Monday, May 16

Tell Me a Story: Three Ways to Improve Your Storytelling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 different 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.

So how can we improve our storytelling skills? By focusing on the three things that make a story a story.

1. Interesting People
This is all about the characters. Even in formula-heavy action stories, character stands out. Everyone knows James Bond, right? A great story has characters who offer something interesting to readers. (I know, easier said than done) But 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 studying your own tastes:
  • Pick three of your friends. Why do you like them?
  • Pick three celebrities. Why do you enjoy watching them?
  • Pick three people you dislike. Why don’t you like about them?
  • Pick flaws from three people. What ones do you find endearing? Annoying?
Now think about those traits and how you might apply them, or ones like them, to your characters. Try choosing one trait from each of the four questions above and seeing how that rounds out your character. Try a few sets to see which ones create the most interesting character.

2. Interesting Problems
This is all about the premise. 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.
  • Pick three ways this can hurt your protagonist.
  • Pick three ways this can benefit them.
  • Pick three ways in which readers can relate to this problem.
  • Pick three elements that have larger ramifications for your story.
Now 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.

3. Interesting Solutions
This is all about the plot. 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 makes for unpredictability, not a complex set of tasks that resemble a Rube-Goldberg device. Look at your problem again:
  • 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.
If you have multiple options for your protagonist, and multiple places where those options can change, then you have the freedom to explore several solutions in the story. That means you can have your protagonist fail and still be able to find a way to resolve their problem and win. And if they fail in one way, the reader can fear they might fail again. Things are interesting when you’re not sure what the outcome will be.

These are certainly the more technical ways of boosting your storytelling, and there are others that can also help. But that’s for another day.


  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. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.