Writing Rules from Emmy-Winning Writer and Producer Dan O’Shannon

Even a blind pig finds acorns once in a while. I ran across some writing rules from Emmy-Winning writer and producer Dan O’Shannon and am passing them along to you. Ignore for the moment that Dan’s career spans hit series’ like Cheers, Frasier and Modern Family. Now he’s back in Ohio, spinning out wisdom on writing via the Facebooks. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that he’s telling you how to not suck as a writer in three or four simple sentences:

Tip for young comedy writers: whenever possible, avoid the rule of three.

Second and final post on the rule of three. A lot of comedy people learn the rule of three and then they start using it all the time. sometimes it’s effective, but often it’s used to prop up a joke that isn’t very good; the rule of three makes it kind of joke-shaped, and they can sometimes fool the audience (but mostly themselves) into thinking they’ve written something actually good.

Then there are jokes that would work just as well without the punchline being the third in a list – the structure is unnecessary, but still used by writers who automatically plug it in because that’s what they’ve learned. the rule of three is used so often and so carelessly that it calls attention to itself as a hack form. it’s frequently used to parody bad comedy writing. I’d say use it when it works, but don’t use it just to use it.

Sure there are exceptions to the Rule of Three and exceptions to the exceptions. I might even tell Dan that Tom Raymond disagreed with him, but I know his first question would be ‘who’s Tom Raymond?’

Items for Your Storytelling Toolbox

Hi there, fellow writer. Let me give you some items for your storytelling toolbox. Here’s why I’m giving them to you. I remember years ago being in woodshop and having to learn how to identify tools in order to make things.

When you think about storytelling as a job, at first it sounds like fun but then as you learn more it can feel quite overwhelming. Anyone can tell a story, but can you tell a story that people want to hear? It turns out, storytelling is a craft, a profession, and like any profession, there are tools to the trade. Having the right tools, and knowing how to use them, can make the difference between building the Taj Mahal, or a doghouse. We all want to be master workers at storytelling, don’t we? Your stories are going to become that much more fun to read when you make use of these items for your storytelling toolbox:

General Storytelling Resources

Like all great toolboxes, we start with some simple, general tools. These ideas form the basis of storytelling and are helpful no matter what kind of story you plan on telling.

More Information About the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (see above)

Now let’s dig into storytelling mechanics with two major areas: arcs and diegesis:


Everyone knows what a narrative arc is, even if they don’t know it had a name. When you tell anyone what happened today (“I got up, I went to work, I came home, I ate dinner”), that’s a narrative arc. The narrative arc is the factual structure and shape of a story. But there’s more to the storytelling, story! In fact, there are two major kinds to arcs be aware of:

Storytelling ArcsMake no mistake, a storytelling arc is not the plot of the movie. As you’ll learn in the linked article, the plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story, bu your story arc is the sequence of those events. Sure, the bad guy dies in act three, but you have to show the reader that the hero found the gun that shot him in act one. Your narrative / storytelling arc is how you’ll show all of these things happening, and in what order, to keep your audience riveted until the very last page.

Emotional Arcs – Kurt Vonnegut is a famous writer and he’s known for calling out the major categories of ’emotional arcs’ in the linked article. The main thing you should be aware of is what emotional arc you’re following in your story. You can use whatever arc you think works best, but it’s important to be consistent. For example, the worst movies you’ve ever seen frequently fail because they’re not clear on what arc(s) they’re using. Other times, great stories make use of several arcs simultaneously. Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark: It’s got a ‘Man in Hole’ arc, a ‘Boy Meets Girl’ arc, a ‘Bad to Worse’ arc. You never know ‘which way is up’ until the very end! So don’t be afraid to use one or several emotional arcs – just be sure you know what they are, and how they work together.

But arcs are only one category of storytelling tool! Now, let’s focus on another category that will take your stories into a brand-new dimension:

Diegesis / Diegetic storytelling

Understanding storytelling from a diagetic perspective creates a story’s texture and depth, but what is it? Simply put: Diagetic storytellign is a style of fiction storytelling that presents an interior view of a world in which:

– Details about the world itself and the experiences of its characters are revealed explicitly through narrative.
– The story is told or recounted, as opposed to shown or enacted.
– There is a presumed detachment from the story of both the speaker and the audience.
In diegesis, the narrator tells the story. The narrator presents the actions (and sometimes thoughts) of the characters to the readers or audience. Diegetic elements are part of the fictional world (“part of the story”), as opposed to non-diegetic elements which are stylistic elements of how the narrator tells the story (“part of the storytelling”).

