How to Write a Story that Rocks

Folks, a huge thanks goes to Stephen Nelson for putting all this together. You may kiss his hand when you see him.

This is a recording of “How to Write a Story that Rocks,” a two-hour seminar Larry Correia and I just put on at the annual BYU’s Life, The Universe, & Everything symposium. I think we had 130-140 people attend. This symposium is focused on writing fiction. And while the panels and presentations do include things specific to the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres (both adult and young adult), a lot of time is also spent on story writing fundamentals that apply to ALL genres. So when I developed this workshop, I made sure I took the fundamental approach.

The two-hour seminar has been broken down into 12 segments. To switch between the segments:

  • Hover your mouse pointer over the YouTube below
  • Click the forward and back arrows that appear on the right and left sides to move to the next or previous segment, OR 
  • Scroll through all 12 segments and select the one you want using the playlist control at the bottom

If you prefer, you can watch all 12 on the How to Write a Story that Rocks YouTube playlist page.

I’ve found whenever I develop any presentation or training that it takes a few iterations and revisions before it’s the best it can be. This is the first iteration of this seminar. And so below this video I’ve provided additional comments on each segment explaining key concepts, principles, and techniques that we might have failed to discuss or convey as clearly as we’d hoped. Enjoy!


How to Write a Story That Rocks – Handout

Segment 1

It’s documented–right-wing gun nut Larry Correia sang “Kumbaya.” What’s next? The hugging of small trees? Oh, Larry, the disilluion. The disillusion.

The reason why I had Larry sing was not for his mellifluous performance, but to demonstrate the difference in reactions between him and our happy volunteer (“Country Road” by John Denver–this really was a love fest). The volunteer balked because he hadn’t taken any thought to know what to sing before he was commanded to do so. On the other hand, Larry and I had spoken before the seminar. So Larry had something to sing BEFORE he sang it. It’s a simple demonstration, but it illustrates a principle a lot of new writers forget. Writing is a performance. It helps to know what it is you’re going to perform before you perform it.

It’s one thing for you to tell yourself to write. It’s much easier to tell yourself to write the scene where the rancher finds out one of his illegal ranch hands has been kidnapped.

Now this doesn’t mean that you have to know everything. Or that you can’t write exploratory drafts to figure out what it is you want to write. But it does illustrate that whatever techniques you use, you’ll be a lot more effective in your writing when you have something to say first.

But what do you develop? What are the things that bring the story to life? How do you go about getting those things to say? That’s precisely what I wanted to address in the seminar. In the segments that follow, I try to:

  1. Explain what I’ve found are the most important things to develop, the things that define the essence of story, that make the story come alive in the writer’s mind–the things that really matter
  2. Demonstrate techniques to develop those things so you have something to say

Segment 2

I think this segment went fairly well. What rocks will different from person to person, even though there will often be a huge overlap between people. So it’s important for authors to seek to develop the kinds of stories that rouse their passion. Watch this interview with best seller Debbie Macomber to see what I mean. So I can’t tell you what to write about. Or if whath you think rocks will resonate with a large number of people. However, what I can do is share the techniques I use that have been most productive in helping me develop initial ideas into something that has much more power.

You can use the techniques to juice up any of the four parts of story. However, I will say that I find that the most productive, the most important parts, are character and problem. Plot and setting are important. I love them and work to juice them up. But when I get a good character and problem, that’s when the writing seems to flow the easiest.

And no, I don’t list theme as a part of story. Everyone talks about theme, but when I read what they have to say or press them for examples, it seems that it always either boils down to (1) a story element or topic that’s repeated, (2) a story problem/issue stated in an abstract manner, or (3) some moral situation. Les Miserables is about the “theme” of mercy versus justice. But saying justice versus mercy is just an abstraction of the story problem and dilemmas the story deals with. So, no theme. 

Segment 3

Loved this bit about scenes from David Mamet: 

Segment 4

I’ll be adding my comments to the rest of these segments over the next few days.

Segment 5

Segment 6

Segment 7

Segment 8

Segment 9

Segment 10

Segment 11

Segment 12

Dan Wells on Story Structure

Check it out: Dan Wells on How to Build a Story (story structure). I find Dan’s “start with the ending” technique helpful as well as thinking about a worst fears realized moment. Watch the videos and see if there isn’t something there that can help you develop your story idea.

You can get the PowerPoint of How to Build a Story on Dan’s site.

If you find this approach useful, you might want to check out what novelist Larry Brooks has written about the same material on

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7 Responses to How to Write a Story that Rocks

  1. bdayton says:

    Awesome!! I’m so glad that this turned out so well. The sound is much better than I had imagined, as is the video. Kudos!

  2. John Brown says:

    It is. Hope it helps a lot of folks. Hey, I expect a report from you.

  3. Nathaniel Cassani says:

    Looks awesome . . .

  4. wisealma says:

    I was there live, and I have to say it was a wonderful workshop. It was really the highlight of the event. Thank you so much for posting these!

  5. John Brown says:

    Justin, I’m so happy to hear it was helpful to you. I’ll get the notes in as soon as I can. But I’m working against a deadline for book 2. As soon as that’s done, I’ll fill in some blanks.

  6. pfrangel says:

    This is great! Very helpful and very interesting. I really wished I could have come out to be a part of all the different workshops. Sigh…there’s always next time.

  7. John Brown says:

    LTUE was very good this year. Next time, Peter…