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Focused on Fiction: Five Storytelling Tips

November — and with it, NaNoWriMo — might be drawing to a close, but fiction writers don’t stop telling stories just…

November — and with it, NaNoWriMo — might be drawing to a close, but fiction writers don’t stop telling stories just because another page is torn from the calendar. And whatever the season, slapping sentences into a compelling narrative is never easy.

We’ve all heard the common axioms recited to writers everywhere: “Write everyday!” “Show, don’t tell!” “Write about what you know!” Sometimes, though, it’s a good idea to try something different to get the creative juices flowing in new directions. Here are five writing tips that might sound counterintuitive at first, but could potentially help you cross a word-count threshold, smash through a writer’s block, or just come up with a new story idea.

Set arbitrary limits

We often think that being creative means having total freedom over our work. While this often feels true once you have a finalized story in hand, it’s rarely the case when facing a blank screen; few things are more paralyzing than endless possibilities.

That’s precisely why setting limits could be a highly effective step toward writing (especially since you can always remove them as soon as your material starts to take shape).

You could decide that your story will contain exactly 333 sentences, or that it’ll take place over one day in July, 1997. You might write a story containing no adjectives, or one told entirely in the first person plural. (Want to go all out? French author Georges Perec once wrote an entire novel without using the letter E once. Let that sink in for a moment.) Working with a limit can sharpen your focus: instead of worrying about the storytelling itself, your self-doubt is preoccupied with an arbitrary rule of your own creation.

Write about what you don’t know

There’s nothing wrong, of course, in drawing on your own experiences in your writing. Too often, though, this common sense approach — to write about what’s around you — forces writers into an uncomfortable position. You end up writing barely-disguised versions of your own life, or bury yourself under piles of books to research before you dare to tackle your story. The result? You get bored, self-conscious, or don’t write at all.

How about taking the liberty of writing about a place, a character, or a period you know nothing about?

How about taking the liberty of writing about a place, a character, or a period you know nothing about? Even if you later tweak your story about medieval Italian butchers  to conform to some standard of realism, at least you’ll already have a story that flows directly from your own imagination. After all, isn’t your imagination at least as authentic as your everyday, lived experience?

Show and tell

At some point in the recent history of creative writing seminars, stating directly what a fictional character feels, wants, or thinks has become something to frown about. Saying “Jim sweated profusely, his lips trembling, as he entered the dungeon” is automatically taken to be better than just “Jim entered the dungeon. He was petrified.”

Now, in some cases the first sentence might very well be the better one. But whenever you feel uncomfortable using a variation of the second example, remember that authors as esteemed as Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and as successful as Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, never shied away from calling a spade a spade, calling fear, fear, and unbridled joy — you guessed it! — unbridled joy. In other words, if telling works for your story, just tell your story.

Use media to your advantage

If you write fiction on your blog, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to text. Many storytellers are inspired by songs and photos, news items, and movie scenes. You could harness the multimedia power of blogging to create a virtual scrapbook of all the different elements that play a role in your story — images, videos, tweets

While you might not be able to use all these materials if you ever publish your story — because of copyright issues or the limitations of print media — the creation process will feel a lot less sterile, and will no longer be entirely inside your head.

Read your story out loud

Screenwriters and playwrights do it, and so should you. When you’re done with a section of your work — be it a paragraph or a chapter — read it aloud. Even if your story doesn’t contain a single line of dialogue, you will benefit greatly from the experience. First, you’ll immediately feel it in your mouth if your phrasing is off or if punctuation is missing. Second, your ear is a sensitive, built-in fluff detector. When a story is going nowhere, you’ll hear it before your brain processes it intellectually.

Even if your story doesn’t contain a single line of dialogue, you will benefit greatly from the experience of reading it out loud.

If you want to take this tip to the next level, use your smartphone or your laptop to record yourself reading. With so much brain power freed once you no longer need to speak and listen at the same time, you’re bound to find more details to add or cut away, more sentences to tweak or scrap.

Of course, if your story’s perfect and no further edits are needed, you’ll also have your very first, homemade audiobook. Keep it: once Sir Ian McKellen re-records it later, when you’re a famous, bestselling author, you’ll have a good story to tell.

Do you have any fiction-writing tips to share? Have you learned something new about the craft of storytelling during this year’s NaNoWriMo? Share your hard-earned wisdom with your fellow writers in the comments!

56 Comments

  1. wow! thank ou so much. all these is eye opening and I feel great knowing you care so much for even wanna be’s like myself. Motivated! ;)

  2. I’ve never used a vocal recording device- detest the sound of my voice talking back at me- but I always read aloud, and it seems the next step… I may give it a try! And this was my favorite line: “…few things are more paralyzing than endless possibilities.” SO true; we often talk ourselves OUT of doing what we want, just because of it! Thanks for the great read and the advice!

  3. Good post. I write a lot of fiction. I think the only true rule is what sounds good. Especially enjoyed the ‘show and tell.” When first writing some well meaning editors would suggest ‘show’ don’t ‘tell.’ Yet I read many great writers who did not do that. There are times when the story should slow down so you can ‘show’ but there are times you just say ‘he was in a hurry’ and get the story moving. I don’t think the reader needs to know how long the strides were and how quick the pace was.

  4. Ben, those were some great tips. I have hit on a similar approach for improving my drafts. Two tricks I use are to see how many all contractions and possessives, and negatives I can remove from each paragraph. Often, these tricks force me to examine each paragraph carefully, and make me understand what I am trying to do. Thank you, Silent

    1. Indeed — editing a draft once you have one opens the door to a whole new set of ideas…It might be a good idea for a separate post!

  5. I like the tips, especially the one about reading it aloud, which I think is a great technique, as it allows one to be one’s own reviewer. However, I am wondering about the tip – write about what you don’t know. I have been trying to write a short story that happens in Beirut, without ever having visited the city. I must confess that I am struggling a bit to make the narrative authentic. Is extensive research the key? Any other ideas?

  6. Really, all good ideas. To RAJV9, there’s a DVD with MARLO THOMAS, DAVID BUKES, & G.W. BAILEY that is about an American journalist on assignment in Beirut in 1984 based on a true story. HELD HOSTAGE. It isn’t suitable for children (if you have any). It was filmed in part in Israel and you feel like you’re right there. Digiview Enterainment 1991, Item # MV139E. Hope you can locate it. I’m sure there are others but this the only one I know about. Happy writing everyone. Blessings

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