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The One-Page Guide to Storytelling

Ian Irvine

Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.

Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.
Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.



For every scene, and your story, answer these 9 questions. If you can’t, the story has a problem. If you can, you’ve the basis of a strong story.

Story not working? Either readers don’t care about your hero (see 1 & 7 & 9), or there’s no suspense because you haven’t made your readers fear the worst. Rack up the tension: promise emotionally-wrenching disasters to come that will devastate the hero and his allies, and shatter his plans.

  1. What’s the Hero’s Goal? He must want something desperately (to survive, escape, win the girl or contest, achieve his destiny, save his family or the world). The story doesn’t start until your hero forms this urgent goal. It doesn’t have to be earth-shaking, but it must really matter to him.
  • What are his motives? Your readers have to understand what drives him so desperately. Make his motives strong and clear.
  • What’s at stake if he fails? Life, love, career, health, sanity? Friends or loved ones? The fate of his country? Raise the stakes to the limit.
  1. Who is the Opponent? The opponent must want to stop the hero just as strongly. Why is she so determined to defeat the hero?
  • Opponents: an enemy; ally or lover; animal, monster or alien; force of nature (eg flood, fire); an organisation; or society itself.
  • Constantly ask yourself, How can things get worse? and When is the worst time for them to get worse? Then make it happen.
  • True character is revealed by how the hero deals with adversity. The worse things get, the more strongly readers will bond to her.
  • Make sure your hero also faces inner obstacles (eg the ring’s effect on Frodo) and strong inner conflicts (see 7).


  1. How Does the Hero Fight Back? The hero must do everything possible to defend herself against the opponent, defeat it and achieve her goal. The opponent must fight back, just as strongly and cunningly, to defeat the hero.
  • Show their struggle vividly and dramatically, with progressively rising suspense until the climax.
  • Any scene that does not directly contribute to this struggle will come as an anti-climax. Cut it.
  • Dialogue is action taken by the characters to get what they want. Every character, in every exchange, should have an agenda.
  • If you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Now, list what could Discard your first 5 ideas; always try to surprise.
  • Every interaction, between every character (even friends and allies) should contain dramatic conflict, ie conflict related to the hero’s goal – either furthering it or blocking it.
  1. What’s the Outcome? Every scene must have an outcome (a win or a loss), and so must the story.
  • Most scene endings (even if they seem like a win at the time) should result in the hero being in worse trouble.
  • At the climax, test the hero’s strength, convictions and conflicts to the limit. Force her to make the impossible choice.
  • The story ending must resolve the hero’s goal: either a win; a hollow or worthless victory; a compromise; or an outright loss.
  • How is the hero changed at the end, if he is? Note that some characters never change: eg James Bond, Stephanie Plum, Mr Bean.
  1. What’s the Premise? It’s the most important sentence you’ll ever write, because it gives the story a clear, powerful focus – for both the writer and the reader. Using the answers to questions 1-4, construct your premise thus: “When [flawed hero] is forced to [pursue goal] she has to [grow in some way] or risk [what’s at stake].” Keep the premise in mind the whole time you’re writing and editing the story.
  • Eg (my novel, Rebellion): “When an escaped slave discovers that her people face genocide she must confront her darkest fear, a return to slavery, before she can hope to save them.”
  • Hint at the premise question at the beginning, use it to focus the story throughout, but don’t answer it until near the end.
  • It may be useful to prepare premises for the other main characters, and the antagonist.
  1. What’s the Theme? Memorable stories are about something you believe in passionately, eg atonement for a great wrong; a desire for justice.
  • Theme can arise directly from the premise. In Rebellion it’s about Tali overcoming her fear & finding courage to attempt the impossible.
  • Weave your theme through the story, using thoughts, feelings, dialogue, action, story events, settings and symbols. But be subtle.
  1. What’s the Hero Feeling? Readers identify strongly when you show your hero’s hopes, fears, doubts, guilt and inner conflicts on every page.
  • Don’t name emotions/feelings (‘He felt guilty.’). Show them the way the character would think; in what he says; how he acts/reacts.
  • Your readers need to know the hero’s emotions and feelings (and how they’re changing) in every part of every scene.
  • What are his expectations? Are they too high, or too low? Either way, constantly build them up – only to dash them.
  • Readers bond strongly to heroes with emotional conflicts eg: love vs revenge, honour vs duty. Heighten such conflicts; show them often.
  • Inner conflict is at the core of the greatest stories and the most memorable characters in fiction. Make it strong.
  1. Have you Shown, or are you Boring your Readers by Telling? Telling is the author talking. It’s OK for low intensity parts of a scene, but intense emotions & conflicts must be shown, otherwise they won’t resonate with the reader. Showing is the hero revealing what’s happening at each moment, in his own words and actions, filtered through his feelings and attitudes. If it doesn’t create a clear mental picture, it’s not showing.
  • No reader wants a clichéd version of another author’s story world. Have you created a unique world & setting (how Harry Potter differs to The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind)? Don’t show it in generalities – show it in specific, unique details.
  • Every setting, and every description, must create a clear mental image – show the blood under the fingernails.
  • Have you created a number of memorable, knee-to-the-groin images that bring the story alive?
  • Are you constantly looking for new twists to overturn clichéd characters, settings, dialogue, action scenes and plots?
  • Are your chapter beginnings and endings dull and repetitive, or striking, original and compelling?
  • Do you use the minimum number of viewpoint characters needed to tell the story, and keep to a single viewpoint in each scene?
  1. Are your Characters Extraordinary or Ordinary? Most characters are dull & forgettable. They fail from too little exaggeration, not too much.
  • Show your hero’s strengths, humanity and flaws vividly; the opponent should be as strong or stronger, and just as complex.
  • What’s the hero’s inner need (often unknown to her). What personal flaw must she overcome before she can attain her need?
  • Bring out your hero’s strongly held attitudes, passions and beliefs. Have him rage, harangue, sneer, scream, mock, be sarcastic etc.
  • Give each character a unique voice. Have them say & do things ordinary people never do. That’s why we like to read about them.
  • Give each character a controlling motivation for the story, eg: Frodo – destroy the ring. Sam – help Frodo. Boromir – save Gondor.
  • Don’t restrain your characters. Heighten their reactions, emotions, language and imagery until they’re out of control.
  • To broaden your characters, give each one a secret. Do they have health issues: major or minor, physical or mental? Most people do.



Some Great Storytelling References. I acknowledge my debt to these writers, and many others. Lukeman, The Plot Thickens. Cleaver, Immediate Fiction.  Maass, The Fire in Fiction.  Lyon, Manuscript Makeover.  Vorhaus, The Comic Toolbox. Bell, Conflict and Suspense. Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact. Cron, Wired for Story. Palmer, Pixar’s 22 rules of story.