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May 2, 2013

Three Tips for Better Storytelling

Little girl reading to little boy with text: 3 Tips for Better Storytelling

Last time, we talked about how good storytelling can salvage even a poorly written book. As I mentioned in that post, storytelling skill is different from writing skill.

Many people have a hard time defining what makes good storytelling—and that makes it difficult for us to improve. Yet I’d argue that storytelling ability isn’t as squishy of a concept as voice, and that means good storytelling can be learned.

Writing skill often refers to the micro-elements that go into a book: grammar, characterization, settings, description, dialogue, sentence structure, etc. In contrast, storytelling skill refers to the macro-elements: the big picture of story arcs and themes and how all the other elements pull together to create a “page turner.”

If we focus on those macro-elements, we start to see the skills we need to become a good storyteller.

Tip #1: Good Storytelling Has a Purpose

If we’re faced with several story ideas, part of our decision on which story seed or premise to develop should be which one we feel most passionately about. Which one speaks to us. Which one has something to say to others.

When we feel that way about the story, we hope our readers will feel the same. We want our readers to be passionate about our story because it speaks to them too.

On some level, we fail if our readers can’t tell by the end of the story why we chose this idea. They shouldn’t feel like they wasted their time on something meaningless.

Stories can gain a sense of purpose in many ways:

  • A strong theme or message
  • Characters that readers care about
  • Plot, stakes, or conflicts that readers care about

We can think about the Climax of the story—where all the themes, characters, and plot events come together—and understand why we’re really writing the story. If we can’t figure out why it’s worth writing, why would readers find it worthwhile to read?

Tip #2: Good Storytelling Believes in the Story

Going along with an external sense of purpose, good stories also have an internal sense of purpose. The characters believe that what happens in the story matters. That attitude makes the story matter to the reader too.

  • Characters’ goals must be important and not contrived.
  • Conflicts must have consequences.
  • Stakes must involve risk.

Clear and honest goals gives readers a reason to root for the characters (which encourages readers to care about them). Then we need to keep the chain of consequences intact to make characters vulnerable and add risk to the stakes. Readers won’t care about characters or stakes if it doesn’t seem like there’s any risk of failure.

To create those consequences, we must pay attention to cause and effect. If plot event A would logically lead to plot event B, then B should happen. We can’t skip plot event B just because it’s inconvenient for us to write or because we wrote ourselves into a corner. If we don’t like plot event B, we should tweak A to lead somewhere different.

If we use plot event Z instead, that would mean that there was no point to A, because it didn’t affect the rest of the story. Plot events without consequences for later events (or for the characters) are meaningless (not to mention a sign of sloppy writing).

A strong narrative chain of action and reaction, cause and effect, is what pulls readers along and keeps them turning pages.

Tip #3: Good Storytelling Focuses on Change

Complaints about stories where “nothing happens” often refer to the problem of nothing changing. Stories should be all about change.

I’ll save you from my pathetic attempt to draw an arc, but picture one for a moment. Arcs are how we talk about change in reference to stories.

  • Story arcs give an overall sense of how the premise plays out.
  • Plot arcs show how plot events work together for pacing and increasing tension and stakes.
  • Character arcs demonstrate how characters learn and overcome their flaws to reach their goals (or not, if the story is a tragedy).

In the comments of the last post, I pointed out how beat sheets can help with this aspect. Beat sheets force us to examine the cause and effects that make events meaningful, ensure that rising action corresponds with higher stakes and tension, and evaluate how change is shown. Check out my full collection of beat sheets here.

My favorite worksheets (keep in mind that I write by the seat of my pants, so I tend to use these more for revision) are the Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering beat sheet for plot arcs (Edited to Add: I’ve since changed to using the Basic Beat Sheet for plot arcs), Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure for character arcs, and my own Romance beat sheet for developing romances.

The Secret to Good Storytelling

After all that, it might seem that good storytelling is too confusing to learn. However if we step back, we see the macro-elements we need to learn come down to:

  • story structure (beats, plot events, and all kinds of arcs)
  • clear cause and effect (consequences, risk, and story flow)
  • purpose (Why should the reader care?)

