Three 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?Pin It
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.)
Hi ChemistKen, Very true! I have a near-impossible time finding things in my writing until they’re pointed out to me. I’m starting to build up a couple of “alpha-beta” readers for this purpose. Er, yes, I’m making up terminology now. LOL! I use my alpha reader to send stuff too when I first finish and feel like I’m going to burst if I don’t share it with someone. I generally don’t get much feedback from that step–it’s more just for me and my alpha reader’s enjoyment. Beta readers I use for general critique/feedback after I have the story in as good of shape as I can. The feedback here would be a cross between big picture and nitpicky. But with my last WIP, I saw the need for help in-between those steps. I’d finished the story and it was in decent-ish but still mostly first-draft shape. I needed someone who wouldn’t be hung up on my unedited writing and could ruthlessly help me pick the story apart. I guess that would be similar to a developmental editor–someone who gives big picture feedback about the story and characters and plot. So for lack of enough functioning brain cells today, I’m calling that step between alpha reader and beta reader my “alpha-beta readers” for now. LOL! Anyway, I’ve found that with micro-elements, I eventually start picking up on them myself after having them pointed out to me enough times. I’m hoping a similar thing will happen with macro-elements, but if not, I’ll… — Read More »
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 »
Great point about #1: So often the problem isn’t in the character–as we the writer know them–but in how we’re giving readers the wrong impression by what we choose to reveal or the word choices we use.
Ooo, on #2, one thing to watch out for is making sure you’re giving them a goal beyond mere survival. We all want to survive every day. Just because the threats are bigger against them doesn’t create a story.
The goal needs to be tangible. What are they doing to try to survive? Why do they want to survive? What do they hope to accomplish? What do they want/need to do with their life? Kristen Lamb’s blog has a great post about this concept. 🙂
And for your second point on #2–absolutely, I love surprises in stories. As long as what happens was at least hinted at or can follow logically from something that came before, the plot event B doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn’t be) what readers expect. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Kristen Lamb’s blog:
Oh! This is really cool! I’ve never consciously thought about this before. Haha, I liked the Frodo, Sam, and Mount Doom example, especially as I’m reading LotR right now. Hmm, I believe I do have concrete goals, but I should make sure that these specific goals are obvious to the reader as well as to myself, lol. It could be something like: they need to find a way to rouse their leader from this mysterious, dangerous slumber, or else they’ll lose their beloved leader forever; they are also trying to save other people who are under this strange slumber. So sometimes the goals are about rescuing specific people from specific dangers, esp. if it involves saving someone who’s very important to them (their leader.)
Thus, maybe the stake here is the risk of losing a great friend and leader to something that may be even worse than death. So this might be called the threat of “emotional annihilation” from losing a friend? (I’d be pretty destroyed myself if my best friends were to die 🙁 Maybe I shouldn’t say this as an example, it sounds so gruesome and horrible ><) Hmm…By the way, I really like rescue scenes for some reasons, lol. (Not just in my own writing but in others' stories too.)
