There are workshops on dialogue, on character, on marketing your book, and just about everything else to do with writing and stories. But let’s talk about the big picture for a minute—let’s talk about the art of being a story teller.
Edgar Rice Burroughs taught me a lot about being a story teller. He was a prolific writer—he also was not at times a very good writer, but he knew how to spin a yarn as they used to say. I went through a phase where I devoured all of his books, but one stands out in memory as being awful. Truly terrible. But I kept reading…and wondering as I turned the page. The Oakdale Affair is about a bear in a cellar. Really. It’s melodramatic, has stiff dialogue, and you still turn the pages. It keeps pulling you forward. Burroughs was a story teller.
So how to do you learn this art of storytelling? I’m doing a workshop on this that goes into depth, but let’s just cover ten tips here that can help you be a better story teller:
1-Read a lot. Yes, it’s obvious, but most folks don’t give this enough weight. Read across genres. Read cereal boxes—short is harder than long. Read everything—and read with a critical eye. Take apart stories that make you keep turning the page, and take apart ones that don’t. Read to see how a story is spun on a page.
2-Master technique. You want to get the technical stuff out of the way. If commas baffle you, nail them down and figure them out. Get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and make it your bible. Make your sentence clean and clear. Write enough that technique no longer makes your story stumble.
3-Focus on character. Story is character and character is story. There’s a reason Burroughs is remembered for Tarzan—one of the most famous of all fictional characters. Not only did Burroughs exploit Tarzan, he was smart enough as a story teller to know he needed a great character to carry the story. Story is character and character is story. Focus on your characters more than your plots.
4-Figure out your theme. Every story is about something. You will also probably write about the same theme for most of your life. Figure out what it is that is your theme—what makes you hot under the collar or uncomfortable? What gets your blood moving fast? Write about something that matters to you—that will make your story matter, too.
5-Develop your voice. Write a lot. The only way you’ll find your voice is by writing. Write poetry. Write bad poetry. You don’t have to show this to anyone. Get the bad writing out of your system to get to the good stuff. Write in a journal. Write by hand. Write as a habit. Your voice will come out on its own eventually.
6-Learn how to structure. What this means is you need to know how to pace the reader and escalate the tension and conflict. That keeps the reader turning pages. These things come from learning craft—and some technical tricks that really do work. Read a lot and you’ll see other writers using these same techniques. Take apart Dan Brown, Burroughs, and other writers who sell a lot of books. There’s a reason why they do and it all comes back to story and characters—and keeping readers engaged.
7-Dramatize and twist. Stories are bigger than life—they’re dramatized. Learn how to make stories (and that means characters and dialogue) a little more, a little bigger and better than life. This means characters say things we’ve all wanted to say at times, and events happen in ways that we’ve always wanted them to. Surprise your readers—but keep it familiar. That formula has been shown to create hit songs and it works with hit stories, too.
8-Use setting as a character. There’s a reason Tarzan exists in his mythical jungle as “king of the beasts” with his Tarzan call. Tarzan’s setting is part of his story—it’s a main character. Create great settings. Push them to be fantastic, amazing, rich, vibrant, complex. Develop your settings as you would any other character. Use them as metaphors as visual clues to theme as contrasts.
9-Hit the key beats. A story teller knows the audience expects certain beats in a story—just like we all expect certain beats in a song. If you miss these beats, the story seems to stumble, and if it stumbles too much, the reader is thrown out. It takes care and time to master the art of weaving in beats without being obvious—and it takes practice. This is where you read to see the beats in the story, and then you apply that to your stories.
10-Payoff the read. A great story reaches an inevitable and satisfying ending. You want twists and turns, but you don’t want to go so far out there with your story that you lose your readers. Part of this means you write to satisfy yourself, but you also write to satisfy the reader. Keep this in mind. And know that the greater the ordeal for the character, the more time you need to take to bring the reader back down to regular life. Always work toward that satisfying ending—the one that seems so perfect that the story could not end any other way. If you set up that ending in the beginning, you’ll be a great storyteller.
Want to tackle this topic in more depth? OCCRWA's September online class is Storytelling for Writers, with Shannon Donnelly. For information and to register please visit
ABOUT SHANNON DONNELLY
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s
RITA award, the Grand
Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged
by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick
reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist
and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully
uplifting"....and "beautifully written."
Her latest Regency romance, Lady Chance, is just out on Amazon.com. In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire.
She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops, and will be teaching a workshop for OCC on ‘Breaking Down Writers Block’. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.