Mastering The Art Of Storytelling In Ten Steps
“The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.”
~ Jerzy Kosinski
We all have a story to tell is a maxim everyone agrees with. Interestingly, we also all love stories. A good story can convey a life-changing message, entertain us in unimaginable ways, and even ignite a fire within us. As the author, Vera Nazarian puts it, “The world is shaped by two things—stories told and the memories they leave behind.”
However, for a story to have the impact described above, it must be told properly. In nearly every society, storytelling is associated with the social or cultural pastime of sharing anecdotes, myths, and folktales. It is used invariably as a means of cultural preservation, education, entertainment or even instilling moral values, and it is not uncommon for it to be accompanied by embellishments, theatrics, and sometimes improvisation.
In modern society, the art of storytelling can be complex and frustrating for many aspiring writers. These tips might help:
(1) Know Your Audience
If a school commissions you to teach a class, the students you have in front of you would determine your lesson, wouldn’t they? Are they kindergarten kids or young adults or grownups? You would undoubtedly tailor your lesson towards the specific demographic the school commissioned you to teach. It’s the same with storytelling, that’s why knowing your audience is the first step towards the process. That knowledge determines not just the length and content of the story but the expression used. It is therefore crucial that before beginning a story, an aspiring writer spends some time considering who he/she is targeting. One way to do that is to pinpoint something special in the story to narrow it down to a specific group - is it a love story? Is this love story about a specific demographic? Is it a fit for a certain age or interest group? So, being able to isolate types or groups of people that the story would appeal to is fundamental. It is also important to check out published books comparable to your story and find out who the book’s audience is.
(2) Make The Reader Care
Why should a reader be interested in your story? How is it relevant to him/her? This is one of the important aspects of storytelling that an aspiring writer should consider. It is fundamental that the writer makes that clear in his/her mind because if it’s not clear to you, it certainly won’t be clear to the reader. Keep in mind that caring doesn’t come by design, you must cultivate it. Just like a filmmaker, the writer must create something that draws attention, like the background music in a film, the romantic element in a tale, or the fear factor in a narrative. He/she should create what some call an itch which could be a particular trait in the protagonist that becomes a defining characteristic, like daddy issues, low or high self-esteem, being a workaholic or a control freak. That way, the writer invokes a common emotional element or a dilemma that the target audience can somehow identify with. A good story should, therefore, have a certain element of reality that makes it possible for readers to relate to even if they haven’t had that particular experience. So, emotionally or intellectually or even aesthetically, the aspiring writer, in crafting his/her story, must make it interesting enough for the reader to care.
(3) Set The Scene
The context in which words appear and scenes develop generally affects a story, and that’s because people experience the world through their senses. Therefore, for a story to captivate an audience, the writer must set the scene and provide them with a context for the account. Where, for example, did the story take place? When did it begin? What was the atmosphere like? What triggered it? Who are the key players? These are a few of the questions which answers can help set the scene, engaging the senses of readers by offering them a more immersive experience. It is called ‘painting the picture.’ One thing that can help a writer start the process is to identify the purpose of the story and the high moment in the tale. It is equally important to determine what is at stake for the protagonist and other characters in the story and to emphasize conflict, both internal and external. Another key point is to highlight character change, making sure not to lose the reader as you illustrate how the events change the players. As the scene unfolds, the reader should be able to determine who has the most to lose/gain in the story. Whose emotional reaction will be the strongest? Which character will change the most and how will that change or reaction impact the plot?
(4) Use Chronology
A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Once you understand this basic tenet of storytelling, you may choose to abandon the conventions of normal chronology and opt for a creative one, like hurling the reader straight into the midst of the action, or to the end of the story to catch their attention. Done creatively, this can arouse the curiosity of the reader, generate unexpected suspense, or create a searing tension that keeps the reader glued to the pages. Once a reader identifies who to root for, he/she will become invested in the story and a desire to know what might happen next will be one of the easiest ways to keep them reading, if nothing else, to find out how the writer intends to bring together the missing pieces of the puzzle. So, while keeping faith with the basic tenet of a story having a beginning, a middle, and ending, the writer can choose, with ample creative liberty, how to present the sequence of events in order of timing in a way that the reader can follow.
(5) Create a Punch line
In a comedy set, a punch line is the climactic conclusion of a joke that makes an audience laugh; usually, it is a short line that delivers a humorous reveal, mainly because it is the opposite of what the audience expects. In storytelling, punch lines should follow the same pattern. As explained earlier, a story generally has a beginning, a middle, and an ending; therefore, as in comedy, a punch line in storytelling should follow the introductory framing of the tale, the development of the scenes, and the narrative that sets it up. But unlike comedy, it doesn’t necessarily have to aim at eliciting laughter from the audience unless it’s a humor book, rather it should aim at delivering a dramatic reveal or what is known as a twist in the tale. A punch line can also be poetic, inspirational, or a romantic reveal. While the appeal of some stories may not depend on punch lines, the writer should never lose sight of the purpose of telling the story and must employ all the tools in his/her creative arsenal to make the story interesting and relevant.
