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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!

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  1. Although my blog focuses on photography and poetry, I’m interested in learning more about storytelling. I’m taking a course through iversity to learn more about storytelling (iversity.org/c/6?r=8e6de).

    Maybe next year I’ll be ready to participate in NaNoWriMo.

    I rather like your suggestion of setting arbitrary limits. I’ve done that when selecting books to read (only books with red covers) to expand my reading. Why not expand my writing in the same way?

      1. I stole the idea from a book club I was in for a while. We’d choose a monthly “theme” and bring the books we’d chosen to the meeting and discuss the book: why we liked it (or disliked it), who we think ought to read it, etc. One January, the title had to include the words “happy,” “new,” or “year”. I ended up branching out my reading considerably.

      1. Thanks! I’ve chosen other themes for reading just to see where it might lead me. I read a great book called “Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat” because it had a book cover with red on the cover.

  2. I like the article, thank you for going further than the typical “just don’t give up and write a lot and don’t worry, someday you will be a great writer” :D
    I only have one thought: doesn’t writing about characters, situations and places you know nothing about usually require even *more* research then writing about things you know really well? And, in this case, doesn’t it all push you even further into uncertainty, thus making it even more likely that you will abandon it all and go back to describing what you know really well, even if at the risk of sounding dull as a doorknob?

    1. It could; I think, though, that just letting one’s imagination run free for a while, research-free, even on topics you’re not an expert on, is a valid way forward, especially if you’re just looking to get something started.

    2. I think knowing nothing about what you write can be beneficial in fiction. Not much in non-fiction, where you are supposed to be writing facts. But in fiction, you can just write about what you imagine. It doesn’t need to be factually correct, I guess? I mean, look at all the fantasy writers. Even if fantasy isn’t your genre, you can use it to fill up pretty much any genre you want. :)

      (Please note that this isn’t coming from a great writer. Just a usual writer who has to write a lot of non-fiction on a regular basis (news). ) :)

    3. Perhaps :) My only tip when writing about something you know absolutely nothing about is, basically, think of it like a black hole. You can’t necessarily see it, or touch it, but you can see its effect. I’ve been writing a fantasy novel, and at first I knew nothing about armour, or clothes of ancient times. So I described where they covered, their texture, weight and fine detail. It seems to have worked :)

    1. The phrases “in a ten miles radius” and “optical phenomenon” don’t really fit the tone of legend, they sound kind of too modern. And you might want to not break the fourth wall in the middle of a paragraph. Other than that, your story is great. It truly sounds like a thousand-years-old legend. I really liked it and I think you could have future in the genre.

  3. I decided to constrain my science-fiction by making space travel obey the laws of physics.

    Isn’t it odd that a genre that puts ‘science’ in its title routinely flouts science with faster-than-light transport of human bodies???

    Heeding time as we know it cost me a lot of calculations to make sure everyone’s age was consistent with their space travel times, and all the times and distances mentioned were compatible. Never thought that part of authorship would consist of double-checking a lot of math with a calculator working in six digits, but that’s what was needed. None of that shows up in the book itself.

    The result of acknowledging space-time realistically was a whole different atmosphere that I loved – but will people recognize it as science fiction? I have a link for free download of the book in pdf in my blog at https://thismoonlesssky.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/liquid-courage-alcoholism-and-its-deep-roots-in-hunter-gatherer-bravery-please-consider-reblogging-if-you-think-it-might-help-people/ if anyone wants to try it out.

    Let ideas sow ideas.

  4. Love this post! I like how all of your tips show the advantages of many of the common teachings but also goes against it- keeping things plain simple is the goal in my writing.

    While reading YA fiction and New Adult fiction, I find that often the author does not go into a deep description of the protagonist, it is revealed naturally through conversation or someone else’s point of view.

  5. I like how this get’s writers to think outside the box, although my blog is a real life diary I still try to make the content itself engaging and relevant so it’s interesting to see some ideas on the art of fiction.

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

    Great advice, thank you. It’s something most writers overlook.

  7. One, here, a newbie to blogging. I like these tips of yours. Being a writer and all, I think it’s a good idea to face the things you fear as writer and to not follow the “rules” that can hinder creativity.

  8. It is so good to hear about a different point of view. Especially when it comes to “show don’t tell”, which I’ve always found confusing. I am going to try some of these tips. And maybe it’ll end up on my blog :)

    1. “Write about what you don’t know” was a suggestion I needed to hear. :-)

      Regarding showing and telling: Pride and Prejudice is a good example of something on the “telling” side.

  9. The tips are very good. Some of these things we’ve learned and practiced in our classes. And I did learn that when I think a sentence might be too long, as long as there are many details or feelings described, it’s the better choice :)
    I’m always grateful to learn and grow more.

  10. There really are many ways to kill a rat, just that very often, we forget all the possible ways, when faced with a rat.
    Thanks for these beautiful tips, they’ll make the ways stick.
    Lovely post!

  11. wow……thank you so much for these tips…..i didnt get a chance to participate in NaNoWriMo this month because i got all caught up with school and work and a bunch of certification exams……i have a lot of projects that i gave up half way because of the many rules in writing…..it is very comforting to know read this and now that i will be having a short break from school, i hope to use that time to finish some of my pieces…thank you again

  12. Thank you! I’ve been working so hard at showing instead of telling, but if you do it all the time, your story starts to feel so syrupy that you no longer care if the character feels his stomach knotting up, or if he’s just anxious. Sometimes you need to show, but sometimes showing is gratuitous.

    1. Great point — whenever images (or other media) are working alongside the written word, like in graphic novels, it clearly changes the definition of “showing.” I don’t think it’s necessarily easier (or harder) than writing just text, but it’s a different narrative system to take into consideration.

      1. The narrative system definitely needs to be taken into consideration. I liked your point about successful writers spelling out emotions plainly for the reader. Some writers go too far with insinuating betrayal, or suggesting joy through symbols and metaphors, and there’s only so much you can portray without giving the reader a little push.

  13. thank you man, really nice tips, specially the “show an tell”, definetely something I can learn to do better (Y)

    @Millie Ho depending on how you want to narrate the story and what do you want to transmit… and to who! there are people like me that require more specific descriptions to gather an idea while other more intuitive gather more with “less”…. so “showing and telling” also depends greatly on your public

  14. 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! ;)

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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?

  19. 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