introduced a Big Three set of characters in the first sequel and felt they needed to give each character her own story. But Finn would have been way better served working in tandem with Poe, the way Luke and Han do in A New Hope. They didn’t need separate narratives.

    Just imagine watching the movie without any of that subplot. Yes, you get less Finn. Yes, we like Finn well enough. But suddenly the movie is 40 minutes shorter, infinitely tighter, SO much more interesting, and way less heavy-handed in its themes.

    BUT, no Benicio Del Toro, who was the one saving grace of that storyline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with this entirely. Finn *is* easily my favorite character and Benicio Del Toro *was* just about the best part of this movie—but, yeah, the end definitely did not justify the means here.

  45. Berta Morgan says

    I don’t believe that I have anything new to add to all the comments. I just want to add my own thanks to the voices who really appreciate this blog and the wealth of great information you so generously dispense. As a late bloomer and a new writer, I am so fortunate to have the oportunity to be schooled by this wonderful community.

  46. Thanks for a great post. I find a lot of films frustrating these days because of these issues – as writers it might just be the price we pay for paying attention to our own story craft and seeing other books and films from this perspective. Most of my enjoyment of The Last Jedi came from the empowerment of the female characters but also the arc of Luke Skywalker – that worked for me on many levels. But in terms of what you are talking about, nada.

    The first Star Wars movie ever made had this triad of characters that worked well together, were in just the right amount of scenes and carried the story forward. The side characters were all fantastic but incidental. The balance was just right but somehow this seems to have been lost moving forward.

    I would love names of a few films you think achieve the storytelling goals above. Most of the ones I can think of are pretty old ones!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, most of what comes to mind isn’t too recent. Gladiator (2000) and Jurassic Park (1993) are both excellent examples of dimensional and cohesive genre stories.

      Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is utterly delightful.

      More recently in the action-adventure genre, I’ve really enjoyed Prince of Persia (2010) and Pacific Rim (2013).

      Marvel’s Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016) are both thematically very nice.

      And, of course, moving beyond simply genre movies, semi-recent titles that come to mind are Warrior (2011), Black Hawk Down (2001), Flowers of War (2011), Master and Commander (2003), Secondhand Lions (2003), and Bourne Identity (2002) (though that’s really a genre movie).

      But the oldies are hard to beat. The Great Escape (1963) remains my all-time favorite movie. And then there’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), True Grit (1969), Red River (1948), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), White Christmas (1954), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

      Ahhhh. 🙂

  47. This is a meaty post, KM. Just the sort of thing to propel a writer. Thank you very much.

  48. Katherine says

    As a lover of stories and a beginning storyteller myself, this post was so educational and cathartic for me.

    Again and again I’ve seen beloved fictional characters and universes wasted and ruined by inept writing: Star Wars, The Hobbit trilogy – don’t even get me started on Steven Moffat’s Dr Who and season 4 of Sherlock!

    What’s so frustrating is that these stories and characters had so much potential, so much rich and engaging thematic material that could have been explored. They could have been great, but again and again the writers made the same dumb choices. It drives me crazy!

    Thanks for highlighting these potential pitfalls in storytelling so I can avoid them in my own writing. You’ve inspired my quest to rise above mediocrity!

  49. I love this post! This helped me find the words I needed to understand why I didn’t like a story I just read. I would say that one of the elements missing in some stories is character motivation. Why does the character do what he does? Just because? That isn’t good enough. I think word choice plays a big part in good storytelling as well. Thank you for posting this well-written analysis.

  50. Terrie R Smith says

    Thank you. You always make such good sense.
    My plan for the New Year is to finish my book.
    Counting all my blessings and wishing all good things to you and your family.

  51. Thank you so much so sharing such a great post! Crafting a story isn’t as simple as it seems. What I have observed is that some writers do is that they place their focus entirely on enjoyment and end up creating a baseless story. This is not how it should go because then the readers lose interest and leave reading the story halfway.

  52. It is important for the story to be relevant to the theme of discussion otherwise it becomes difficult to grab listeners’ attention and keep them engaged in your story. Your story can be interesting but still not according to mood of the audience.

  53. I do not agree with some of these. For example: You can absolutely tell great stories with characters that never change. While it’s certainly helpfull to create a meaningfull story, it is never a necessity. Especially stories for children are often about characters whose way of life inspires others, but they themselfs stay the same the entire time.
    The works of Astrid Lindgren come to mind, basically all of her characters are stubbornly strange, but its exactly this strangeness that helps them staying on top of every situation. Robin Williams’ movies also tend to do that. In almost all of them he plays a nonconformist character who happily embraces his inner child, in a world that constantly wants him to grow up and go conform.

    We root for these characters to NOT change, because change is not portrayed as the means to overcome a challenge, but as the challenge itself. We don’t want Pippi Longstocking to go to school and become like every other child and we hope Patch Addams does not abandon his approach to treat patients through humor, after this has caused his girlfriends death. We hope that these characters end their journey exactly the same way they began, despite all odds, because it’s refreshing and motivating to hear that you don’t always have to change and question yourself to accomplish something.

