Are you afraid that your storytelling might be falling short?
Maybe you’re a brand-new writer and know that with more skills or experience you’d have more confidence as a storyteller.
Or maybe you’re a little farther along in your writing journey and you’re looking for ways to spice up your stories, introduce more variety, or avoid falling into the same patterns over and over.
The fact is, that master storytellers aren’t born. They’re not magically blessed by their muses while your own muse plays hard to get. Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and improved over time.
All your favorite writers were once fumbling through their scrappy first stories, using guesswork and learning from their mistakes. Then, over years of practice and study they learned the skills and techniques to make their writing sing.
In this post, you’ll find 10 tips to help you hone your storytelling skills. Use them to strengthen your current novel and revisit them as your guide for constant improvement.
10 Proven Writing Strategies
1. Begin with your vision and story goals.
Before you begin writing your novel, take a step back and think about the big picture. Ask yourself these questions:
- What’s your vision for your book? What message do you wish to convey to your readers?
- How do you want this book, or your writing in general, to be remembered?
- Why are you the best person to tell this story?
- Why is now the right time?
- What genre are you writing in? How do you want your book to be similar or different than others within that genre?
Spend a few minutes or a few hours thinking over these questions. Write down your answers, and revisit them periodically. The time you invest now will pay off when you’re mid-project and looking for motivation, inspiration, or to get back on track when you stall.
Think about your favorite stories.
Why do you love them so much? What was it about the characters? Was it something unique about the world or something surprising about the conflict or situations the characters found themselves in?
Use those gems as inspiration for your own stories.
2. Figure out how much planning you want to do.
You’ve got a great idea, maybe one of your best. Of course you’re excited to dive into your story.
But by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail, as Benjamin Franklin said.
People are fond of putting writers into two groups: Planners (those who meticulously plan before starting to write) and Pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants), but alternatives we prefer are: Architects and Gardeners (as proposed by George RR Martin).
Architects (planners) like to carefully plan their novel in great detail, so they know exactly what’s going to happen before they start writing. Gardeners prefer to start with a seed of an idea and let it grow more organically.
If you’re an Architect, you might want to follow specific steps, like those in the novel writing roadmap.
But even most Gardeners have at least a rough idea of how the story is going to end.
While most writers start out with a preference for either architecting or gardening, over time, your preferences will often change.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, especially if you’re feeling stuck or uninspired. Don’t cling too tightly to the rightness of one way or another, because you might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome when you try something new.
As much as you can, keep all your work in one place. That way you can avoid the frustration of lost notes and forgotten ideas.
And if you’re using software like the Novel Factory, you can take advantage of all those little moments of “wasted time” doing things like waiting in line. Log in and work on your novel!
3. Write every day.
If you can manage to write every day, then you have taken a massive step towards being a successful writer. Even if it’s just one page, or one paragraph. Even if it’s just one sentence, the importance of getting into a daily writing habit is hard to overstate.
If you genuinely have no time to write one day, then instead try to remind yourself where you are in your story and plan for the next day’s writing.
If you’re able to carve out a little dedicated time and space for your writing, whether it’s first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or during the baby’s afternoon nap, then you’ll find it easier to keep in the habit.
And if you can be confident enough to close the door on your friends, family and responsibilities, even for a little while, you can start to create a writer’s mentality.
4. Live in your story world.
Even if your setting is based on a location you know as well as your own hometown, there will be imaginative details you’ll need to fill in, like specifics about the homes, neighborhoods, public buildings, parks, and more.
Take a mental or actual walk-through. Immerse yourself. Research. Use drawings, maps, or photos.
- What things do you notice?
- What’s unique?
- Is everything perfect or does a building or road need repaired or fixed?
- What themes could be represented by the shops, houses and states of repair or decay you see?
- What subplots could be inspired by little alleys or ancient trees?
Especially if you are writing a fantasy novel, then check out the Ultimate World Building Questionnaire here for inspiration and to drill into the minute details.
If you’re struggling with subplots or descriptions in part of your story, it could be because you have some gaps in your world building. In this case, it might help to stop writing for a while, and delve into some of the details of your world.
Find out more about how to research and build locations in this article.
5. Spend time in your character’s heads.
Creating a character will usually start with noting down basic details such as their name, physical description and some details about their personality, flaws and desires.
But don’t stop there. Instead, dig a little deeper.
One method for getting to know your characters is to imagine you’re interviewing them. Pick a few of their most interesting characteristics, the things that make them unique, the motivations that really drive them, and keep asking for more details, until they reveal some of their deepest motivations:
- Why do they think the way they do?
- Why do they act in certain ways?
- What happened to them, what lessons have they learned in the past that makes them what they are today?
- What would they do if they knew they could get away with it?
- What moral lines would they never cross?
You could also do a little fictional psychoanalysis to round them out even more. What’s their sign? What’s their personality type? What role do they play in your story? Knowing all these juicy details, even if they never become part of your book, will inspire your writing.
Remember, not all of the subtle details you uncover can or should show up in your story. But knowing them will help your characters come across as more layered and realistic.
Your characters are arguably the most important part of your story. If your readers aren’t intrigued by them, they won’t care what happens.