Why You Need to Know About Diegetic storytelling – Eventually, you’ll have to explain to others what kind of story you’re telling. Is your protagonist telling the story, are they telling it as it happens? Does your story have a narrator, and does that narrator tell the story from inside the world of the story ( intradiegetic) or outside ( extradiegetic)? Is the story happening inside another story (metadiegetic)? Here’s more info on intra- vs extradiegetic storytelling.

I’ve used a number of diagetic modes in my storytelling. My next novel, Cinderallavator, uses metadiagetic storytelling because it’s a story happening inside another story. That’s what works best for the kind of story I’m telling. You might to do the same, or you might use another method. It’s all up to you, though. You’re the storyteller, so you’re in the driver seat!

I’m going to add more items for your storytelling toolbox over time. For now, I hope you found arcs and diagetic storytelling to be helpful in your personal writing craft. Questions, comments, things you don’t understand? Ask me about them on Reddit.

We’ll talk more, soon!

Discuss This on Reddit

Effortlessly Build Your Scenes with This Writing Hack

Effortlessly Build Your Scenes with This Writing Hack

Shout-out to @ThomHarp for this writing hack, which lets you effortlessly build your scenes whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a movie screenplay. Like many of you, I’m on the lookout for any tool or hack that simplifies the process of writing. That’s why I found this little trick to be a brilliantly clever way to connect your story diagram to ‘what is actually happening in this scene.’ Here’s how it works.

Step One: Diagram your story out, end to end using the aforementioned Story Diagram technique. If you’ve never diagrammed a full novel before, the easy way to figure out how it works is to watch your favorite movie and diagram that. Diagramming forces you to think about all the story plots (usually 2-4 in any good movie) in a linear structure. Once you’ve done that, go back to your story and then start blocking it out the same way. Where do you start, where do you end up? Start from each end and work inward. 

Step Two: After you’ve got your story diagram down, start breaking your story into scenes using the writing hack we’ll now discuss. You can use a fancy writing app (looking at you, Scrivener) or you can use Post-it Notes. It really doesn’t matter. Write down on each piece of paper like so:






And, looking in your story diagram, start filling out the details! Tell us what the summary of your scene is to start, so you know how much information to put into this scene. Tell a little bit about Where We’ve Been to help fit the scene in the overall continuity of your story. Write down what this scene is about to help your story focus on key elements. Document any power moves, anything a protagonist, side character, antagonist, or innocent bystander might do to make the reader go ‘Wow.’ Finally, write down your character goals; how does this scene help your character grow and change?

It’s important to remember one thing: you don’t have to do any of this to be a writer. Some writers love the process of creativity, writing by the seat of your pants, seeing where the story takes you. That’s wonderful, and I use that process when I’m writing short stories. What I’ve learned about longer projects like novels is this – Chapter Twenty-One is a heck of a time to figure out you have a plot hole in Chapter Two. By enacting some structure and focus to the story, you eliminate a lot of revisions, re-writes, and hassle. If you have a better way to do it, or another hack to share, feel free to drop me a line!

At the end of the day, writing is a craft and I want to be good at it. I share what I learn out of respect and gratitude toward those who were kind enough to share with me. I dropped this writing hack into my Free Author Tools page. If you want more info, you can also check this NoFilmSchool blog post for more ideas.

Write on!

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

No Sci-Friday this week. I’ve been shooting out author query letters for MESH and that brings up another author-related topic for you, the aspiring writer. You’ve written your first novel – congratulations! That’s a big step, and you should be proud of yourself. Now it’s time to think about selling your project to a publishing house if you don’t want to self-publish. You can do that in two ways, make a direct deal with a publishing house (that’s it’s own animal for another blog post) or engage with a literary agent who sells your project for a percentage of the profits. Engaging with a literary agent starts with a QUERY LETTER. So let’s talk about your query letter and you.

What is a Query Letter?

According to Writer’s Digest Shop, “Writers use query letters to pitch article ideas to magazine editors or book ideas to agents and publishers. It’s a one-page letter used to get an editor or agent interested in the work you’d like to send them. Sometimes writers submit a query letter about a piece they’ve already written—such as a manuscript for a fiction novel. Other times, you query to determine if you should write the piece, such as a nonfiction book.”

