Effective Storytelling

Anyone who has finished a novel knows there’s a lot more to creative writing than snappy dialogue, evocative scenes, and rip-roaring action. Even if your characters could walk right off the pages into real life, your novel goes nowhere without a compelling story. I believe the number one job of any author is to tell a good story.

Douglas Phillips
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Effective Storytelling

Anyone who has finished a novel knows there’s a lot more to creative writing than snappy dialogue, evocative scenes, and rip-roaring action. Even if your characters could walk right off the pages into real life, your novel goes nowhere without a compelling story. I believe the number one job of any author is to tell a good story.

Before we get into effective storytelling, back up for minute: When we submit a chapter to Critique Circle, we often receive grammar corrections and wording suggestions. That’s great! But sometimes we find a comment at the bottom like “nothing much happens” or “it’s slow” or “I started skimming halfway through”. Whenever I see a comment like that, I take off my author’s hat and try to think like an average reader. Why was this chapter sluggish? What do readers want from my story? Or any story?

Answer: They want to be entertained.

Genre doesn’t matter. Or writing style, or whether the characters are likeable or pure evil. Even an emotional roller coaster that leaves the reader in tears is a form of entertainment. Without entertainment, we’re left with boredom. Nothing much happens. Or the story gets repetitive. Or the characters just go around in circles and never accomplish anything (until the very end).

Boredom is death to any story. Bored readers set books aside. They leave poor ratings that hurt sales. Bored agents send rejections. What’s an author to do?

Plot.

Get devious. Get creative. Get wacky. Go out on a limb. Put your characters in an impossible situation, then imagine how they might get out of it. Your plot must carry the story – and not just between Chapters 1 and 31 – but from every chapter to the next. Your job is not only to imagine the climax, but all the steps leading toward it. What you cannot do is write a chapter that doesn’t carry the story forward. Every step in the plot advances the story, it never spins in place – that’s boring!

A fight scene is a classic example. A battle between opposing forces is action, and action is always good, right? I beg to differ. Midway through a story, readers intrinsically know that any fight scene involving the hero is not life threatening. If the hero dies, the story can’t finish, so the outcome is predictable. Your description of how close the villain’s knife came to Lucky Luke’s throat doesn’t mean much at the midpoint of the story – readers know that Luke’s jugular is safe. Fight scenes can be dull, even skippable. The writers of Raiders of the Lost Ark knew this well. When Indiana Jones is faced with yet another knife-wielding opponent, Indy casually pulls out his gun and shoots him dead. Why waste time? The outcome of their fight was predetermined anyway!

So, if action isn’t necessarily good storytelling, what is? Effective storytelling requires revealing bits and pieces of the plot as you go. Maybe you reveal something about the character’s motivation or backstory. Maybe you give a hint about how this mayhem might end. Whatever it is, you’re taking a piece of a jigsaw puzzle (that only you know) and giving it to the reader. Then you give them another piece. And another, always in a way that draws them into your story.

The old adage, “the plot thickens” really does have meaning in storytelling. Whenever you notice a chapter that returns the main character to their starting position, ask yourself what value that chapter adds to the overall story. Maybe you should cut it? Or, better yet, get creative. Rework the chapter to take the story to a different place than where it began.

Think about the hero’s journey (which is often an adventure). This story style inevitably involves obstacles along the way, usually in the middle part of the story – and that’s often where things bog down. Never create obstacles just for the sake of conflict. Every obstacle should be meaningful in the overall story. And once the obstacle is overcome, the story should advance, not just return to its pre-obstacle state (which is an indicator that the obstacle was trivial). Also, never repeat an obstacle. If the hero gets lost in a cave, don’t follow with a scene where she’s lost in a forest. Repetition is a sure-fire way to bore readers.

I love how the adventure in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid unfolds. In one scene, the hired guns who are following them burst out of a railcar already on horseback. In another, the lawmen use an Indian tracker. “Who are those guys?” Butch asks, worried. Next up is a sheer cliff with a raging river below. But just when you thought they’d soon face a blinding dust storm, the story switches entirely, and our anti-heroes end up in Bolivia of all places. Yet, we don’t complain about the sudden change of scenery because Butch has been talking about Bolivia all along. It’s where the climax will take place, and the screenwriter has given us hints without us even noticing. Superb storytelling.

