Friday, November 11, 2016

3 Ways to Improve Your Storytelling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at three ways to improve your storytelling. Enjoy!

My high school creative writing teacher had the best definition of story that I’ve ever seen.

A story is interesting people, solving interesting problems, in interesting ways.

The genius is in its simplicity. Interesting is subjective and open to so many possibilities, which allows for everyone to approach it in their own creative way. But the core idea is solid. People solving problems. At the heart of every story is a problem to be solved (the conflict).

To improve our storytelling skills, all we have to do it focus on the three things that make a story a story.

1. Interesting People (The Characters)

Even in formula-heavy action stories, character stands out. Everyone knows James Bond, or Harry Potter, or that gal Dorothy Gale from Kansas. A great story has characters who offer something interesting to readers. Think about the things you find interesting about other people. Unless the job itself is intriguing, odds are it’s not what they do for a living that captures your attention. It’s something about their personality, their quirks, their way of looking at or doing things that intrigues you. It’s sharing similar interests or beliefs, or maybe even having totally different interests and beliefs.

Try this exercise:
  • Pick three of your friends. List why you like them.
  • Pick three celebrities. List why you enjoy watching them.
  • Pick three people you dislike. List what you don’t like about them.
  • Pick flaws from three people. List the ones you find endearing, then list the ones you find annoying.
Next, think about those traits and how you might apply them to your characters. Choose one trait from each of the four options above and see how it rounds out your character. Try a few sets to see which ones create the most interesting character.

(Here's more on fleshing out flat characters)

2. Interesting Problems (The Premise)

This is all about the premise, and in a great story, the situation the characters find themselves in is not only compelling, but is somehow causing a problem. While any problem can be made interesting with the right pieces, mundane tasks usually don’t make people flock to see what’s going on. It’s the unusual that grabs us. The different or the unexpected. Think about the problem your protagonist faces in your story. What overall situation has created the trouble that will be at the center of this story? What is that trouble (the conflict)?

Try this exercise: 
  • Pick three ways your premise can hurt your protagonist.
  • Pick three ways this can benefit them.
  • Pick three ways in which readers can personally relate to this problem.
  • Pick three elements that have larger ramifications for your story.
Next, think about how these things might deepen your story problem. Very few of us are ever going to be--let’s say, trapped underwater in a cave during a hurricane--but we’ve all probably had moments where we felt trapped, or helpless, or powerless. Tapping into those feelings is what helps us connect to the stories we read. We’re able to put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. That makes us more interested in what their problems are because we can imagine how they must feel. We can experience a situation without ever having to go through it ourselves. This is especially important for epic-scale premises where the problem is so big it’s hard to connect to it on a personal level. Find the personal connection and make the problem more relatable.

(Here's more on the difference between idea, premise, plot, and story)

3. Interesting Solutions (The Plot)

This is all about the plot and what the characters do to resolve the conflict the premise presents. How you have your protagonist solve her story problem will comprise the scenes of your book. The more creative you are, the more unpredictable the plot, and the more interesting it can be for the reader. But don’t mistake convoluted plots for interesting. A variety of things that can happen make for unpredictability, not a complex set of tasks that resemble a Rube-Goldberg device.

Look at your problem again and:
  • Pick three ways in which your protagonist can solve this problem.
  • Pick three ways in which she can fail.
  • Pick three places where she has to make a choice that will send her on one of those above paths.
  • Pick three secrets she won’t know about until they happen.
Next, arrange these elements so they unfold in a way that builds suspense, poses questions and reveals answers, and leads the protagonist to the final moment when the problem is resolved.  

If you have multiple options for your protagonist, and multiple places where those options can change, then you have the freedom to explore multiple solutions to the story. That means you can have your protagonist fail and still be able to find a way to resolve her problem and win. And if she fails in one way, the reader can fear she might fail again. Things are interesting when you’re not sure what the outcome will be.

(Here's more on creating a strong plot in three basic steps)

Readers keep reading because they find the story interesting in some way. That way changes depending on the reader, and it's the reason why one person can love a quiet literary journey about a farmhand while another enjoys action-packed adventures that span galaxies. No matter what the story is about, if it's an interesting problem, with interesting people, solved in an interesting way, readers will enjoy it.

What do you find interesting in a story? What keeps you reading?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Excellent advice as always. It's a great help to be able to sort your options into simple lists like this.

  2. Brilliant Janice. Love all your stuff on plot. I'll settle down tonight with pen, paper and JHardy list and hack my way out of my own convoluted plot lines!

  3. This is a really great post. I like its simplicity. Writing is all about observing all that surrounds us, interpreting it in as many ways as we can, and then applying it to characters and plot. I love all the choices. :)

  4. another awesome post Janice, and very timely as I am firming up my plot today. Thanks!!!

  5. This seems to be disturbingly close to ... plotting! I do have to start with a character and then see what kinds of problems I can throw his way.

    Terry's Place

  6. Great advice! I'll definitely be keeping it in mind.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  7. As usual Janice, this is a great post! This is extremely helpful during revision!

    I really love how you don't just talk about a concept. You give us concrete ways to apply it to our writing. Thank you so much!

  8. Paul: Which is exactly why I do it :) Writing isn't as cut and dry as list make it out to be, but sometimes you just need something concrete to study or ask yourself to get you thinking in the right direction.

    Anon: Thanks! So glad you find it useful.

    Salarsen: Choices are awesome. Great for our characters and great for us as writers. I think it's good to remind yourself that you have options same as your characters.

    Rachel: Most welcome! I love when the timing works out like that.

    Terry: It is a bit plotish, but I did approach it from the technical side for this post. Plot is just the dramatization of the story, so it makes sense they'd look a little similar sometimes.

    Sarah: Thanks!

  9. Elizabeth: Most welcome. I do try :) I spent too many years frustrated by writing advice so I try to fill in the gaps that made me crazy.

  10. This is great advice. I know where I want my characters to end up and sometimes I operate them on remote control. This is so much better. Getting 'inside their heads' and seeing the possibility of failure. More compelling. Thanks, Janice!

  11. Amelia: Happy to help. I know what you mean about remote control. That happens to me sometimes too, and when it does, I always start getting that "I'm boring myself" feeling and know i need to shake things up

  12. I'm trying to write a creepypasta and this will definitely help me. I have done some really bad stories and had to scratch them. Now I know how to improve. Thanks so much, Janice

    1. Most welcome! But now I have to ask...what's a creepypasta? I'm getting images of horror stories set in Italy.

  13. best advice.. i think i had lost my story thinking abilities over a year.. no matter how many times i sit for thinking or creating a plot. i fail in that.. well i think i had lost my self confidence..
    direction is my passion.. but how to retain my skills back??
    please let me know a way to solve this...

    1. When something similar happened to me, I took a break from writing and read a lot, especially my favorite authors. I reminded myself why I loved stories and writing. Then I went back and worked on an idea that I thought was fun, just for me.

      If the pure plotting aspect is where you're getting stuck, it helps to think about what problem your protagonist is trying to solve, why it matters, and what's at stake if they fail. Then think about all the steps needed to solve that problem.

  14. As always, an insightful post.

  15. When it comes to writing, storytelling is an unlimited anomaly. No longer is it committed to storybooks and scripted shows. Stories can be told in brochures, advertisements, press releases, the back of cereal boxes, landing pages…you get the idea!