Main characters should be round. This means they do not adhere to a flat stereotype but surprise and intrigue in convincing ways.
6. Hook with a fantastic opening.
Your novel’s opening needs to be a reflection of the novel as a whole.
This means it needs to set the tone, foreshadow some of the main arcs, and set the pace. You need to show your readers the first glimpse of your main character and the situation they’re in. You need to pique your readers’ curiosity and build empathy.
The opening of your novel is so important and difficult, that it’s extremely rare for writers to get it right the first time. Many writers report that they write the whole novel, then they go back and chop off the first few chapters, because that was just them warming up.
It’s also possible to make a much more powerful and poignant opening when you have a clear idea of how your story ends.
Many writers try out several different beginnings, and may even test them out on beta readers.
If you want to boil down what makes a fantastic opening, then change, curiosity, and surprise —; are the three characteristics to focus on.
7. Start with your end in mind.
One of the best tips for focusing your novel is to start with your end in mind. Rather than waiting to be surprised (along with your readers!) by the path your story takes, decide from the beginning how you want your characters to end up and what you want to say with your story.
Some people reverse-write their plot outline, writing down an outline for what will happen in the final scene before deciding the events of their opening or mid-point.
When you give yourself an ending to write toward, you automatically narrow the nearly infinite possibilities that can leave you feeling indecisive and overwhelmed. You give yourself direction that keeps you moving forward.
Maybe best of all, you can avoid writing many scenes that don’t advance your plot (and would therefore likely need to be cut during the editing process anyway.)
Another tip: many authors like to create a mock-up of their book cover early in the draft writing process. This is another great way to make your book seem more real, more concrete. You can look at a good prototype cover and almost feel the storytelling itself.
8. Make your story sticky.
To grip your readers, you need characters they care about, facing conflicts with high stakes.
There are several ways to create empathy with your characters, here is a summary of a few of the most effective:
- Show them in jeopardy or suffering undeserved misfortune
- Show that they are liked and likeable (kind and loving)
- Make them funny (we will forgive all manner of flaws in a character that makes us laugh)
- Make them highly skilled and in touch with their own power
- Show them to be flawed
Read more about these techniques for creating empathy here.
But getting your readers to care about your characters is only going to get you so far. They’re not going to keep turning pages for long if your highly likeable character is spending all their time happily baking cookies.
To make your story really sticky, you need to introduce conflict.
The thing is, too many writers confuse conflict with violence.
Describing action alone won’t necessarily make your story gripping. You could write the best fight scene ever, but that in itself isn’t interesting to most readers.
Conflict is what adds intrigue.
Conflict could just as easily be the muttered passive aggressive comment of a wife when her husband comes home late; as it could be a roundhouse kick to the chest in by an ex-special forces on an oil rig that’s on fire. The former may well carry more tension than the latter.
The stakes of the conflict need to feel high enough, even if they’re not always world-threatening. If the readers care enough about your character, then facing a public speaking engagement, or battling a corporate court case, can be even more gripping than someone saving the planet from aliens.
9. Steal, steal, steal.
One of the most game-changing things you can do with regards to growing as a writer is to read as a writer.
This means reading dozens of books in your chosen genre. Often, you will already be reading the genre you want to write in, because that’s what interests you. But if not, then you absolutely must.
Read each of your research books three or four times. The first time is just to immerse yourself in the story and enjoy it. The second time, see what you notice that you didn’t see the first time, especially now that you know the ending.
You may fully or partially read the novel several more times to see how the author handles character arcs, plot development or world building. Reading books where these things are done poorly can also be informative.
Movies are also a great way to see techniques in action, as many approaches and methods can be translated into writing. And movies and TV shows have the advantage of allowing you to consume more stories, faster.
10. Be (at least a little) unique.
Many writers lament the Catch 22 where agents and publishers reject one book because it’s too different to what’s on the market, and reject another because it’s too similar.
So how to walk this tightrope of being familiar yet original?
In On Writing, Stephen King says that there are no new ideas, only mash-ups of existing ideas.
This could be taking two completely unrelated ideas and exploring what happens when you combine them. Suzanne Collins said that the inspiration for The Hunger Games came from combining reality TV shows with war coverage (with a splash of Greek mythology thrown in).
Or you could take a theme that’s common in one genre, and transplant it into another. Brandon Sanderson said he came up with the idea for his Mistborn series when he realized nobody had ever written a heist fantasy novel.
Another way to get a new perspective is to… change perspective. As is Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, where instead of following the hero as the main character, we follow the villain -m who just happens to be a young boy.
Think of ways in which you can combine, subvert or change the perspective of popular stories, to give them your own unique twist.
Become a Stronger Storyteller
Storytelling is a skill, and honing your skill is a journey that takes time, consistency, and dedication.
Fortunately, it’s totally doable. It’s like building muscle. All these techniques will make you a stronger storyteller the more you practice them.
Pick one or two of these writing strategies to analyse and practice today. Then come back and do the same with one or two more. Before you know it, you’ll be telling better stories and naturally growing as a writer.
And if you’re looking for more help and inspiration, check out the Novel Writing Roadmap.