Start with Four Words…

Many stories have start with four little words: Once upon a time…”.

Some of the very first stories we have heard in our lives start with these words. Simple and elegant, they immediately put you in a place that is decidedly not here. When you hear them, you get ready for heroes and monsters and castles and magic. 

These four words can do more than just help the reader on their journey, they can help the writer, too.

This sentence fragment is the first rule of improve story telling called “The Story Spine” and was integrated into Pixar’s 22 Rules of story telling by Emma Coats. The Story Spine has been used many times over as a way to help writers write their stories and screenplays and I have heard even therapists use it in patient sessions.

But, for this post, I am just going to talk about that first sentence. 

Once upon a time…

Four small words, really big potential. 

To start, let’s talk about what these words represent. They are the promise the writer is making to the reader. They represent the characters, the setting, and the action that is going to happen. Whenever you start writing, and especially if you get stuck, think of those words and how they relate to you story. Say them out loud using your story to finish it. “Once upon a time…”

It seems silly and stupid at first, but what comes after that when you say those words? Practice with stories you already know, books you have already read. See how it goes and see if it gets the inspiration flowing.


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How to Critique

**While I usually post stories I have written, I have come to a bit of a slump. So, I will try to write down some things I have learned about writing in hopes it may help someone else.

A hand with the Wordy Ghost tattoo, holding a pencil, with the words "to help me write"I have been teaching creative writing for a few years now and one thing I have learned from my experience as a student and as a teacher is critique is more important than you think – not just as the one giving but also the one receiving. A good critique can help you see issues in your own writing if you know what you are looking for. It can also help you know what to ask for when you ask people to look at your work.

I have been writing for decades, and spent 4+ years in school getting first a B.A. in creative writing, and then an MFA. One thing that I realized about giving my work to others to judge and critique is that a lot of people really have no clue how to give feedback. Many people feel that you need to really rip a piece to shreds. Some people feel bad about saying anything negative about it. Then again there are those that just have no idea on where to start. I can say that even my education didn’t really teach the ‘hows’ of critique. 

I once gave my manuscript to someone who had worked in an acquisition position so I trusted them to give me good feedback. They proceeded to tell me about how they didn’t like how I named my character, how the language needed to be old English in dialogue, or how they would write the book. None of this was helpful in anyway to develop my story more.

My school experience wasn’t much better. The workshops were required and many people just found something as small as spelling errors just to say they did the assignment. Again, they were never useful in actually helping my writing at all. I spent most of my university years frustrated that I couldn’t get much real help on how to move forward with writing. I vowed that when I started teaching, I would work on helping people understand writing beyond the technical aspects to help themselves and others grow as writers.

My favorites television shows are Chopped and Guy’s Grocery Games. I can never get enough of ICAG staring down some contestants and looking harsh before telling them she loved their food! 

I know what you re saying, “Wait, aren’t we talking about writing?” YES, we are. One of the things I always tell my students to do (and I try to do) is watch the game shows on Food Network. Pay close attention to the judges. How are they critiquing the dish they are tasting? There are usually some basic things they do:

1. Name what they like

2. Name what they don’t like

3. Sometimes offer solutions for the problems in the future.

It can look something like this:

“I really liked the creativity of this dish. The fresh ingredients really brought a lightness to the whole thing. However, the protein was a little under cooked for my liking, it needed another few seconds in the pan. The sauce was also a little too salty. Make sure you watch the other ingredients you put in so you aren’t over salting the dish.”

Now, applied to a writing critique, it can look like this:

“This was a great story start. I really liked the main character and the setting. However, some of the motivations for going into the house were a little vague. I would have liked to know a little about what put them in that place at that time. I am also not sure what part the dog had to play.  Perhaps it can be a harbinger or just some kind of emotional support?”

Of course, these are just examples and, as a writer, I know that critiques are subjective, much like the judges on cooking shows. Sometimes a judge will love a thing in a dish and another judge will hate it! But, if you talk about what you like first, that gives the author a chance to see what they are doing right while still giving an opinion on something that may actually need fixing as well as giving them a way forward without saying directly what is wrong (because subjective!). 

Another thing to remember also, is to make sure that you don’t give hard advice on how to fix something (other than spelling mistakes). Even grammar can be subjective in the sense that maybe the sentence needs to be re-written for clarity and not just grammatically correct. There are many sentences or pieces that are grammatically correct, but aren’t clear in the meaning. So it is important to convey what the issue is (I am unclear what this means…you may want to consider rewriting this) and not just focus on the grammar (or technical) side of the writing.

This isn’t to say that you can’t offer suggestions. I always like to offer multiple suggestions so the writer can get a feel for the issue I am having and them make up their own mind how to fix it. I have had writers take whole sections out, or just change a word. Sometimes the writer just needs a direction to go…so offer them a direction, not a hard and fast solution.

With all of that said, take everything I have written here as a suggestion. Like I tell my students and clients, my word is by no means law or gospel. This really is just to help you find your own way forward with critiques be it your own or others. I hope this helps.