Your query letter is a message to someone you don’t know that hey, you’ve got a book – would they be interested in selling it? There’s a lot of nuance and protocol that goes into the process of writing a query letter but at least you know what a query letter is in a nutshell.

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

Do I Have to Write a Query Letter?

Short answer, no. Long answer, no, of course not – only write a query letter if you plan on selling your book. Authors who don’t write query letters include: publishers or their friends, famous people, and animals with no opposable thumbs. You wouldn’t expect Clifford the Dog to write his own query letter would you? He’s a dog! Plus, he’s the size of a house and I’m not sure his signature can translate down to an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. So because many of us do not fit in the aforementioned categories, it’s safe to assume yes, you need to write a query letter.

How do I Write a Query Letter?

From a basic structural perspective, you can pick up some tips in the aforementioned Writer’s Digest Shop blog post:

“[I]nclude in your query is the basic information about your proposed story or idea. If you’ve written a fiction piece, mention the title and genre your work fits best in. If you are a nonfiction writer, talk about your proposed title or category for your book. You should also include a one-sentence summary of your story and your final manuscript’s word count or proposed word count of your nonfiction book.

The third element is the hook, which makes up the bulk of your query letter. This is where you talk about the subject matter (for nonfiction) or the characters, plot, and conflict (for fiction). This section should be between 100 and 200 words long.”

It’s important to remember though, that this is a TIP ONLY. There are many schools of thought on what a successful query letter looks like. Since it’s a sales letter, your job is to sell your project – not you – to a professional buyer and seller of book projects.

In fact, you can get some ideas on recent query letters on /r/pubtips, which is dedicated to the process of writing perfect query letters for novel projects. Keep in mind, these people make good query letters by destroying query letters. Word of caution: these people are BRUTALLY HONEST. At first, I thought I would be okay with their level of criticism, but it took me six months and six tries to get a query letter they found acceptable. Unless you’re up for making your dreams come true by destroying your dreams, do not post your query letter here for feedback.

Here’s some more information on how to write a query letter from Bookends Lit Agency:

Wrapping Up

So in conclusion, you can be the best writer in the world and hate the process of writing query letters. It’s okay. I don’t enjoy the process, but it’s a necessary evil along the way to my overall goal. So … writing query letters. If you’re also writing a query letter, good for you! I hope this information helps you write your query letter and brings you closer to your dreams of being a published author.

Ten Things I Wish I’d Known as a Teen Author

Spotted this yesterday and am passing it along for the people who come to Inkican for free author advice. I’m happy to share with you because people shared with me, that’s how it works! This 30-minute video is a GREAT resource for young or aspiring authors: Ten Things I Wish I’d Known as a Teen Author. Give it a watch and take notes, this guy gets it and you’ll get it too after you watch this.

One of my takeaways was: Yes, you can be a pro writer. It’s not a one-in-a-million shot, there are a ton of writing jobs out there beyond being a professional novelist. He’s not afraid of telling you what you need to hear. No one is going to force you to be a writer, and if you’re getting into writing because you want to be rich and famous then you’ll be in for a bad shock.

I still love this, Brandon Sanderson makes a ton of great points – watch this video to get a roadmap for a professional writing career.

Grinding Scifi Short Stories

Grinding Scifi Short StoriesRan into this helpful site while discussing short story publishing. The Submission Grinder is a website dedicated to the process of submitting scifi and fantasy short stories. Why? Because you get rejected a lot! Every SF/F writer has about a million rejection slips on their desk these days.

This revelation has given me new energy to go back to the drawing board and give some short stories another chance at publication. Visit my Short Story Board to find out where my stories are being submitted to.

In the meantime, I hope you find Submission Grinder to be helpful. I pass along all the free tools I find – let’s get better together!

Visit The Submission Grinder

Thank you, Amelia! More Helpful Free Author Tools

I got a lovely note from Barbara Lincoln, a librarian in Salt Lake City last Thursday, who writes:

Good Afternoon Mr. Allen, I would just like to say a quick word of thanks!

As a youth services librarian and educator, I’ve been running a fun writers workshop for 12-15 year olds and thought you might enjoy hearing that we were able to get some great use out of your writers’ interest links lists before the self-quarantine and social distancing. We were even able to use some of this information for our most recent group project!