    So there is great value in stories like that too.

    And about “Every piece must contribute the plot”… I think that depends. Mostly on the medium you are using. In a movie that’s probably true. Because of the intense restrictions due to time and pacing, the storytelling in movies has to be as efficient as possible. But in novels for example you have a lot more time and possibilities. Everything still has to serve some point, but not necessarily by bringing the plot forward. A moment can also serve to just establish a character more, or a relationship, or a piece of backstory or world building that might become relevant later on or that further supports the theme, or just to tell a funny joke to lighten the mood after a tense situation or if you don’t want your story to get too melancholic.

    Come to think of it, the movie Avengers: Endgame was stock full of situations like this. Like the paper football scene between Tony and Nebula at the beginning. That didn’t serve any purpose for the plot, but its my favorite scene of the entire film, because it just brilliantly shows where these characters are right now, physically and emotionally. The storytellers knew that the interactions between all these uniquely different characters is the big strength of the Avengers films. And they knew that, with a 3 hour runtime, they have more than enough time to put stuff like this in, so they fully comitted to it.

    As always, rules have their place in storytelling, but following them rarely is what makes a story truly great. Strategically diverting from them however often does. (Something that The Last Jedi brilliantly did in my opinion, btw.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for your comment! Just to clarify a few points:

      The change within the story doesn’t need to come from the protagonist. Many powerful stories about about protagonists who do not change, but who change the world around them–as would be true of most of the characters you mentioned. This would be a protagonist who demonstrates a Flat Arc rather than a Change Arc.

      As for pieces contributing to the larger whole, I used the word “plot” when thinking about larger “moving” pieces. Smaller pieces, such as the table football game in Endgame, needn’t move the plot, but they must contribute something–in that instance a dramatization of the characters in their introductory dilemma.

  54. I know you’ve already done a series on the do’s and dont’s of storytelling according to Marvel, and I’m curious about the do’s and don’t’s of storytelling according to Star Wars. Like what they did right and what they did wrong…I know there’s already a few posts with Star Wars movies used as examples, but they’re not used in the way you used the Marvel movies.

    I’m mainly asking because I saw Rise of Skywalker earlier tonight, and…I’m conflicted about it. I don’t know whether to be satisfied or disappointed. I guess I’m kind of a mix right now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, TLJ made me so unhappy, I quit watching the series. I’ll stick to the originals.

      • Ah. I think ROS may have been slightly better than TLJ, but not by much, unfortunately. I’d give it a 7/10. I think ROS’s biggest fault was the way the story started sliding from the MIdpoint (at least I think it was the Midpoint) on.

        There were at least 3 things I was disappointed about, specifically the reveal about Rey’s heritage. The more I think about it, the madder I get. With the way TFA is set up, the big reveal should have gone ‘this-a-way’, but it went ‘that-a-way’ instead. I started writing a rant about it in my journal last night and still have to finish it.

        It all boils down to fan service in the end, I think. It’s like they wanted to please everyone instead of letting the story take a natural course. Sigh.

  55. The Last Jedi was a masterpiece

  56. Your points might all be relevant to current industry standards, but it’s important to note that storytelling has not always followed these rules. We’re conditioned to dislike books without each end tied neatly up. However, if you read much classic literature, you’ll see this was quite often not the case. In fact, some of the best known and well loved books of all time have very little in way of theme, have characters which do not change, or have extraneous scenes.This is especially true about having extraneous scenes. So many of my favorite scenes in literature do nothing to advance the plot, develop a character, or any of the “safe” reasons we’re typically given for including a scene.

    Off the top of my head, here are some books which lack one of your requirements: The Secret Garden, The Sun Also Rises, Wuthering Heights, Arabian Nights, and The Odyssey.

    I much prefer reading older literature to newer books because too many authors now feel they need to rush the book. Due to budgetary constraints, the publishing industry pushes shorter, more quickly paced books. Thanks to cinema and the internet, we consumers are all ready to get to the point and power through a novel. However, there’s something to be said for reading a book that was written during a time when pace was slower, themes weren’t pre-digested for us, and literature was complex and thought provoking.

    Books today are just like the photoshopped images we see plastered on Instagram. They’re expected to polished and blemish-free, of course, but they also lack any individuality and truth.

  57. I agree with every factor that you have pointed out. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this.

  58. I have been reading posts regarding this topic and this post is one of the most interesting and informative one I have read. Thank you for this!

  59. I have been reading posts regarding this topic and this post is one of the most interesting and informative one I have read. Thank you for this!

  60. I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.

  61. Excellent post and a great one for me to examine as I work through revisions on the historical fiction novel I’m currently working on. I have been guilty of letting World War II and all of the outside forces that it creates drive the story instead of letting the characters caught in the situation take the wheel. Time to dig deep and bring the magic.

  62. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    You’ll be fine. You’ve got totally the right end of the stick. 🙂


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