The art of storytelling is as old as our species. The history of humanity is, on several levels, simply an exchange of stories. We all do it, all the time. And yet most of us don’t spend much time thinking about what makes a good story.
Recently, I was invited to host a workshop on storytelling for our latest Catalyst program here at The Shortcut. I tried to focus on the elements which would apply whether you are crafting a blog post, an article, your personal branding or your novel.
What makes a good story?
Let’s start at the beginning. You’ll need one. Also a middle and an end while you’re about it. There are some great stories out there that play with the order they appear in, but my advice is to stick with what you know, at least at first.
Your start needs to establish the ground rules for your story. If it has characters and a world for them to inhabit, make sure they are introduced and explored. If your story is an article, state your premise, introduce your theme. If you’re branding, get the headline in the audience’s face. Beginnings are vital. If you don’t hook your audience early, you won’t keep them until the end. There is the legend of the killer opening line; if you have one, great, but it’s okay if you don’t, as long as there is enough of a hook in the beginning to keep people going.
The middle should build on what the beginning began. The progression should be logical, or if it’s not, there should be a reason for it. There is room for surprise, to be sure, but don’t leave your audience baffled. Middles are all about pacing. Keep things coming quickly enough to keep your audience engaged, but not so fast as to give them whiplash! If your story is a factual article, make your points strong but make them quick. If you’re writing fiction, balance character and action both. In either case avoid large blocks of exposition whenever you can.
The ending is often the hardest part to pull off. Just ask Game of Thrones. It needs to pay off what you set up. Present your conclusion clearly, in my opinion an article that ends on a question is not great. And a story that does nothing but set up the sequel is just bad. If your story has characters, give them a proper ending: it doesn’t have to be happy, but it should feel satisfying and pay off their arc, validate the development you’ve given them.
If you’re planning a twist ending, actually plan it — plant the seeds of the twist so the second time through the audience can find the clues. Which brings us to foreshadowing and mirroring… but more on those later…
The Three Act Structure
A lot of movies (I mean, a lot) follow a simple three act structure. You can think of these as broadly beginning, middle and end, but it is even more defined than that. If you are looking to create longer works of fiction, it is definitely worth understanding the principles behind it. It’s outside the scope of what I want to talk about today, as it doesn’t really apply to things like blog posts.
Foreshadowing and Mirroring
In foreshadowing you provide elements early in your story that hint towards a later reveal. In mirroring you include call-backs late in the story that refer to elements from earlier. Done well these help build theme and bring your work together as a whole. Done badly they can make the piece repetitive and you might blow your big surprise. I can’t offer a hard and fast rule on this one, you’ll need to feel your way here, but both techniques can be effective in longer stories.
Point of View
Your choice of Point Of View (POV) can have a huge effect on your story. If you’re writing a murder mystery it is a very different tale if you tell it from the POV of the detective, his bumbling sidekick, the murderer or the victim. Think about whose story you are trying to tell.
First or Third
Even if you’re not writing fiction, one aspect of point of view you will need to think about is if you’re telling the story in first person (“I wrote this article”) or third person (“Rob wrote this article”). It changes the tone of your piece — first tends to be more intimate, but can come off as naïve, third is more formal, but can feel a little stodgy.
In some cases the choice between first and third person is clear-cut. If you’re writing your elevator pitch, or a cover letter for a CV, referring to yourself in third person is just a bit weird. But in other cases it’s less obvious: do you use first or third for your LinkedIn profile?
Whichever you go for, one rule I can state: be consistent. Rob hates it when he reads things which switch between first and third in the same piece.
Head-hopping and the dangers of Omniscient POV
A quick(ish) diversion about POV which specifically applies to works of fiction.
If it helps, think of your POV as your camera. In general, the story is more immersive if you are strongly connected with the POV. This means that if the detective in your murder mystery is your POV character, you should only include things the detective knows, sees, experiences. She can’t know for sure if suspect A is lying. If we tell the reader something the detective doesn’t know, it breaks POV, breaks immersion. The story is stronger if we are right there with the POV character.
Many great stories tell events from multiple points of view. Well handled it provides opportunity for suspense, surprises, pathos and irony. But it is important that each change of POV is properly handled. Within one scene it’s generally a bad idea to switch POV — switch at scene changes or chapter breaks.
There is a POV, third person omniscient which tells the story from a (usually unseen) narrator who knows all things about all characters and can share information that would break a limited third person POV. It is, in my opinion, an extremely difficult POV to work in. I would recommend avoiding this type of POV unless you are super confident you can make it work.
“Jason was feeling cold that crisp autumn morning, while Emily kept herself warm with memories of long summer days on the beach and Ivan never noticed the temperature, hot or cold.”
Whose story is this? Who am I supposed to be empathising with, who should I be caring about? Jumping from one POV to another in rapid succession, sometimes called head-hopping, can be extremely distracting to the reader and does not build immersion.
I could (and during my workshop, did) go on at some length about the use of language in writing. This blog post is already getting a bit long, so let’s lightning round this.
Oh, and to answer one question that came up during my workshop, the rules I’m suggesting here are for English writing. They may well apply in other languages (I suspect most do), but I have no experience of writing in other languages so can’t say for sure.
Keep it simple
Sure you can seek out the most grandiloquent words, plumb the depths of your voluminous vocabulary, but, while I’m not suggesting you defenestrate your thesaurus, generally you don’t want your writing to get in the way of your reader’s reading. Put plainly, if you want people to read your thoughts, make them easy to read.
There are poetic reasons to repeat words and phrases in your text. Done deliberately to emphasise points, repetition can be a powerful tool. Done carelessly it can make your writing seem sloppy and dull. Vary the way you start sentences. Change sentence lengths (a great way to tweak pacing). Alter your word choices (I told you not to defenestrate your thesaurus!). Even simple words used too close to each other can be distracting. Distracting the reader is a great way to break immersion.
Adverse on adverbs
In general, a strong verb is better than a weak verb modified with an adverb. Consider:
She ran quickly.
Both are saying, essentially, the same thing, but I’d argue the version with the adverb (quickly) creates a less effective picture of the action.
This isn’t a flat “don’t use adverbs” rule, more encouragement to think about when to use them. Consider the possibility that there is a more interesting way of communicating the idea. I told you not to defenestrate that thesaurus!
Read it aloud
It’s very easy to get blind to bad sentences you’ve written. You know what they mean. Surely the reader must too? You know what the sentence is mean to say, so when you reread it, you might miss that typo. Rereading aloud, or using some simple text-to-speech tools can really help you spot when things aren’t right.
Last thought from me (for today, I could go on!). Nobody writes a good first draft. In fact, it could be argued it’s not the job of the first draft to be good.
Use the edit to find more interesting ways of saying things. Cut out the unnecessary redundancy; brevity is the soul of wit. Work on your structure. Work on your POV, work on your language. The second version will be better.