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1/28 Tips for New Storytellers

So I had a friend who wants to get into writing and sharing stories ask me to share some tips for someone who is completely new to the storytelling game, and this is the list that I came up with the help of my most brilliant writer friend, Holly Wright. Make sure you check out her work at

1. Basic structure:

It’s good to keep in mind the simple plot diagram all of us looked at as kids—the one that looks like a sort of beat on a heart-rate monitor or a mountain: exposition (characters and setting), followed by the rising action (establishment of the main goal or conflict, as well the overcoming of several smaller conflicts), then the climax (the main conflict is solved/ the main goal is reached), next the falling action (the aftermath of the climax), and finally the resolution (the very end of the story). This structure is, of course, the most basic plot structure and can be varied from greatly or abandoned altogether, depending on what and how you write. We should talk about this more, but for beginning storytellers this diagram is invaluable.

2. Showing vs. telling:

One of the main rules they beat into you in creative writing classes is the idea that “good” storytellers show rather than tell the audience the story as it unfolds. As a basic example, instead of simply telling the audience “Joe was depressed,” say something like “Joe couldn’t force himself to get out of bed” to show the depression. All of this being said, it’s possible to “over show.” This happens when you get so caught up in showing and not telling that you discard telling from your toolbox entirely, leading you to lots of pointless exposition that could be succinctly expressed through explanation. I’m not sure how well I’m illustrating this point, so again, let’s talk.

3. Iceberg theory:

The iceberg theory analogizes storytelling to an iceberg, in terms of what is visible to passengers (the audience). Above the water is maybe a quarter of the iceberg; this is the actual prose that the audience gets to read. The other 75 percent of the ice below the water is everything that goes into a story that doesn’t manifest directly on the page—the bulk of the story, ironically. The most prominent example of this in the majority of stories will be character building. When you create or conceptualize characters (fiction or nonfiction), you need to have a very clear idea of the kind of person that they are and the kind of past they’ve had to make them such a person. You need to know their fears, their dreams, and their desires, even if none of those things make it to the page. The more real your characters and world are to you, the more real they’ll feel to the reader, even though the reader isn’t privy to their innermost depths the same way you are.

***(Holly) You should include in the parts of the story the reader encounters only things that advance either the plot or character development. Avoid extraneous information and details. (more on this later)

4. In Media Res:

“Into the Middle of Things” is a very simple and effective storytelling technique, which basically dictates that you should start your stories right in the middle of some action instead of at the “very beginning.” One example that comes to mind is the detox episode of Rick and Morty; the episode opens with Rick and Morty’s spaceship coming out of a portal straight from a near-death situation, the reported climax of an extremely stressful adventure. The audience doesn’t see any of the pre-adventure planning, the adventure itself, or the near-death experience. Instead, they are thrown right into the middle of some dramatic action that sets up the story to come.

***(Holly) Note that “in media res” might not always be the best way to start a story, especially if the stakes of the action the reader enters into are too high. If there’s no emotional attachment to the characters, a potentially powerful scene could lose its potency. Sometimes it’s better to build that attachment with a slow-pace early on.

5. Motivation and conflict:

What makes most stories compelling are strong sources of conflict and tension, which arise from character’s motivations. When you set out to tell a story, the number one question to ask yourself is “what do my characters want?” From there you can create obstacles to that desire which the character must conquer or overcome. One of the easiest ways to create such an obstacle is to create oppositional characters (the antagonist to your protagonist) whose own motivations and desires clash with the main characters.

6. Expertise:

While I won’t say that you should be an expert about everything that you write about (I’m certainly not), I will say that you should have enough background knowledge about whatever it is you’re trying to discuss to at least come across as authoritative to the audience. If you want to create a compelling Catholic-church scene, for example, you should have at least enough familiarity with the rituals of the mass that a Catholic reader would be like “yes, this is what an hour in church looks like.” You don’t have to know the ins and outs of Christianity, or be an expert on the Bible, but you should know enough to avoid inaccurate details that can ruin your audience’s immersion in your work.

7. Passion:

This is one of the most important, especially since you won’t be writing for a class or another person. Telling a good story is a serious undertaking, and if you’re not committed to the story you’re trying to tell then you’ll run out of steam very quickly. Besides, if you don’t care about the characters and events that take place in your story, how can you expect anyone else to?

