The Top Ten Tips for Writing Stories that Grip

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Over time, I have been fortunate to work with some famous people who have made their money from stories (for details, see the In Conversation With… section of The Story Book).

From the insights of these luminaries, from my own experiences getting published, from my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in narrative theory, and of course from writing my books, here – in no particular order – are my top ten tips for writing stories that grip!

1) Understand knowledge gaps and subtext. Writers work with knowledge gaps in order that the receiver can work with subtext.

Subtext is the knowledge that goes into the gaps.

The more subtext there is, the better the story is perceived to be by the audience. Fact. The finest writers are those best able to create the conditions for subtext. See my blog on Subtext – the Most Critical Tool in the Story Teller’s Box .

2) Understand storification. This is what happens when a story seems to leap off the page and become a part of your mindset. That feeling of being gripped by a story – and it happens when you, as the receiver, are providing the subtext. As a writer, this is the key to making your audience feel engaged; have them take ownership of your story; feel a deep impact from your story. Storification is the process by which a receiver of story fills in the knowledge gaps and therefore discovers the meaning in your story for and by themselves in their own mind.

A reader is not an absorber of text but a producer of story.

3) Don’t try to learn ‘how to write’. No course or method or guru can tell you how to write. There’s only one person who can tell your story your way, and that’s YOU! Those who get somewhere as writers have confidence in themselves and their output. They write what THEY think is great. they write for themselves and they care not a jot what others think.

This is great news for you! Let it all just pour out of your natural inspiration and imagination. If YOU think it is right, then guess what. It is right. You are the god of your story. Only you can tell your story your way, so just do it! Write with the aim of satisfying YOU. If you are true to yourself and your work happens to resonate with a proportion of the population, well then you may have a career as well… just by being yourself. Really, you have no choice but to be yourself if you want to write your story, so accept that. Own it. Love it. Publish and be damned!

4) The above does have a caveat. It can be seriously helpful to learn the craft of story – then use that understanding to get the most you possibly can out of the story ideas your heart gives you. There are a single set of things to learn that can help you make the most of your talent and inspiration, so embrace that. That is my aim through my patreon site and in the book: The Primary Colours of Story. To provide all the knowledge a writer needs to understand the craft of story. I highly recommend these resources. 😉

As the old saying goes: Write from the heart. Rewrite from the head. 

Seriously – you will have problems. Aspects of the story will niggle you. And if you are going to be a professional writer, there will be days when the muse stays away. Having an understanding of how you work and what gives stories a beating heart can help with those things.

That includes understanding story structure, because it is part of the craft, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don’t let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story. Later, use your understanding of story theory in problem-solving, analysing, tightening and optimising the story.

5) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. I KNOW that is hard – believe me, I’ve been there – so set yourself a manageable word count and make sure you achieve that. Just 500 words a day – that’s a single side of A4 – will get you 100,000 words in 7 months (and that is with Sundays off. Luxury!). Follow that up with five months of editing and polishing – that’s a book in a year, no problem. Self-discipline, folks. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it tend to work very hard, are professional and productive. Don’t wait for that mythical year off you’re promising yourself. Don’t wait for that writers’ retreat or that day you call “One day…” when you think you will be ready. Every successful writer gets their head down, and writes every day.

6) Don’t think about ‘plot’ and ‘character’ as separate things. What a character does when they take action will define their true character and what a character does when they take action will also provide the action. Think more in terms of character behaviours as these define both plot and character. Get this unity of plot and character, and your story telling will be tight, cohesive and dimensional. See my blog post on Character and Plot – One and the Same Thing (coming soon…)

7) Understand character. All the greatest stories take us on a physical or metaphoric journey. On that journey a character will change, learn, grow, transform through the experiences of the story events and climb up or fall down the ladder of life along the way. You will find that the change across the course of the journey is the true power of your story, and this is what resonates with your  audience and elevates your story. Coupled with this…

8) …true character only emerges when you put your protagonists under pressure to make difficult decisions. Theoretically, stories happen with little or even zero conflict, but it is very unusual and it is probably best to understand and embrace conflict, especially in your early career. Learn about the four types of conflict – especially the immense power of internal conflict – and make sure the conflict is meaningful.

For a mountaineer to climb a mountain might be a huge challenge, but  he’d be delighted to do it, so the conflict is not meaningful and therefore the story has little grip. However, for a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend… risking his own life whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’s leaving if he does… that is a story. Pressure comes from dilemma. A choice of evils is more story-powerful than the most spectacular of massive intergalactic battles. Conflict is often found more in the moral stance and the fight for that moral position than from fielding a billion storm-troopers or a psychotic Dr Evil. (More in my blog on Morality in Stories.)

9) Be professional and unemotional in marketing your book. It’s really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection…) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories… then develop and develop some more… and the real reason they never finish is because they are so scared of the Judgement Day that comes the moment they admit it’s done. There’s no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:

A. Write the best stuff you can.

B. Send it off.

C. Go to A.

It ain’t rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or you won’t get anywhere. And once it’s gone, the worst thing you can do is sit wringing your hands by the letterbox, desperate for a response. Send it off and move on! Fire and forget! Get busy with the next one, and when rejection comes it won’t bother you so much; you’ll be deeply involved in the new stuff and that makes handling rejection OR success that much easier.

As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL get a deal. The commercial world is *desperate* for great stories. Do something better than most and it will find a home. Are you productive? Are you sending stuff off? Or are you procrastinating and waiting until everything is perfect? Stop now. Get it above the bottom line and start sending it out.

9.a.) I know I said 10 things, but I have one more important point I’d like to slide in here. if you want to make films and be a scriptwriter… you could barely be making life harder for yourself. It’s a really really hard route in. Write books or plays first. The film industry is a walled garden, and the investment in a film is so large, they much prefer it if the stories they are considering have been validated by other media first. Memento and The Shawshank Redemption were both short stories published in magazines before they became mega-movies. The Hitchiker’s Guide and War of the Worlds were radio plays. Andy Weir’s The Martian was self-published on his website before it became a Ridley Scott classic. The vast majority of movies you see are books first. If you didn’t go to film school and you don’t have incredible contacts, getting published or getting a radio play broadcast or a theatre play on a town stage is far, far easier than trying to get a script away.

10) Oh, and before I go, I think there might be just one more tip we could all benefit from…

…Get off the internet and go do some writing!

Seriously… why are you still here?! Turn off the wifi! Go do some work!

Very best of luck with your stories. Oh, and call me when you get a film deal!