Master The 5 Rules For Better Stories

Master The 5 Rules For Better Stories

by Tracy Johnson

There are as many ways to tell stories as there are story tellers. Style is unique to the performer. Yet, there are constants that transcend the individual. Pixar developed a great template of 22 storytelling rules for their writers. Of those, most great radio breaks follow 5 rules for better stories.

Understanding and mastering some basics can help you become better in the art of connecting through stories.

5 Rules For Better Stories

There’s much more to a great break on the air than just having a great story to tell. The story has to be well-told. Here’s five ways to become a better storyteller immediately.

Don’t Start At The Beginning

Now that doesn’t mean beginning with “and they lived happily ever after”. That’s not starting at the end, but telling the story backwards. That means getting in quickly with a strong hook.

Like a comedian that ends his or her set on a high note, air talent has to stick the landing. Without a punchline or payoff, the break has no purpose. Comics learn to write punch lines first, then back up to develop the story just enough so the payoff gets a laugh.

And it’s not just comedy. Mystery writers always know whodunnit before they start a book.

Don’t assume you’ll “find it” or “know it when you get there”. Plan for it. Prepare for it. You can always adjust if a better payoff comes along. And by the way, knowing the end doesn’t mean you reveal it early. The payoff has to be something we haven’t already heard.

In the hook and setup, the storyteller establishes interest in the story by defining a reason to set up the challenge. This might be an unexpected challenge, dilemma, scenario, question or problem that you will answer or resolve by the end of the story. Answering the question, “What’s at stake in my story?” will give you your story a reason.

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Make Them Care

If the audience doesn’t care, you lose. And it’s not up to them to adjust to your story. You have to cause them to care with language. This is the most important of the rules of storytelling.

One way to do make them care is to begin with a promise [a hook). Hooks are tricky. Too many shows start a break talking about themselves. But guess what? Your audience doesn’t tune in to hear you go on and on about yourself. They don’t care about you or your story. Their concern is with themselves, and how you make them feel.

Your personal story is more effective when put in a context
 that starts with the listener. Putting them first will help you stay relevant. And when you’re relevant, it’s easier to be relatable.

Of course, in some cases, the story really is about you. In those situations, make sure the audience feels something about your situation.

One of Pixar’s story telling rules is that everyone admires a character that overcomes adversity. So put conflict or personal challenge into your stories. Present a dilemma…an uncomfortable angle…or an obstacle.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

When you have a strong personality, it’s easier to find creative obstacles that challenge your character. This can be highly engaging.

Paint With Words

Train yourself to use colorful, exciting language. That doesn’t mean to use big words but descriptive, colorful, specific words. Work to eliminate anything without color, focus and action. Word choice makes you more interesting.


Be A Designer, Not Decorator

Designers pay attention to details. Decorators add knickknacks and call it a day.

Design is deeper, more systemic. It’s embedded in every single element of the process. Great design is almost always greatly detailed, but always simple. The rules of storytelling require that you make it easy for the audience to understand and retell.

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This concept may force you to learn new habits. Most personalities simply decorate. They start with a topic, add a little to it, then slap it on the air.

Great design is taking something generic and making it unique in a context that only fits your personality.

Focus on the Outcome

The payoff must have a destination. Surprise your audience with an eye-popping resolution, conclusion or punch-line. It could come from any player on the show, or even a listener, but it must happen!

This point is key to a show’s success. Many personalities want to be the one that gets all the attention. Get over that. It doesn’t matter who delivers the key line, as long as it happens on your show.

One way to improve in this area is taking some classes in improv and learn the concept of  “Yes, and…”. If everyone on the show understands this concept it will help you avoid slamming into a brick wall on the air.

For those of you who are on solo shows, your partner is your listener!

If everyone has a goal of making their partner look good, you will win!


Not everyone is a great storyteller by nature. Some have to work on it. For them, it is an acquired skill.

Following these 5 rules for better stories will help develop this important skill quickly.



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