Brain Pickings

6 Rules for a Great Story from Barnaby Conrad and Snoopy

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“And remember: Always aim for the heart!”

You might recall Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (public library), which gave us Ray Bradbury’s wise words on rejection. To recap: Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, asked 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George. Among them is also one by Barnaby Conrad himself, offering the following six tips to writing a great story, in response to this 1997 comic strip:

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

Hone your opening words, for just as stories aren’t written but rewritten, so should beginnings be written and rewritten. Look at your opening and ask yourself, ‘If I were reading this, would I be intrigued enough to go on?’

And remember: Always aim for the heart!

Conrad is the author of The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.

For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

And, above all, let’s not forget these famous disclaimers on taking writing advice.

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Christoph Niemann: Insecurity Is Essential to Great Design

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Inside the mind of one of today’s finest visual communicators.

Christoph NiemannLEGO-lover, dispenser of irreverent wisdom on creativity, author of the excellent Abstract City and That’s How! — is one of my favorite illustrators. In this short video from Gestalten, Niemann discusses his philosophy on design, the state of visual language today, his creative process, his adorable non-neuroses, and more.

A certain amount of insecurity is a very helpful trait for any kind of designer.

Of particular note is Niemann’s point about insecurity, a point we’ve already seen made in other disciplines, from science to cinema.

The video is a teaser for Gestalten’s Data Flow 2, a fine complement to their fantastic Visual Storytelling.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Art of Coffee: A Mad Men Era Short Film

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“Success lies in a single word: Care.”

Beyond being the world’s favorite hot beverage, coffee, as any aficionado will tell you, is a matter of a great art and, often, great snobbery. But what, exactly, makes the ancient beverage that manifests in your cup every morning a modern masterpiece? This delightful Mad-Men-era short film, produced by Vision Associates in 1961 as promotional material for the Coffee Brewing Institute, traces the art and culture of coffee from its harvesting and production to its many traditions of preparation (Viennese! Parisian! Venetian! Turkish!), to the three elements that converge into its “fine flavor.”

How, then, do we make the perfect cup of coffee to our taste? Success lies in a single word: Care. Three simple ingredients go into the brewing process: water, coffee, time. Care will produce a perfect result every time.

The film, titled This Is Coffee!, is now in the public domain, made available by the Prelinger Archives, who have previously shown us how bananas became a global commodity and why illegal drugs are like LEGO.

Open Culture

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