I like how Kristen Lamb worded it: "Physical or Emotional Annihilation" 🙂
My friend and I were talking about Kristen Lamb’s article here (I showed her this link), and we thought of a few interesting things: 1) What if the character doesn’t realize what their goal is but the reader does? e.g. Beth has no idea she is on the journey of becoming a superhero. She just thinks her goal is to live happily ever after with Dr. K. (who turns out to be the super villain.) 2) About the tip that every scene needs conflict, is this always the case? There are scenes in stories that are conflict-less yet still necessary. Gimili, Legolas, Merry, and Aragorn all want to ride to place X. Yes, I admit that when no orcs or anyone are attacking them, it’s kind of boring (to me), and the happy scenes at Rivendell and the Shire are kind of boring too, but they are still necessary, right? 3) There are also some conflict-less scenes in novels that are not at all boring! Examples include the very happy romantic fulfillment/ love declaration/ marriage proposal scenes in Jane Austen, the warm and sweet family and friendship scenes in Little Women, etc. But of course, this could be a matter of reader opinion, as some readers might prefer constant conflict and are uninterested in warm and fluffy / jolly scenes, I guess, lol. And that’s how thrillers came about. 🙂 However, I still think that such no-conflict scenes may be important as they give the reader a moment to breathe… — Read More »
Hi Serena, Good questions! For 1), Michael Hauge touched on this in his workshop I attended last summer. The character’s true, deep-down goal (the one related to becoming their essence) might not be known to the character. However, they (and thus the reader) should have a feeling that something is missing from their life–they’re unfulfilled in some way. So at the beginning of the story, the goal can start off vague, and the character and the reader often won’t glimpse the real goal until the First Plot Point (at the 25% mark or so). Does that make sense? 2) LotR is probably a bad example for this question because so many current readers do pick on the story for this very reason. Some of it is very slowly paced and has stretches where nothing happens. Today’s readers put up with it in LotR (sometimes) because the story has reached “classic” status. However, new books would have a harder time finding a large audience willing to accept that style of writing. That said, there are many different kind of conflict. The Scene Checklist worksheets I did can help find reasons for a scene to exist. 3) In those cases, the scenes are still driving the story forward. They contribute to the narrative drive of the overall story. They cover plot points–and yes, plot points can be happy events. 🙂 Check those worksheets for more examples of what gives a scene meaning–because you’re right that just saying “conflict” is too simplistic. 🙂… — Read More »
Yes, I bet you have other concrete goals in there too, and it’s just a matter of you being aware of them so you can bring them to the forefront more. 🙂 Like you said, “rescue” scenes work because they’re active. Thanks for the comment!
1) Yup, makes sense. Thanks!
2) Oh…haha, it’s true that there are a lot of things that classics authors do that would be considered “unacceptable” to some readers today. Like telling too much. (Though I personally really like it when the writer tells a lot, lol.) Another example is of using very descriptive language, using many adjectives and adverbs. Some authors nowadays advocate a complete eradication of all adjectives and adverbs! (Except for the bare necessities, like the “red” house.)
3) Oh, I forgot about this post of yours! (Yes, I’ve read it before. Though it seems like I haven’t commented on it.)
I like how you put it, “contributing to the narrative drive.” From your list, I especially like the character development, character backstory, and character motivation. I remember a longish scene from A House of Mirth by Edith Wharton where she writes about the heroine’s backstory, which made her become who she is, shaped her attitudes towards life, and thus influenced all her actions in the novel. Yeah, I really like these longish character development+motivation+backstory scenes. 🙂
In fact, I would have liked LotR even more if they had some of these character dev+mot+back scenes for some of the main characters.
Yes, the one thing we need to be careful about with those backstory scenes is that they have to be directly related to the current story. If they’re contributing to the forward momentum of that narrative drive, they work. Otherwise, they’re just a big info dump that kills the pacing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Oh oh I have another question! What if you do want to have a longish backstory/character description scene but which has nothing to do with the plot? Yes, it does slow the pacing, but what if you just really really want to include it, because you really really want to develop that character? E.g. I have two minor characters that I want the readers to know more about as “people”–but I know that in the main plot, I will never have an opportunity to talk about them, their interests, likes, hobbies, backstories, that kind of stuff. Yes, these details are utterly irrelevant to the plot, but I just…really want the reader to know them as more rounded and complex people, and individuals, rather than just flat minor characters that come and go. Do you have any advice for this? Similarly, for some of my main characters, I want to tell the readers about some parts of them that aren’t at all important to the story. Maybe some readers will hate me for telling them “extraneous information”, but again—I really want my readers to see my characters as 3D people/ individuals, rather than just characters that serve as functions in the story. So in short, how do I “individuate” a character with “plot-irrelevant” details without annoying or even boring the reader? (It’s also true that some readers are more interested in characters as people than others, whilst some are only interested in knowing “what happens next”. I honestly would welcome it… — Read More »
There are two answers to that question. 🙂
1) If you’re truly writing only for yourself, do whatever you want, but don’t expect others to follow along or care. 2) Or if you want to share that information because you want readers to care about these characters as you do, then you can either include that information in an Extras section on your website (or a bonus snippet in your newsletter, etc.) or somehow find a way to make it matter to the reader in the story.