(6) Don’t Tell, Show
There is an invisible border between your story and the reader; it is in engaging the reader that that boundary is erased. The best way to engage the reader is to invoke as many of the five senses as possible—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting—in the story. The reader automatically becomes a participant in the adventure if the story engages his/her emotions, if he/she can identify with the characters, fears for the life of the characters, or loves or hates a particular character enough to desire a certain outcome for them. A writer won’t achieve that by telling the reader what is happening. He/she would achieve it by showing the reader what is happening. As the famous Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov puts it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Indeed, when you show the reader what is happening rather than tell him, you engage him, and by engaging him you make him a participant in the adventure. So, rather than having everything imparted to him, the reader can see the events in his mind and then comes to the conclusions you want.
(7) Deploy Tension
Tension is the principal reason we describe some books as page-turners. If you’ve ever read a story so intense that you forget about time and feel compelled to continue reading until you finished, then you understand the value of introducing tension into your writing. One way to do that is by getting your readers attached, not only to the plot but also to your main characters. By heightening the stakes and creating character conflict, you get your readers invested in the story. It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that clever use of tension in storytelling is one of the most effective ways of rendering a story irresistible and a book ‘unputdownable.’ By introducing exponential tension into your writing and timing the tension effectively, you engage the reader, and by engaging him/her, you erase that invisible boundary between your story and its audience. Another method of incorporating tension into your writing and getting the reader flipping the pages is using cliffhangers that leave the audience in suspense, making them yearn to know what will happen next. While it is okay for suspense to permeate the pages, cliffhangers, however, should be abrupt and should come at the end of the plot. Cliffhangers are particularly effective in books that have a sequel, but it can also be a great strategy for stand-alone books.
(8) Paint A Picture
The hardest part of writing is the presentation, and a good presentation requires clever use of words. It is not enough for writers to construct the whole story in their heads, they must be able to present it in a way that makes sense, not only to them but to the reader too. In view of that, it might seem as if the easiest part of the process is the story’s conception. For those with a fertile imagination, it certainly is, after all, that’s what distinguishes a creative mind from a non-creative one. But storytelling, for a writer, must show elements of craftsmanship and finesse. A picture, according to an English adage, is worth a thousand words, which is a notion that just a single picture can convey some complex ideas. So, unless a writer is presenting a picture book, he/she must paint the picture with words to make the reader see and hear and smell and touch and taste whatever he/she puts out. It is the writer’s descriptive power that takes the reader on a journey that gets him/her invested in the story and makes him/her feel what the characters are feeling, forcing him/her to partake in whatever dilemma the characters are facing. As a writer, you have no other weapon but words, so don’t limit yourself in deploying them.
(9) End With A Bang
As in films and theatrical performances, a grand finale in storytelling keeps readers thinking or even talking about the book long after they’ve finished reading it. Whatever the plot development, whatever tension or suspense that builds up in the story, the resolution should not be slow in coming. If for reasons of a possible sequel, the writer does not want to end with a cliffhanger, he/she should ensure that there’s closure in the story by resolving the plot and leaving no questions hanging in the air. For stand-alone novels that end with a cliffhanger, the writer should add some creative magic to the story in a way that leaves the reader with a sense of awe, like the feeling one gets when leaving the cinema after watching a great motion picture or the theater after watching a great production. The writer can achieve this by leaving his/her readers with a ‘big puzzle’ to solve in their minds or with a profound take on life, on humanity or the theme of the story.
(10) Have Fun With It
Often in interviews, writers are asked, why do you write? The answer may differ from one person to another, but the cardinal point in writing is to ‘get something off your chest.’ Writers, like most people, are often plagued by convoluted thoughts, mental burdens, and ideas that they find difficult to shake off. Writing provides them the ultimate release. So, while you are at it, why not have fun with it? First, though, to enjoy the process, you must have something to say. Not everything that goes through the mind ought to end up as a book because a written work should have a keen aesthetic sense. It should be distinguished as a literary culture of value. If you have something to say, if you have a unique story to tell and have the words with which to tell it, if you create a wonderful world for others to enjoy, you might as well relish the experience. Cultivate a sense of purpose, develop a creative mindset, view challenges as opportunities. Read, read, read, it’ll give you the tools you need. And, above all, enjoy the process.