Monday, May 09, 2016

What's the Best Way to Tell (and Write) a Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

No matter what anyone tells you, there is no "right way to write." It’s a process that varies from writer to writer and even book to book. What works for one writer doesn't always work for another, and might even squash their ability to write at all.

Which really stinks if you’re just starting out and looking for the right path to take, or you’ve been struggling to develop your storytelling style and nothing seems to fit you. 

It's a pain for all of us, really, because even if we do have a process that works for us, there’s always that one story idea that doesn’t fit with how we usually write.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, take heart that you are not alone.

The most basic answer to “what’s the best way to tell a story” is:

Pose a compelling story question to the reader, then hold their interest until you answer that question.

Incredibly unhelpful, I know, even though it’s true.

How a writer chooses to do that is really up to them, and that’s the tricky part—because writing a novel and telling a story are really two different things.

We’ve all be captivated by a story, whether it was a novel, a movie, a TV show, a game, or even the guy from accounting talking about his weekend escapades. A great story piques curiosity and holds it until that curiosity is satisfied.

Let’s look at part one first—telling the story.

The Best Way to Tell a Story

Toss out everything you know about outlines and process and all the mechanics that go into writing. Those are important, but worrying about adverbs or if you should or shouldn’t outline can distract you from finding the heart and soul of your story.

Storytelling is visceral, and depends on the person telling it more than the subject matter at hand. This is why the same basic idea can result in a myriad of stories, some good, some horribly bad.

1. Look at the story question you want to answer.

The story question is the heart of your story. This is why you’re telling this story. It’s not “to explore this cool world I made up” it’s “to see what would happen if I put this character in this situation in this cool world I made up.” Stories are about discovery, not explanation.

If you can’t say what your story question is, odds are your story isn’t ready to write yet. Unformed story questions typically lead to premise novels and novels that stall because they really don’t know what they want to be.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions)

2. Think about how you want to answer that question.

Your approach will dictate the style of the story. Maybe you want a light, humorous romp of understanding, or a dark, poignant look at the human condition. Maybe you want to show an adventure that’s light on theme, or an exploration into the ethical gray area where there are no clear answers.

For example, the accounting guy’s tale about “How I ended up in jail” can either be a hysterical adventure or a cautionary tale depending on how he tells it.

3. Decide on the best people to show what you want to show about that question.

These are your characters, and the wrong people can derail a good story. The sheer number of writers who have gotten halfway through (or even finished) a novel and realized they had the wrong protagonist shows how important this is to figure out ahead of time. In rare cases we need to write a rough draft to discover that, but we usually know going in who the story is about.

Whose story is it? Who will give you the most interesting options to answer your story question? Characters who know stuff are different from those who want to figure out stuff, so be wary about picking people who already have the answers to your story question.

(Here’s more on questions to ask your protagonist)

4. Make it physically and emotionally hard to answer that question.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a light-hearted comedy or a soul-tearing epic, answering the question should be hard for the protagonist(s). If it were easy, there’d be no point in answering it (or telling it). Stories aren’t about explaining what happened, they’re showing the journey of how and why it happened.

5. Keep the reader in mind.

You’re telling this story to entertain someone. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s a specific person (your nephew, who complains he can never find any good boy books), maybe it’s a general group of people (romance readers who love men-in-uniform stories). This story is for them, so think about what they want and how to best give it to them.

I’ve said this plenty of times, but I’ll say it again. Stories are just interesting people, solving interesting problems, in interesting ways. As long as your story hits those three elements, you’re good.

(Here’s more on writing a well-written book vs. telling a great story)

Now, let’s move on to part two:

The Best Way to Write a Story

Any damn way you want.

Seriously. I know it sounds flippant, but you can do whatever works for you. Some people like to outline, others like to wing it, some like to write out of order and stitch it together afterward.

Some people like to know every single detail before they write the first word, others like to knock out as first draft and see how it unfolds before nailing down the plot and details. Some people create characters first and wing the plot, others lay out the plot and wing the characters.

Structurally, some use a three act structure, others a four act format, some like beatsheets or the Hero’s Journey, others don’t use any traditional structure at all and just write what feel right to them.

All good. All viable. All perfectly acceptable ways to write a story.

And again, yes I know this isn’t helpful, but part of figuring out the best way for you to write is to know that you don’t have to be pigeonholed into anything. You’d be surprised how often I hear “you mean I don’t have to do it X way?” from a new writer, struggling to write with a process that goes totally against their own natural style. When they realize they can toss that process out, their writing becomes not only easier, but better.

1. Find the process that works for you.

This can be tough to do, so don’t lose hope if you haven’t found your way yet. Try different options, especially those you think would never work for you. Often, the thing you scoffed at is exactly what works in the end.

If you have trouble finishing a story, don’t do what normally stops your writing. For example, if you get stuck editing early chapters and never move forward, plow ahead and don’t edit. If you always hit a wall at chapter three because you think you got started wrong, keep writing and fix it later. If you keep stalling because you need to do research, take a few extra days and get it all worked out ahead of time.

Try new things, shake up what isn’t working for you and embrace what is.

(Here’s more on finding your writing process)

2. Find the structure that works for you.

I’m a huge advocate for structure, and a big fan of the Three Act Structure with a midpoint reversal. But this isn’t the only structure out there, so if it’s not working for you, try another one. If you find structure restrictive, try a basic three-point outline, or write the way the story unfolds and ignore the traditional plot turning points.

The only thing you need to do is have a beginning that poses your story question, a middle that explores that question, and an ending that answers that question (even if that answer is ambiguous). Everything else is your call.

(Here’s more on structure types)

3. Figure out what you need to know about a story in order to write it.

It took me a long time to figure out that unless I knew what my ending was, I spent a lot of time just spinning my wheels in act three. My plot moved, I had a lot going on and no trouble writing, but by the time I got to the end I wasn’t sure how to wrap it all up. I didn’t know how to answer my story question, I just explored it.

Every writer is different in this regard, so examine where you get stuck in your writing and think about why. Odds are you’re running into the same issue every book, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find the snag. Once you find that issue, make fixing it part of your planning process so you don’t trip over it anymore. For example, for me, it’s all about nailing down my ending ahead of time so I know what I’m writing toward.

There will be certain things you’ll need to know and things you can make up on the fly. The more prepared you are going in with what you need, the easier your process will be for you.

4. Make sure you know those things before you start writing.

Figuring out you need to know the ending and your protagonist’s inner conflict before you can start a novel is great, but if you don’t actually sit down and figure that out before you start a book, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Do the work. Set yourself up for success, not failure. Trust me, it’ll save you time and effort in the long run and you’ll be a much happier writer when you’re no longer tripping over the same process problems every book.

Sometimes we stumble because we think we ought to be writing our novels a certain way, or they have to be perfect right from the start (not true), or they all need to follow a certain formula. They don’t, and there are almost as many options to tell and write a story as there are stories themselves.

Follow your instincts, do what feels right for you, and don’t be afraid to change or try new things.

How do you tell and write your stories?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I love this post, Janice. Really a simple question and yet it is everything to the story. And no matter how many different methods for writing we study, there's really only one--the one that works for you (which may very well be different from book to book).

    1. Absolutely. I have a basic template process, but I do have to change parts depending on the book. So funny how that works.

  2. Excellent.
    Thank-you, Janice for the great advice and resources! I'll be sharing this one out.

  3. Great tips, thanks for sharing! I'm sure a lot of aspiring authors can benefit from these.

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