Monday, 16 January 2017

Top Ten Tips for Writing Stories that Grip

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 The Story Bookhere - in no particular order - are my top ten tips for awesome stories!

1) 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 make it have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn the primary colours of story - where the power comes from, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate with the human mind, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to get the most you possibly can out of the story ideas your heart gives you. Specifically...

2) ...understand 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, then later, use your understanding of structure in problem-solving, tightening and optimising the story. Never use one of those formulaic structural methods as a starting point or a rule-base for development. 

3) 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 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 the day you'll be ready. Every successful writer gets their head down, and writes every day. 

4) Sadly, if you want commercial success, you must also understand GENRE. It's far more important than it should be and it's critical you understand why. I wish it wasn't true - but it is. Of course, if you don't care about commercial success and simply want to be true to your art - brilliant. Ignore genre. But if you want to sell your material, it's a big factor. See my blog on Why Genre is Important to Success .

5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the better the story is perceived to be by the audience. Fact. See my blog on Subtext - the Most Critical Tool in the Story Teller's Box .

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.

7) Understand Character Growth. All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewer). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this growth is actually the true power of your real story, and this is what resonates with your  audience and elevates your story. Character growth - the story element that defines every great story. See my blogpost on The Subtext of Character Growth. Coupled with this...

8) ...true character only emerges when you put your protagonists under pressure to make difficult decisions. 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 is not meaningful. 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, not odds. 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. See my post on Morality in Stories for more. 

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 trying to wait until everything is perfect?  

9.a.) I know I said 10 things, but I have one more important point here. if you want to make films and be a scriptwriter... you could barely be making life harder for yourself. Don't do it. 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 are books first. 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) All these things are addressed in detail in The Story Book, of course. Oh, 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! 😉



  1. Agree with 2-10...#1 no so much. While on one hand a person needs to be immersed in how literature "moves" reading "thousands of books" will do two things: (1) kill writing time and (2) will tend to make what the person writes be a stereotypical amalgam especially if the person is targeting a specific genre. #2 is especially true. Even if your writing is crap it fertilizes your growth. #3 is partially true because a practicing author can give invaluable coaching to a novice writer. #4 understanding how the placement of the climax affects the nature of the story is essential. #6 understanding the four basic character types (static-flat, static-round, dynamic-flat, and dynamic-round) is a very basic part of creating characters. Studying psychology does not hurt either.

  2. (1) Pratchett would add, read books outside the genre in which you write. "If you want to write fantasy, read detective novels, if you want to write science fiction read romance novels," or something to that effect.

    Not sure I see where (4) is coming from. Learning about story is an aspect of learning to write. So is learning to craft a sentence and avoiding the said book and lots of other things. Those don't matter?

    (6) seems unlikely to me. If I'm writing a detective story I may need a mechanism by which the murder was committed and suspicion fell on someone else without it being immediately obvious to characters or readers - I can't figure out a good idea for this just by asking what the murderer would do.

    (8) sounds good but I think there are lots of famous novels where it doesn't really apply.

    All in all, maybe good advice to think about but a bit simplistic to take in as gospel.

  3. Great tips, David. They're all on the money. I can't agree more with (1). Reading and writing are inseparable. In fact, I was looking at Stephen King's advice from 'On Writing' recently and he says the same thing. I also include a couple more of his which I try to live by.

    "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."

    "Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often bad books have more to teach than the good ones."

    "Mostly when I think of pacing I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts."

    And my favourite:
    "It seems to occur to few of the attendees (of creative writing classes) that if you have a feeling that you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong f-ing class."

    Good work, David.

  4. I know a writing teacher who summed it up as follows:
    Read. Write. Edit. Sleep.
    Write in the morning.
    Read in the afternoon.
    Edit before you go to sleep.

    Personally, I like to put it in RPG terms: You will never level up your writing skills if you do not grind experience by reading and pounding out words, one after the other.

    "(1) Pratchett would add, read books outside the genre in which you write. "If you want to write fantasy, read detective novels, if you want to write science fiction read romance novels," or something to that effect."
    David, I really like your point. Stewing in one's own figurative juices when it comes to writing in a genre is really counter-productive.

    Thanks for this post, I'll be sharing it.
    It's easy to understand, if hard to do right.

  5. These are really great tips that break writing down into more manageable thoughts. I think sometimes I get stuck just thinking about it, whereas if I just go write ideas start to flow :)

  6. David,
    Great advice and to the point. Thanks

  7. Such great advice. I'm definitely sharing. Thanks for connecting. Best, Ingrid

  8. Brilliant and blunt. Enjoyed it. Very informative and grounding and a great boost to my own diminishing self confidence as a writer. Thanks.