9 Things Every Successful Story Needs


Back in February, Andrew Stanton (creator of Toy Story) gave a TED talk about things that make a great story.  I watched this again recently and decided that for those of you who are on the go, busy writing your epic tale, would appreciate a shortened version.  Here are the highlights of that amazing talk:


  1. Story Telling Is Joke Telling – He said that every storyteller, like the teller of a joke, must know the ending of their story or where it is eventually headed in order to properly construct the details that lead to the ending.
  2. Make Me Care – The reader has to be emotionally involved in characters and story in order to get them hooked into reading a story.  It is the thing that makes us stop channel surfing.  Why should readers care about your story?
  3. Unifying Theory of 2+2 – People love puzzles and fill-in-the-blank.  Write your story so that readers have to use their imagination to fill in the gaps but not so much that you don’t tell the story.  This goes back to “showing” and not “telling”.
  4. The Driving Goal – All good characters have this.  They have a goal that they are trying to reach somewhere in the story regardless of whether or not it is an adventure.  All characters must have a purpose in life.
  5. If Things Go Static, Stories Die – True drama is anticipation mingled with discovery.  One way to do this is to go through your story and cut out any parts of it that do not drive the story forward.
  6. Storytelling Has Guidelines, Not Hard and Fast Rules – Sometimes it is great to break the rules of convention, such as creating strange narrative structures, but one should be careful that the narrative structure does not ruin the story or make the story too unreadable.
  7. Story Has Theme – I have said this over and over again in other blog posts, but every good story has some type of theme.  Stanton illustrated this by showing a clip from the end of Lawrence of Arabia where a motorcyclist shouts out the words: “Who are you?”  One could say that the film is Lawrence’s biography or one could more rightly say that the motorcyclist’s words are the theme of the film.  “Who are you?”
  8. Can You Invoke Wonder? – This is something that is the hardest to achieve.  It is the feeling we get when we are told as children about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.  I still have a sense of wonder when I read Return of the King or watch E.T. the Extraterrestrial.  There is something nostalgic or wonderful about those two things that make me want to read and watch them again.
  9. Use What You Know – Stanton revealed that the reason that Nemo had a deformed flipper in Finding Nemo, the reason that all the other eggs were lost but Nemo’s, was because when Stanton was a boy he would ask his father why he had two little scars on his leg.  This would lead his father to tell him in so many words that Stanton had two more scars on top of his head under his hair, that he was born premature, had to have several blood transfusions, and that made him very special, that he was destined for great things.  There is something about you that needs to come out of your writing, either consciously or subconsciously, that is what you know, what you have been born to write about.


Now get to it.


Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

3 thoughts on “9 Things Every Successful Story Needs

  1. I found the bit about wonder to be the most profound, the least quantifiable, and probably the single most difficult element in this talk. What a challenge and calling to us.

  2. Not seen these in this format before. I like them, thanks for posting – will check out the TED video. I like number 9. I like how its different to the usual “write what you know.” I like that it stops there rather than adding ‘about’. Its a good take on how a writer should use not just what they know about, but how they feel, how they think – all the things that make them them.

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