Storytelling is unquestionably an art form and not easy to pull off! Only you know where your story is going (you do know, don’t you?) As you design scenes and write chapters, try to deepen the mystery, raise the stakes, and slowly reveal the truth you want readers to understand. Do it step by step, with intention and a clear view of how each piece contributes to the whole. If you do, you’ll take the reader for a great ride. That’s effective storytelling.

Getting and Giving Storytelling Feedback

I’d be remiss if I left this topic without exploring how we can use Critique Circle to not only become better writers, but better storytellers too.

Critiques are chapter-based, often focusing on paragraph-level comments. This is great for detailed feedback, but it’s a little like putting your face one centimeter above a map and trying to determine what country you’re looking at. How can we rise above the detail to get or give feedback on storytelling?

If you’re a Premium member, you have access to the Novel structure, which collects your chapters into a single unit. More importantly for storytelling feedback, Novels allow you to include a short synopsis of every chapter – essentially an outline (but I have a better suggestion coming up). Critters reading any of your chapters can click on the Synopsis So Far button to view your chapter synopses on one page.

Synopsis So Far can be used as an aid in assessing your storytelling – but only if you don’t write too much! Even a one-paragraph synopsis per chapter is too much. It makes the feature too cumbersome, and critters won't use it. Stick to one line. Keep it short! Identify how that chapter advances the story or develops the character. You might throw in a story structure label (such as inciting event, major plot point, climax, etc.) for those critters who understand story structure. But that’s all! If you keep it simple, the Synopsis So Far will help you self-examine your storytelling (you might even spot the boring parts). It will also help critters to see at a glance how the chapter they are critting fits into the overall story.

But what if you’re not a Premium member? No worries, you can still use Author Notes to help critters evaluate your storytelling. In the beginning author note, ask critters to stick with your story. Ask them to provide comments that span across multiple chapters. Then make sure you give critters help by providing a (short!) synopsis in your beginning note. This will not only refresh their memory but will demonstrate to them (and yourself!) how the story has progressed.

In the author’s end note, you might sketch out how you think the current chapter advances the story and ask critters if you have succeeded. You might even give critters a heads up as to where the story is going next (just like a full synopsis would). Sure, you’re giving away another puzzle piece, but it’s okay to treat critters as your story development partners – they’re not just ordinary readers! If you’re concerned about spoiling an upcoming surprise, give a spoiler alert, then critters can decide for themselves if they want to read your note.

Use the Synopsis So Far or Author Notes features and you may get better feedback on your storytelling!

6 Comments

Mewla

Excellent advice Dougp! Most readers want a power emotional experience. I appreciate your sharing ideas about how to get there.
Thank you,
Mewla :sunglasses:

Nov-03 at 20:51

Paramedicd

Well written, with good advice given without a single instance of preaching. Thanks Dougp

Nov-05 at 09:29

Kairn

Genre doesn’t matter.

I agree. So why does this article repeatedly refer to “your novel?”
All of the excellent points in this article apply equally to creative nonfiction. I wish it were written to be inclusive of nonfiction.
I notice this in some critiques (“such-and-such is frowned on in fiction” when the piece is clearly identified as nonfiction), even poll questions.
A subtle consideration such as replacing novel with book could help us nonfiction writers feel more included here at CC.

Nov-05 at 21:42

Dougp

Sorry, mentally replace “novel” with “book”. I agree, non-fiction requires storytelling skills too.

Nov-05 at 21:56

Rellrod

Well said, Doug! And you’re right: only if you stick with a story can you get a good sense of how the plot is thickening. But the quick synopses do help a lot.

“revealing bits and pieces of the plot as you go” – yes. I think of that as specifically a science-fiction-and-fantasy technique, but it’s broader than that. Every scene, ideally, should contribute a piece to the puzzle.

Rick

Nov-09 at 23:06

Katchey

This is really helpful for my novel! Thanks for the tips!

Nov-11 at 16:03
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