Hanna’s Rules of Storytelling

If it can't be adorable, make it tragic. If it can't be tragic, make it adorable.

I’m wrapping up our series on the “Rules of Storytelling” today. When we were first pitching this, a quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on types of stories kept coming up and I’m going to borrow it now:

“We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.” 

— Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Looking at the Moose’s writing, I can say that Brad’s irrepressible heroes tend towards the “Blood and Love” school of thinking, while Clarice breaks the above rules by preferring “Love and Rhetoric”. To hell with the Blood, says she. Cole goes the “All Three Consecutive” route — with pleasant firefly evenings followed by tragic massacres. Jae does them all “Concurrent”, relishing in the a mixture of joy, sorrow, irreverence and honesty. The insights into their processes and the different reasons we all tell stories has been a pleasure this month, and if you haven’t already, check out what they have to say.

All that, by the way, leaves me carrying a flag for the “Blood and Rhetoric” school. Blood is compulsory, you see.


1. Tragedy. Or at least, ‘More Tragic’.

“No happy endings for us. Just endings.”

Shade’s Children, Garth Nix

I have trouble writing stories for kids. I think it stems from a propensity to look at a story and think: “How can I make this worse?” or “What more can go wrong?” Making your characters suffer is part and parcel to storytelling, but we (in America at least) are also conditioned to making it all better in the end, to ‘happily ever after’.

I like making stories that don’t all come out right in the end. I like scars. I like mundane tragedies and epic ones.

Unadulterated victories that last forever are so rare in real life. A character with some sorrow at the end of a story feels like they carry on when the tale is through. They don’t end with the writing, but persist to feel and grow and change and accommodate that change.

I do love to feel that a character continues, even if I can’t go with them.


2. Be Adorable.

Unikitty: Here in Cloud Cuckoo Land, there are no rules: There’s no government, no baby sitters, no bedtimes, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.

Wyldstyle: You just said the word “no” like a thousand times.

Unikitty: And there’s also no consistency!

— The Lego Movie

If it can’t be bloody, then let it be cute. If it can be both, all the better.

I’m a sucker for kittens and puppies. For gumdrops and rainbow trees and fuzzy sweaters. My work tends to slingshot between either the seriously dark or the seriously silly. Or it combines the two.

One of my absolute favorite ideas I’ve gotten into a game is a creature called the Plooff. It is a pink, fluffy lapdog crossed with a fu dog. When it attacked, it transformed into a vicious, dangerous, larger form. I’m super grateful to the manager who liked the idea and the artists that brought that monster to life.

For better or worse, we’re conditioned to think that cuteness and certain varieties of beauty are not dangerous. Underestimation makes them dangerous, and I love exploiting that. The juxtaposition is something which always makes me happy, whether I’m reading or writing or watching.

Who else cheered when Princess Unikitty gets angry?


3. Remember the Power of the Mundane.

“You would have found him dull no doubt. But he smiled whenever he saw me, and we could have built a life on that.” 

— Guinevere Pettigrew, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Stories and character relationships don’t have to hinge on grand or irrevocably life-changing events. I want to see the pebbles before the avalanche. Small jealousies and kindnesses, turns of phrase or a box of raisins change the way we see the world and how we behave in it and how we think of people. I love the unthinking courtesy that makes a difference or the instant of careless spite that haunts us.


4. There is a Price for Magic.

“Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must cut out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

If I’m writing magic, and I do write magic fairly frequently, then one of the first aspects I consider is the cost. I don’t do Harry Potter-esque point-and-shoot spells — as much fun as those can be.

There are lots of places to begin. Whether it’s a physical, mental or emotional cost I want it to matter. I want it to be hard.

This keeps magic magical. If magic costs nothing more than baking or jogging, that’s fine but it loses parts of the awe/strangeness that I love in fantasy. I want heart breaking consequences for miracles. 

Shall we relate this to writing and storytelling too? When it’s personal work and I’m pouring myself into words, that’s uncomfortable. When I’m invested and pushing myself, I am raw around the edges.

It can be easy to be sidetracked by marketability. To feel like I ought to be writing to a certain audience. Sometimes that’s true. We’ve all got to make a living — I’m all for making a living. But I know I am at my worst when I forget that stories are magic.