Thanks so much for sharing! I hope you don’t mind, but one of our youngest, Amelia has also asked me if I could share an article that she and her mother found together on writing basics for young writers, which includes a great breakdown of potential writing careers, education options and essential skills, self-publishing, book proposals, the editing process, etc. I’ve included it below if you’d like to review! We noticed you don’t have this one listed yet, but Amelia was actually the one to bring up that this could be something you might like to include for other young writers who could also be coming across your information and have an interest in becoming a published author someday, like Amelia!

If you find you are able to use this one, would you please let me know? We’re meeting tomorrow virtually, and I would absolutely love to surprise Amelia if you’re able to do so – I’m hoping to keep spirits up in light of what’s happening across the country right now, and I think it would make her day to know she was able to ‘pay it forward’ and maybe even show her mother her contribution if it ends up being included! inkican.com/free-author-tools-to-make-you-feel-like-a-genius/

Thanks again for all your help here Jackson,

Barbara Lincoln

Thank you, Ms. Lincoln – this was a welcome message to receive.

I’m happy to say that I loved the idea and included Amelia’s contribution on the Free Author Tools Page, with credit. Now it’s up there to help other authors, too! Thank you, Amelia!

Information like this is absolutely essential for other authors since learning how to write for a living is a challenge for anyone at any age. I love that I’m able to help the young authors of SLCCN and thanks to kind people like them, I’m able to pass along more helpful author-related info.

Thank you again! You made my day.


Writing Pro-Tip: Have an Idea File

So, new writer pro-tip for you and for me. If you’re interested in capturing new ideas when they arrive, here’s a suggestion: have an idea file. Write it down on paper, as a Word doc, in an email – doesn’t matter. Just be in the habit of writing those ideas down when they arrive. Here’s why:

I see tweets like this all the time from other authors:

I can’t imagine whose purpose it serves to admit that you might not be a non-stop idea factory, but that’s another topic. Like a lot of other creative people, I want to do this for a living and so I have to be in the habit of capturing ideas when they happen. A lot of them happen in – surprise, surprise – my dreams. Yeah, I have some pretty intense dreams. Are they story-worthy? Well, that’s a longer question.

Fact is, I don’t dream in a coherent narrative. I had a pretty big one this morning before I woke up, something freakish and terrifying based on every alien movie I’ve ever seen. Usually, I decide that they aren’t worth keeping because I can’t make them into a story but today I decided to do something different.

As soon as I got up, I wrote down everything I could remember about the dream. What I saw, what I heard, how it felt. Then I saved it in my ‘Idea.File’ folder. Maybe the dream can be something that prompts a short story. Maybe it will be something to help me describe a later scene. Either way, now I’ve got a productive way to mine those subconscious sensations that would otherwise be lost to the fog of memory.

Sound familiar? It should – it’s similar to what Salvador Dali used to do. According to this Fast Company article, Dali would hold a key in his hand as he fell into a deep sleep. Once he was asleep, his hand would relax and drop the key onto a plate. The resulting ‘clang’ would wake Dali up again, ready to get back to work with fresh ideas brought up by his subconscious.

‘Does it matter if I write this stuff down?’ I have no idea, this is simply an exercise, learning to write down ideas and thoughts that may turn into something later. Jerry Seinfeld keeps a notepad next to his bed in case he thinks of something funny during the night, so who am I to argue with that?

To wrap up, this sounds like an idea that might work for me and also for you. Passing it along so that we can all make our stories that much better. Write on!

Don’t Shake Your Head Over Too Many ‘Headshakes’

OMG, this is awesome. I found another free resource that I want to pass along to you. If you’re like me, sometimes you get stuck using an idiom too often. For me, I keep using the phrase ‘shake his head’ in this draft of Mesh. I started looking around, has anyone solved this problem yet? Kathy Steinemann, I found out, graciously provided a list of 200 ways to say ‘shake their head.’ If you’re running into a problem like this, don’t shake your head over too many ‘headshakes!’ Kathy has you covered:

200 Ways to Say “Shake the Head”

Authors help authors. Kathy was kind enough to help me, and I want to make sure I follow her kind example. Go forth, and write! 🙂

PS – Kathy’s website is a little spotty. If the link doesn’t work, you can get to it via the Wayback Machine on Archive.org