8. Voice:

Voice is essentially a writer’s fingerprint; it is the author’s unique imprint on poetry or prose, their artistic style. Voice isn’t so much about what you write (though certain voices certainly suit specific genres better than others), but how you write. It’s the way you tend to construct sentences, and the frequency and types of adjectives you choose to attach to nouns. It’s the inflections and emotions you charge your language with, the serious or sarcastic tone you adopt. It’s your personality come to life in your language. Some writers naturally have a strong sense of voice, while others have to search for years before they find it—I’m not sure that I’ve found mine yet, for what it’s worth—but after its found, the writer’s prose becomes as unique and recognizable as their names (think David Sedaris).

*** (Holly) In addition to your own voice, each character needs to have their own distinct voices. If each character is simply a reflection of your own voice, it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating characters with too many similarities and not enough differences.

9. Writers are readers:

If you want to become a “good” storyteller, one of the easiest places to start is by reading other storytellers whom you consider “good.” Read with a pencil in your hand, taking constant notes about sentences or paragraphs or ideas that really strike you. Ask yourself “what is it about this writing that I like? What is the author doing to make me feel this way?” then take what you discover and implement it into your own writing.

10. Taking notes:

If you want to be a storyteller, you need to have stories to tell! Start a list in your phone or notebook of any story ideas that cross your mind: good, bad, or ugly. Oftentimes when I’m struck with epiphany the realization dissipates as quickly as it came, and unless I wrote the idea down it becomes lost forever. Beyond just broad story ideas, you should also take notes about anything else that can improve your writing. Perhaps you had an interesting conversation or saw a person make some strange mannerism—these are the kinds of details that make characters and dialogue realistic. Take notes about scenery, interactions, sensory stimulation, or anything else that might help you construct more “real” realities within the context of your pages. Start to view everyday life through the “lens” of a storyteller, drawing inspiration from all that you experience.

Holly’s Tips:

11. Passive vs. Active voice:

Active voice is considered more energetic and engaging than passive voice, and writers should generally strive to write actively. “Active voice” occurs when an object receives the action of a subject, while “passive voice” occurs when an object is acted upon by an unknown subject. For example, “the boy hit the ball” is active; the object—the ball—receives the action of the subject—the boy. “The ball was hit,” on the other hand, is passive, because the subject committing the hitting of the object is unknown. The easiest way to look for passive voice is to find “was” followed by verbs in the past tense: she was struck, he was fired, they were followed, etc.. The lightning struck her, his boss fired him, and the gang followed them, would all be ways to make these passive sentences active. All of this being said, passive voice can be useful in certain circumstances. The only example I can think of offhand would be a character not wanting to implicate themselves for some unsightly action, choosing to say something along the lines of “The jewelry was stolen,” instead of “I stole the jewelry.” So deflection of blame or emotionally sensitive situations may be opportunities for tactful passive voice.

12. “Purple” or “Flowery” Prose

Extremely important point, and one that I can’t believe I forgot to include on my own: don’t bog down your writing with overly pretty language. New writers are especially drawn towards long descriptive passages with an abundance of pointless details and forced metaphors, when simplicity is your friend. The strength of your ideas and the story you want to tell should be your primary concern, and too much flowery language can distract readers from what’s important. One way I’ve been taught to conceptualize stories are like pyramids: at the base are clarity (grammar, spelling, etc.) and plot, while at the peak are descriptive language and metaphors. The idea is that you have to build the base before you can even worry about the peak. If the peak rests on a shaky base than the entire structure will collapse, but a strong base can stand alone without the peak. One professor even told me to avoid metaphors outright, unless they are necessary for the expression of an idea that couldn’t be expressed otherwise—if unnecessary, then just express the idea straightforwardly.

13. Point of View:

One of the very first things you should consider before writing a story is the POV in which you will tell it: 3rd person limited past tense, 3rd person omniscient present tense, 1st person, 2nd person (though rare), etc.. The most common POV is 3rd person past tense, though different POVs work well for different kinds of stories. I won’t get into the pros and cons of the different POVs here, but it’s worth a Google search for anyone wanting to write.

14. Verb tenses:

One of the biggest pitfalls (especially inexperienced writers) succumb to is inconsistent verb tenses; it’s something worth being hyper-aware of. Nothing destroys a reader’s immersion in a constructed reality faster than a sudden, unintentional distortion of time.

Correct: She left the store. Then she drove home.

Incorrect: She left the store. Then she drives home.

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