Determine How to Tell Your Story

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 08:20 min

Salman explains his philosophy: A big story should drive your writing. Learn the essential questions he asks himself about a new story before sitting down to write.

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Topics include: Big Car, Big Engine · Ask Yourself the Six Essential Questions · Write Yourself a Letter


SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think this is at the heart of the whole of literature, which is the one thing that is the great constant is human nature. In whatever age, in whatever country, human beings are the same. We have the same longings. We have the same flaws. We have the same ambitions. And I think one of the reasons why we can read with pleasure literature written hundreds of years ago or written in a country that we have no idea about is because human nature is there. If the story feels truthful about human beings, then it speaks to us. [MUSIC PLAYING] If you're going to build a big car, you should put a big engine in it, you know. And the big engine is what makes the car a pleasure, you know. A big car with an inadequate engine is a kind of disappointment. So-- so the engine for me has always been story. And so I've always tried to put that-- that kind of vroom-vroom factor, you know, what drives the book at the center of it whatever else it may or may not be doing. Without conflict, it's hard to have-- it's hard to have drama. I mean, one of the things-- famous lines by-- about literature the French writer Henry de Montherlant said about happiness that it's almost impossible to write about. He said-- he said, happiness writes in white ink on a white page. You know, it doesn't show up. If people are happy, there's no story, you know. He-- these people are happy, we are told. The end, you know, because what else is there to say? The hardest thing I think of all is to write about happiness. In order to get started writing on a project, there are I consider six essential questions that you need to answer. The first question is, whose story are you telling? You need to be clear about that because a novel is a long piece of work. There'll be characters coming in and out, et cetera. You really need to know what is through line. It could be two people. It doesn't have to be one person. But you need to be quite clear about that. And then the most obvious question is, what's the story? And again, that-- different writers answer that question differently, you know. Some writers need to have a very, very clear sense of the storyline from beginning to end before they can start work. Other writers are different. They will have a general sense of the story. They'll know that the character needs to go from here and end up there. When I started writing, I really needed to know a lot about the character, what the story is. I needed to have that sketched out. I needed to have notes and architecture, plans, and so on. And-- and now I find-- I mean, I still have some sense of all those things. But it's much more that I every day try and discover the story. If you compare it to music, it's like the difference between composing a symphony and playing jazz. With a symphony, everything is written down in full notation, you know. And there it is. The musicians have to just interpret that. With jazz, of course, there's a general sense of-- o...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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