–-Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads
Quick! Close your eyes and picture the first time you heard a good story. Can you remember how it felt? Were you surprised, horrified, intrigued? Great storytelling elicits a living response. Descriptions light up the sensory cortex in the brain, and you’re teleported to the scene. You feel like you know the characters. You’re invested in what happens next.
The best writers are great storytellers. In fact, arguably, great storytelling trumps having mastery of all the other mechanics of writing. Why so? Because great storytelling has united communities since the beginning of language.
I’m going to tell you three ways to take your writing from, “Cool story, bro!” to “Tell me more!”
Wildly Original versus Simple & Familiar. Fables, folktales, fairytales and the like capitalize on the brain’s uncanny knack for picking up on patterns. These stories use familiar tropes and stick to simple plots, and thus persist in humanity’s narrative. They get retold, recycled, revamped.
Well, Writer, you don’t want to tell the same old story. You want to be wildly original. You’ll throw in plot twists that the readers never, never saw coming. You’ll invent characters they’ve never imagined. You’ll create a world that defies logic. And…
You’ll quickly notice that you don’t get the desired response. In psychology, there’s a term—“mere-exposure effect.” It basically demonstrates that people develop a preference for things simply because they are familiar. It’s how popular music becomes popular, despite the fact that most pop songs sound like every other pop song you’ve ever heard. As a writer, the storyteller’s ability to refresh a familiar trope can work in your favor because it allows your readers to build off a connection they’ve already formed (i.e., I like fairytales, so this modern twist on the classic Cinderella story looks like something I’ll really enjoy!)
While I don’t encourage every writer to kick the dead horse stories that have been trotted out a million times before, I do encourage you to examine your original ideas and see where elements of the familiar might be used to make your story resonate. Trust me on this one. There’s nothing new under the sun for a reason.
Stating the Story versus Reliving the Story. Any spoken word artist, comedian, speaker or voice over actor will tell you imbuing your oration with emotion is the trick to connecting with your audience. As a writer, you know the struggle of making words come to life, but you’re not speaking out loud; you’re trying to connect with readers across a page or screen, and that’s infinitely more difficult. Don’t believe me? Check your text messages. Spot every instance of sarcasm and report back. Emojis were created to add context to text, and without them, words can be interpreted in a myriad, confusing array of ways.
That said, as a writer, you can inject emotion into your book by mastering the emotional component. A plot climaxes and reaches denouement. Your reader should not only be given the bare, cold facts of the story, but should be swept up in the emotions of the story.
Yesterday, I was walking in the store, and I tripped and fell.
Yesterday, I was rushing through the store, and I tripped—on absolutely nothing—and fell flat on my backside in front of everyone! Then, I laughed. Because, really, what else can you do when life trips you up?
See the difference? Injecting emotion is a description away.
Speaking to Your Audience versus Talking to Anyone Who’ll Listen. A juicy bit of gossip is a great story, but it’s not likely to be an appropriate story for the kiddies. That’s because every great storyteller speaks directly to an intended audience. True, there are many stories that appeal to a wide variety of people. As a writer, however, knowing your target audience helps you speak directly to a particular set of readers (and takes off some of the pressure of shouting yourself hoarse trying to reach everyone.)
Try this thought experiment on for size.
- A millionaire is giving a speech at the homeless shelter about how to become a real estate mogul.
- A teacher is explaining to her students her own experiences with bullying to help them learn empathy.
- A politician is telling his constituents about the wild parties he’s been attending on their dime as he tries to raise more money for his campaign.
Note which story works for the audience and situation and which ones don’t. In the same way, as a writer, if your story is contemporary young adult, your narrative should appeal to an audience that is receptive to the idea. Trying to broaden your story to appeal to as many people as possible—say, by tossing in some stuff for the adults or taking out some stuff for the middle grade readers—might end up backfiring on you.
Not every story should be for every reader, and it’s perfectly okay to embrace your genre or niche. You will build a readership faster by writing for them instead of an abstract audience of everyone.
These three effective storytelling techniques can be applied to your writing and spotted in your favorite books. Remember: Simple and familiar, immersive and emotional, targeted narratives are the goal. Got it? Happy writing!
Hey, Readers! Want to know what happens to your brain on books? Check this out: Ten Things that Happen to Our Minds When We Read.
Hey, Writers! Want to know more about becoming an effective storyteller? Fastcocreate.com has something to tell us about The Science of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts through Distraction Like Nothing Else. (Great for marketing, too!)
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