If the backstory information dump occurs deep enough into the story that the reader now cares about said character, they might be willing to go along with a tangent. Or if the pacing was just really fast and the reader needs a breather, they might be willing to sit with a character as they go through a flashback-type breather as well.
There are many ways to make these types of scenes relevant. They could be foreshadowing, they could be flashbacks leading to a realization about their current story situation, they could tie into a subplot, they could be answering an in-story question about “why are you so…xyz?” Often those scenes would just need the ending tweaked to give them a point.
In other words, the problem really comes when the author doesn’t try hard enough to make the scene relevant in some way (and it doesn’t have to be through the main plotline). Does that help? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Eh, for some reason, there’s no “Reply” tab to your reply, so I’ll just respond here, lol. Yes, it definitely helped, thanks! 🙂 In theory I would only be writing for myself, but in reality, I do actually want to please my friends–some of my friends, at least. “if you want to share that information because you want readers to care about these characters as you do” Yes, this is my case. I feel that if I don’t share enough info, then the readers won’t care about them enough. It’s like how I couldn’t really care about Frodo Baggins because I felt I didn’t know much about him. 🙁 Ooh, extras sections–yes, I have seen this done before in appendices at the back of books. But preferably, I’d try to make it matter. “If the backstory information dump occurs deep enough into the story that the reader now cares about said character, they might be willing to go along with a tangent. Or if the pacing was just really fast and the reader needs a breather, they might be willing to sit with a character as they go through a flashback-type breather as well.” Mmm, nice suggestions. 🙂 For the former, I remember how Faulkner did this in one of his novels: it was near the end of the book when he suddenly talks about the childhood backstory of his otherwise very flat villain–I was definitely interested enough to care by then! Lol. “There are many ways to make these… — Read More »
Hi Serena, No worries, I found it. 🙂 I think the commenting system allows only so many replies deep (if it didn’t, the indenting of replies would soon make comments only one word per line–LOL!). As for your idea of contrasting, that might work, especially with a tweaked ending. I’ve found that scenes are often made or broken on their ending (and to some extent, their beginning). The beginning of a scene sets the goal for scene–or on some level, makes the reader understand why this scene is included. So having a strong beginning makes the reader less likely to skim. The ending of the scene brings it to a full close and reinforces to the reader–here’s why this matters. So a tweaked ending where it ends on a note drawing the contrast between characters would emphasize why the information was important. That can sometimes be enough to carry readers along. Other approaches would keep making the connection between the old story and the new story more direct. A scene of one character helping contrasts with the next scene of the other character hurting. Then the story could become a study in character contrast (how they each handle different situations). At the far end of the scale of being completely relevant (while still keeping the whole backstory scene), you could bring that backstory scene into the current story by having the characters make a current comment or realization based on the information in the backstory. Like a “No, so-and-so was… — Read More »
Haha, looks like I’ll have to keep clicking on this post to reply.
Thanks for your answers! Good point about the need for strong beginnings and endings. There are some stories where you go…oh my gosh, why is the author telling me all this??? And then at the end you go, Oh! So that’s why. 🙂 And then you feel satisfied and keep reading, lol. But it would indeed be even better if even the beginning was strong.
And a slightly irrelevant comment—yesterday, I was talking to a friend about this issue, and these were her thoughts:
I think I put in extra info (e.g. backstory) for 3 reasons:
1. To satisfy readers who are more curious than me (what did Beth study in school???)
2. To get a good laugh (Roderick dropped out of everything and became a butler)
3. To make the reader feel like they have something in common with the character (Beth is self-conscious about her weight)
Lol, this is quite a fun topic to discuss 🙂 Thanks for bearing with me and this long conversation, haha.
