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The Secrets of Story

Book Description

You've just boarded a plane. You've loaded your phone with your favorite podcasts, but before you can pop in your earbuds, disaster strikes: The guy in the next seat starts telling you all about something crazy that happened to him--in great detail. This is the unwelcome storyteller, trying to convince a reluctant audience to care about his story.

We all hate that guy, right? But when you tell a story (any kind of story: a novel, a memoir, a screenplay, a stage play, a comic, or even a cover letter), you become the unwelcome storyteller.

So how can you write a story that audiences will embrace? The answer is simple: Remember what it feels like to be that jaded audience. Tell the story that would win you over, even if you didn't want to hear it.

The Secrets of Story provides comprehensive, audience-focused strategies for becoming a master storyteller. Armed with the Ultimate Story Checklist, you can improve every aspect of your fiction writing with incisive questions like these:  
  • Concept: Is the one-sentence description of your story uniquely appealing?
  • Character: Can your audience identify with your hero?
  • Structure and Plot: Is your story ruled by human nature?
  • Scene Work: Does each scene advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
  • Dialogue: Is your characters' dialogue infused with distinct personality traits and speech patterns based on their lives and backgrounds?
  • Tone: Are you subtly setting, resetting, and upsetting expectations?
  • Theme: Are you using multiple ironies throughout the story to create meaning?
To succeed in the world of fiction and film, you have to work on every aspect of your craft and satisfy your audience. Do both--and so much more--with The Secrets of Story.

"Matt Bird is a certifiable writing-craft genius." --Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books

"What makes this book valuable is how practical Bird is with his advice--every chapter is full of craft tricks and little insights that help take a moment from 'good enough' to 'great!' Consider his 'one-touch rule,' which can instantly add focus and shape to even the smallest scene. This book is full of real tools for real storytellers." --Jonathan Auxier, author of The Night Gardener

"The Ultimate Story Checklist is the clearest road map I've seen for helping writers get to what makes a compelling story. I've been sharing Matthew's guide with writers for years." --Andrew Harwell, author of The Spider Ring

"Matt Bird has cracked the code on how satisfying stories work. His insights will sharpen your plots, freshen your characters, and liberate your imagination. I always come away from reading Matt Bird feeling inspired and invigorated." --James Kennedy, author of The Order of Odd Fish

"Bird's advice raises the bar and encourages 'writing greatness.' It's rare to find such clear and insightful tips about working at the most advanced end of the craft." --Elizabeth Fama, author of Monstrous Beauty

"After I followed Matt Bird's writing advice, I received an offer of representation from an agent who called my manuscript 'masterfully structured.' It's a testament to how helpful Bird's advice has been--I've learned more from him than from any other book about writing, and certainly more than from taking any writing class." --Parker Peevyhouse, author of Where Futures End

"Matt Bird's blog is possibly my favorite resource on storytelling, maybe even more than Robert McKee's Story. It's really insightful on story structure--detailed without being too rigid, and with a keen appreciation for both big blockbusters and smaller stories." --Emily Horner, author of A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