I’m a story structure fan (despite my pantsing ways), and I’ve been working on the cause and effect aspects. For me, the trickiest thing is making the reader care.

I’ve suffered from unlikable characters in the past, and my themes often aren’t completely developed until I’m deep in revisions. On the other hand, I think my unique premises help people care at least about the plot. I just want more, and now I have a better idea about how to tackle the issue. *smile*

Do you agree with these tips? Do you have other tips to share? Do you think storytelling can be learned? Do you struggle with one aspect more than the others?

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What do you think?

27 Comments on "Three Tips for Better Storytelling"

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ChemistKen

Sometimes the hard part is being able to spot these problems in your own work, even if you’re actively looking for them. My critique partner has pointed out things that I couldn’t see until she mentioned them. It’s all about writing the best as you can, then coming back later with a fresh view and think about how you cam make each part of the story even better.

BTW, I enjoyed your online class for setting up a wordpress.org blog last week. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time yet to send you a testimonial. (Although I do have that marked down in my to-do list.)

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hmm, let me try to analyze my own stories (and stories in general) with your three tips: #1 About things I care passionately about, I find that usually, the real reason why I would write any story at all, is because I care about the characters, or at least the protagonists. They are my friends, and I want to know what will happen to them, and want to get to know them too. 🙂 So, the “raison d’etre” of my stories is this simple, haha. Of course, there’s the problem when you as a writer really really love one of your characters, but your readers don’t care about them at all, lol. I’ve had that before. At first it’s quite aggravating, because you think, “How on earth can you not like him? How can you not agree with me that he’s absolutely wonderful???” But I have to remember that since I know more about this character than the reader, I’m more likely to become enamored of him, whereas for the reader, this character is no more than a stranger until you show enough of him in the story. So writing/ revealing too little of a character can be a problem as this can make readers feel disconnected. In general, I feel more attached to a character the more I know about him or her. The less I know, the less I care. XP That’s why I unfortunately don’t care very much about Frodo Baggins. 🙁 I feel like I don’t… Read more »
Melinda S. Collins

Hi Jami,

Have you been sneaking into my emails lately? LOL! This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with the lately. The macro-elements, story arcs and themes. Just when I feel as though I have a pretty good idea of all those, or when I say, “Oh, hey! I definitely have a great handle on that,” it turns out I actually don’t. *head desk*

I think storytelling can be learned just like everything else in life. It can just be a long road to Expertland. And just like everything else in life, there are some who are naturals. Obviously, I am not one of those, and I tend to naturally focus on the micro-elements. 🙂

Thank you for the great tips, Jami!

Carradee
Not entirely on topic, but… It’s not unusual for a content editor to comment on things I remember thinking, briefly, while I was working on the story, and meant to go back and adjust later…but forgot. Note to self: Actually jot down all those random thoughts while working on a story. It would probably do you good. But here’s how it gets on topic: I’m a storyteller, so even when I miss some things…a story still can find an audience. My friends will intentionally ask me questions about things they know will cause five–ten minutes of explanation, analysis, and opinion (in fields of information that they know little or nothing about). And when I get on a rant? Most often, when I catch myself and say “Sorry; that doesn’t matter to you,” my friends encourage me to continue. :/ Not because they’re laughing, but because they find it interesting. Ironically, those situations don’t turn out so well with my immediate family. It’s less that they don’t want to know what I think; it’s more that we use incompatible communication methods. I often argue out of impossibilities to point out what’s possible; they accuse me of having my head in fantasy land and then argue what I just said—insisting that I said something else entirely. Despite the fact that more than once, when others have overheard such conversations, they’ve sided with me. :/ (Me: “The impossibility founding my hypothesis is irrelevant to the analogy.” Them: “If it’s irrelevant, then your hypothesis… Read more »
Fiona Ingram

From a book reviewer’s point of view, very often if the story is gripping enough, I give it a high rating despite technical flaws.

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