All three of those things could provide character development, a cause of character conflict, or character motivation (some of those Level 2 Important Elements of a scene from the worksheet). So if you could add a Level 1 Essential Element to the scene, you’d be all good. 🙂
In other words, you could make the main point of the scene something else that is essential, and keep these tidbits as sidenotes to flesh out the scene. We can add a lot of information if we’re creative about how to weave it into the ongoing story. Think about a phrase here, a sentence there, maybe even a short paragraph or two over there, woven between the narrative drive bits and the pace will survive. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for your reply, Jami! 🙂
Ooh, I like the idea of having an essential core you want to have in every scene, but having extra tidbits around it.
Speaking of putting in a sentence here or a paragraph there, I started reading Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief. At the beginning of the story, it does a good job of this “backstory/ background telling” as it introduces some main characters (e.g. the teachers) with a short paragraph about their subject, likes, clothing, or something quirky about them. Then there will be a few very short paragraphs talking about a few short episodes where Percy interacted with them (e.g. when Mrs X punished him for something that wasn’t his fault.)
I thought this method of little character intros–with a brief description paragraph and a few very short “episode/ dialogue” paragraphs was very effective. (Maybe especially when there was social interaction and conflict–between Percy and the teacher.) They were kind of “exposition” (telling) and backstory, but I didn’t mind reading them at all. In fact, I was very interested in learning about these teachers as individuals—the episode paragraphs were especially entertaining. 😀 And they didn’t feel like they killed the pace either—even though it was at the beginning of the story, before anything really happened yet. I was so absorbed in learning about all these new people in this new world, that I didn’t feel bored at all. 🙂
Interesting! I haven’t read that book, so I can’t comment on how that was pulled off, but yes, I’ve found that weaving various worldbuilding and character development tidbits is the way to go. 🙂
If we think about it from a showing versus telling perspective, it makes sense. Big chunks of information are just telling us something. Weaving it with action, story, plot, etc. shows us the information in context. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
LOL! Nope. 🙂
To some extent, plot and character arcs come naturally to me, so for a long time I didn’t concentrate on this stuff. Instead, I paid attention to all those micro-elements (my grammar skills started off horrendous 😉 ).
Now I’m coming back to the macro-elements and realizing all the ways I can make them stronger. It’s hard to wrap my head around big picture stuff sometimes–my muse is much better at it. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Ooo, yes, that happens to me all the time too. I really have to get better about listening to that quiet voice. 🙂
I had to laugh about your allegory issue. I suffer from the same one. 🙂 I can analyze and find those allegories if I’m really trying, but as I’m reading, that’s nowhere in my thoughts. It took me about 15 readings of Chronicles of Narnia over decades before I finally realized the Christian allegory aspect. Um, yeah, I might be a little slow about that. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
Something I’ve been wondering lately… Some people just don’t get the point or value of fiction or specifically speculative fiction, though they tend to love works like Pilgrim’s Progress, whereas those of us who like speculative fiction tend to prefer analogies over allegories.
Therefore, does the genre (or lack thereof) that you prefer reading indicate if you’re more of an allegory person or an analogy person?
I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s certainly an interesting question! 🙂
I would bet that someone could create allegorical speculative fiction, however, so the two ideas might not be exclusionary. I wonder if an allegorical speculative fiction book would feel more like “literary” than “genre” though. Very interesting… 😉 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Exactly. Storytelling issues tend to make me more disappointed too. When I come across a great story with technical flaws, I think, “Boy, that could have used an editor,” and then move on to thinking about the great story. But when I come across technically perfect writing with a story problem big enough to drive a truck through, I think, “Gah! They were so close and they messed it up.” It bugs me for a longer time. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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