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?Pin It