We’re all in the midst of a great story.
There’s a continual narrative at work in each of our lives that’s being shaped and honed by our choices. Storytelling provides the lens through which we can see those choices more clearly. It gives us perspective and helps us make sense of our experiences. We write these stories down to expose the unexposed, to appreciate our choices, vent our frustrations, sort out our confusions, and untangle threads of our imagination.
In this sense, writing is not only a method of communication or a practical skill; it is a profound teacher. It helps us connect the dots in our lives and communicate who we’ve been, who we are, and who we want to become. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
But it’s often difficult to get these stories out of our heads and onto a page, where they can be shaped, deepened, and refined. Knowing the pangs of writer’s block and the frustrations and fears associated with staring at a blank page, I’ve put together a few techniques to help you craft that story you’ve been waiting to tell.
COLLECTING YOUR THOUGHTS
Know what you want to say and why
Before you start working on a piece of writing that you intend to share, you need to know what the point of that story is. What do you actually want to say? What’s your takeaway? What do you want your reader to think about?
It’s important to know this before you start writing because if you half-heartedly slap a moral at the end of a story, readers will be able to tell. So, think about what you really want to say. Then think about why you’re saying it. Why is this story important to you? Why is it worth sharing? Why will it be important to your reader?
If you’re not sure, do a bit of free writing on the subject — set a timer for five minutes, fill a page with messy thoughts and incomplete sentences, and see if something makes sense. This will help you get into the right frame of mind, which will allow you to say what you came to say.
Separate the situation and the story
All stories have a basic structure; they answer the fundamental questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how. But it’s what lies behind these facts that creates an emotional connection with the reader and provides an overall sense of what is really going on.
Author Vivian Gornick describes these contrasting elements as the “situation” and the “story.” The “situation” is the context, circumstance, and plot, while the “story” is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, wisdom, and thing you have to say.
It can be a little confusing because “story” is not used in the traditional narrative sense here. Instead, it is used to represent the big idea behind a piece of writing — the lesson. The “story” is why the reader cares about what’s being said. It’s the psychological or emotional journey of the protagonist, and it deals with universals (fear, hope, pain, regret, adversity, love, etc.). It’s the emotional resonance that people will feel and remember, and it tells us what’s really going on beyond the situation. And, in its simplest form, the “situation” is the facts, setting, and details of the story.
The best way to remember the difference between the two is to ask yourself: What’s happening in this piece, and what is it really about? In order for it to be memorable, your story needs both of these elements.
If you’re unsure of how these correlate with the piece you’re constructing, look at your free writing and create a bulleted list of “story elements” and “situation elements” to include in your draft.
CRAFTING YOUR STORY
Start where you feel excited and inspired
You don’t have to write chronologically in your first, or second, draft — that’s the beauty of cut and paste. Start wherever you want and make sense of it later. Often times, that’s how your story will take its own shape. Follow your excitement and magic will ensue.
Don’t worry about writing well; just focus on getting things down. Write without stopping and resist the urge to edit as you go. If you’re not happy with a sentence, don’t delete it. Just keep moving. Some authors write whole chapters only to throw them in the trash at the end of the day. Winston Churchill once said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” He wasn’t talking about writing, but let’s pretend he was. Drafts are meant to be messy — you’ll edit them later.
Tell your story as if you’re telling it to a friend
This applies no matter where you are or who your audience is. When you break through all the different tiers of writing and through the people who adopt authoritative, bureaucratic tones to make themselves sound more important, you find the stuff worth reading. Because good writing isn’t complicated. It’s simple and easy to read. It tells the truth, makes you think, and talks to you straight. Always look your reader in the eye.
Set the GPS
Get the facts straight. Give the place, time, setting, and any other relevant context. Specificity will bring color to your story. Keep it factual, short, and sweet. It will help your reader tap into their imagination and picture the scene you’re setting for them, which, in turn, will draw them in.
Tune into your sense of memory
There is always one primary sense that dominates every memory. Choose the strongest of the five senses connected to your story and use it. This will not only help you recount the details of the moment you’re writing about, but it will help your audience connect with you on a human level. If you say that you could feel the sun on the back of your neck or smell gasoline on dusty concrete, your reader will be able to tap into their sense of memory as well and enter that moment with you.
Use active verbs
Don’t write passively. It takes readers out of the story and makes everything wordier. Spice up your verb choices, but keep them succinct. Use the thesaurus. Avoid multisyllabic, erudite, four-dollar words, and over-intellectualizing, philosophizing, and qualifying. See how many I just used? They’re boring to read.
Add a gleaming detail
To make a story memorable, find one image that resonates with the audience and ties into your “Aha!” moment. This singular image can elevate a story from good to great. This is often called a “gleaming detail” — a term originally derived from the Irish that describes the element that makes a story stand out. To do this, choose one ordinary object to embody the essence of the story, and make the ordinary extraordinary. Describe the emotional connection to the object and why it matters.
Hand over the spark
Stories are always about transformation. Whether we know it or not, in whatever story we are telling, we are always sharing threshold moments. This means that we are either at a crossroads or a turning point of some sort. This threshold is a call for us to change, or to rise to a challenge before us. In this sense, threshold moments represent a spark that is carrying us toward transformation. Reflect on the threshold moment of your story, and hand that spark to your audience as if it were aflame.
Bring yourself and be vulnerable
A story is as much about you as anything else. Pour yourself into it. Dare to share the emotion of your story. Be unafraid to ask your audience what you questioned along the way so that they share your doubt, confusion, anger, sorrow, insight, glee, delight, joy, or epiphany. As novelist Anne Lamott says, “Write straight into the emotional center of things.” Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable, absent, or fake. Tell the truth as you understand it.
Say what you came to say. Let your story build to its natural, emotional punchline. Then end it and get out fast. Leave the reader contemplating. Less is always more.
Once you’ve written a first draft, put the writing away, do something else for a while, and return to it later. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 minutes, one hour, or an entire day — editing after the fact makes it easier for your analytical brain to address structural and grammatical errors with objectivity. Remember to edit for clarity, and to not edit out your personality, creativity, humor, and vulnerability. They’re the most powerful elements in your writing.
Read it aloud
As you go back and edit, read your work out loud. If a piece of writing has a good rhythm, it’ll be easy to read aloud, and the flow between ideas will seem logical and natural. If something doesn’t feel right, revise it until it works when you read it to yourself. It’s a great way to fix any issues you may have missed in your initial edits.
Share before posting
Lastly, share your writing with one person you trust, and be open to their perspective. Constructive feedback is wonderful.
Writing is a matter of persistence, faith, and hard work, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Remember to enjoy it.
If you get stuck at any point during the writing or editing process, take a break. Go for a walk or do something else that will help get you back into a creative space. And, remember to utilize whatever setting inspires you creatively. Don’t focus on volume or word count — they don’t matter. Take your time, and write your rant.
Your story will be better for it.