Storytelling is one of the most important elements of writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re an independent author writing fiction, a copywriter creating content for a business or a student writing a paper for school. Knowing how to tell a great story can make the difference between capturing and losing your audience.
According to LifeHacker.com, there is a science behind storytelling. Telling a good story is the most powerful way to activate our brains. Storytelling has been a fundamental communication method for over 27,000 years, dating back to the first cave paintings. Some of us spend our lives perfecting our ability to tell the perfect story, and others are gifted natural storytellers capable of captivating the world with their riveting talent.
But the science behind a great story should not be confused with the art of creating one. So just how does one tell a great story?
Rule #1: Forget the Rules
The first rule of telling a great story is much like the first rule of fiction; there isn’t one!
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the creative process. Great storytelling is very much like the writing process; it’s not set in stone, but there are helpful steps you can take to craft an epic tale.
Start with Your Audience
We often talk about identifying your audience in our content creation and copywriting geared posts. And while these pieces can still provide useful tips and tricks for every type of writer, we’d like to switch gears and target this step toward indie authors and students.
The truth is you can create a story for any type of writing. When done correctly, it will accentuate the piece, fascinate the reader, and resonate with your current and future audience. But the only way you’ll accomplish this is to start with your audience.
Take the time to think about who will be reading your story. Choose a framework and think about details that will best resonate with them. Consider what will shock, wow, and move your readers. Focus on the elements of your story that will leave the greatest and desired impact, and then build the entire story around this.
Know Your Message
It’s impossible to craft an excellent story without a clear understanding of your message. Before you begin crafting the tale, answer the following questions:
- Why are you telling the story in the first place?
- What’s the moral the reader should take away?
- Why should they care?
Mind Your P’s and Q’s
Once you’ve identified your audience and mapped out your message, it’s time to structure the story. It’s important to mind your P’s and Q’s by using a good story structure, which does not need to be complicated. In fact, the simpler, the better. A good structure will look something like this:
- Purpose: The reason you’re crafting the story.
- Connection: Creating a personal touch that connects the reader to the story, allowing them to try it on.
- Point of Reference: Ensuring your readers understand the context and situation of the story.
- Imagery: Infusing enough character details for readers to create a mental image without impeding or limiting their imagination.
- Challenge: Incorporating conflict, vulnerability, achievement, the raw human element your readers will relate to and latch on to.
- Pacing: Your story needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
A well-structured story will fascinate readers. It will be much like a painting.
When we gaze at a great painting, we are enveloped by the colors and shapes. We mentally disappear into the scene, rushed away by the current of our imagination. We don’t focus on the canvas or type of paint used.
Likewise, a finely structured story will allow readers to focus on and melt into the art of the story. The technique behind it will only be visible to other skilled writers or readers who look for it.
Be the Hero without Being the Hero
Did this section’s heading cause an eyebrow or two to rise? It sounds contradictory, but the best stories are told by storytellers who are the hero without being the hero.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the best stories make the members of the audience the hero. Now, this bit of advice evolves when we talk about fiction. In fiction writing, it’s crucial to create a believable and relatable hero. And while you should find yourself sliding into their shoes as you write, you shouldn’t create them to be you.
Believe it or not, readers who have never met you can tell when you’re talking about yourself. Making you the hero can spiral into a self-absorbed story, leaving the audience in shutdown mode with nothing that speaks to them. It’s okay to build in characteristics or experiences that are yours, but don’t make the hero in your spitting image.
Great Storytelling Isn’t Perfect
Kristi Hedges, a contributor to Forbes, has some of the best advice for crafting an amazing story:
“Perfect storytellers are boring and robotic. Perfect characters in stories are alienating. No one wants to hear how awesome you are, or how well you nailed your goal.”
In other words, great storytelling isn’t perfect! The imperfections draw the audience in. They want to see vulnerability, error, and raw humanity. They don’t want to see a plot and set of characters striving to meet some preconceived recipe of the perfect story.
There is only one thing you should strive for perfection in, and that’s the technical side of writing. The greatest stories are the perfect presentation (i.e. spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting) of an imperfect series of events.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Have you ever overcomplicated something only to smack your forehead and call yourself stupid afterwards? I’ve been there; I’ve done that. I still do it, too. I’m pretty sure it’s an occupational hazard to us creative types.
The most riveting stories are usually the simplest in nature. As masters of our self-created universes, it can be scary simple to overcomplicate a story. We start throwing in quintuplet plot twists and a small army of red herrings. Then, we build up to a jack-in-the-box ending of explosive proportions.
Stop. Seriously, I mean it. Not every story requires a jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-seat ending. Hell, not every story needs to cause readers to gasp or utter oo’s and ah’s under their breath. Instead, take the Harvard Business Review’s advice:
- Less is more: Work under the principle that less is more. It’s easy to put way too much detail into a story, removing the reader’s ability to use their imagination. If a battery of detail seeps out during the writing process, so be it. Let it go! Go wild. But edit it down later. Give the reader a chance to exercise their free will; otherwise, you’ll lose them before ever reaching the end.
- Avoid Unnecessary Details: You have to know which details are necessary to painting the picture and which aren’t. Details can either detract from or enhance the story. Great storytelling focuses on only the enhancing details. For example:
Her ocean blue eyes flashed with fiery anger as her cheeks burned bright red with hot embarrassment. She couldn’t believe she’d tripped, tumbling into a crumpled mess of undignified limbs, and in the middle of the biggest audition of her not so eventful life! How could she be so stupid as to wear those infernal hot pink shoes that matched her costume admirably but ultimately brought her to the floor? The floor, the bottom, the end; was this where her career was going?
To be honest, I lost interest halfway through writing the above example. You probably only made it to here because you’re digesting the example. It’s overcomplicated, super detailed, and leaves little room for your imagination to take hold. The better choice is to avoid unnecessary and cumbersome details:
Her eyes flashed with anger as her cheeks burned red with embarrassment. She couldn’t believe she’d tripped, and in the middle of the biggest audition of her life! How could she be so stupid as to wear those infernal shoes? Was this how her career would end?
The key to great storytelling is to keep it simple. Don’t be stupid, okay?
The art of storytelling is just that, art. While some will have a natural talent for it, others will spend years developing a minimal one. It requires repeated effort to get it right. Great storytelling, whether verbal or in print, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often years in the marking.
Think of storytelling like sculpting. Rarely does anyone take to clay with ease, adeptly sculpting a gorgeous piece of art on their first try. It takes months of study and practice to develop existing skill and talent. It takes years to learn and develop technique. Finally, it sometimes takes a decade to produce that breathtaking sculpture. The key to the end product lies in practice.
You can craft a breathtaking story. It’s up to you to hone your skill, develop your talent, and master technique, but once you do, the rewards will be immense.
Feature Image Credit: saquizeta via 123RF Stock Photo
One thought on “How to Tell a Great Story”
Brilliantly practical advice. A strong writer, even a fiction writer, will always take the time to plan their story. And there’s nothing wrong with following these steps AFTER inspiration hits and you write the story. It’s YOUR process, after all. 😉