Table of Contents

  1. Praise for The Secrets of Story
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Acknowledgments
  5. Dedication
  6. About the Author
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I: Writing for Strangers
    1. Chapter One: George Clooney and Me
      1. The Poisonous Cinderella Story
      2. We Can Rebuild Him
    2. Chapter Two: The Thirteen Essential Laws of Writing for Strangers
      1. 1. You Must Write for an Audience, Not Just Yourself
      2. 2. Audiences Purchase Your Work Because of Your Concept, But They Embrace it Because of Your Characters
      3. 3. Audiences Will Always Choose One Character to Be Their Hero
      4. 4. Audiences Don’t Really Care About Stories; They Care About Characters
      5. 5. The Best Way to Introduce Every Element of Your Story is From Your Hero’s Point of View
      6. 6. It’s Very Hard to Get Audiences to Care About Any Hero Because They’re Afraid of Being Hero Because They’re Afraid of Being Hurt
      7. 7. Your Audience Need Not Always Sympathize With Your Hero, But They Must Empathize With Your Hero
      8. 8. Most Important, Your Audience Must Identify With Your Hero
      9. 9. The Best Way to Create Identification is for a Character to Be Misunderstood
      10. 10. Your Story is Not About Your Hero’s Life; It’s About Your Hero’s Problem
      11. 11. Story Structure is Just a List of the Steps and Missteps Most People Go Through When Solving a Large Problem in Real Life
      12. 12. First and Foremost, Audiences Don’t Want You to Defy Expectations; They Want You to Create Them
      13. 13. Irony is the Source of All Meaning
  9. Part II: The Ultimate Story Checklist
    1. Why it’s Useful to Consider Skills Separately
      1. Chapter Three: Concocting an Intriguing Concept
        1. What is Concept?
        2. Misconceptions About Concept
        3. Questions To Ask About Concept
      2. Chapter Four: Creating Compelling Characters
        1. What is Character?
        2. Misconceptions About Character
        3. Questions To Ask About Character
      3. Chapter Five: Shaping a Resonant Structure
        1. What is Structure?
        2. Misconceptions About Structure
        3. Questions To Ask About Structure
      4. Chapter Six: Staging Strategic Scene Work
        1. What is Scene Work?
        2. Misconceptions About Scene Work
        3. Questions To Ask About Scene Work
      5. Chapter Seven: Drafting Electric Dialogue
        1. What is Dialogue?
        2. Misconceptions About Dialogue
        3. Questions to Ask About Dialogue
      6. Chapter Eight: Maintaining A Meticulous Tone
        1. What is Tone?
        2. Misconceptions About Tone
        3. Questions to Ask About Tone
      7. Chapter Nine: Interweaving An Irreconcilable Theme
        1. What is Theme?
        2. Misconceptions About Theme
        3. Questions to Ask About Theme
  10. Part III: Getting from Good to “Good Lord, This is Amazing!”
    1. Chapter Ten: Don't Revise, Rewrite!
      1. What is Rewriting?
      2. Misconceptions About Rewriting
      3. How to Rewrite (and Rewrite, and Rewrite …)
    2. Chapter Eleven: When It's Finally Time to Fine-Tune
      1. Step One: Re-Humanize Your Characters
      2. Step Two: Set Up More of Your Payoffs
      3. Step Three: Have Stephen Hawking Read Your Work Back to You
    3. Chapter Twelve: Now Cut Another 10 Percent
      1. Step One: Replace Scenes That Gradually Introduce Your Hero with One Great Scene
      2. Step Two: Combine Beats, Scenes, or Sequences So They Hit Simultaneously
      3. Step Three: Embrace Teleportation
      4. Step Four: Cut Out the “Fallout,” or Any Other Type of Unsurprising Scene
      5. Step Five: Cut Out the Apologies
      6. Step Six: Eliminate the Orphans
      7. Step Seven: Create a “Too-Short Version” Where You Slim Down Even More Scenes
      8. Step Eight: Sometimes, You Just Have to Say, “It Comes Right Out”
    4. Chapter Thirteen: The Final Rule
      1. Forget Everything I Just Said
    5. Conclusion
      1. Tell Great Stories or Die!
    6. Afterword
  11. Appendix: The Ultimate Story Checklist
    1. Concocting an Intriguing Concept
      1. The Elevator Pitch
      2. Story Fundamentals
      3. The Hook
    2. Creating Compelling Characters
      1. Believe
      2. Care
      3. Invest
    3. Shaping a Resonant Structure
      1. First Quarter: The Challenge
      2. Second Quarter: The Easy Way
      3. Third Quarter: The Hard Way
      4. Fourth Quarter: The Climax
    4. Staging Strategic Scenework
      1. Setup
      2. Conflict
      3. Outcome
    5. Drafting Electric Dialogue
      1. Empathetic
      2. Specific
      3. Heightened
      4. Strategic
    6. Maintaining a Meticulous Tone
      1. Genre
      2. Framing
    7. Interweaving an Irreconcilable Theme
      1. Difficult
      2. Grounded
      3. Subtle
      4. Untidy