September 22, 2014

Some people are born storytellers. The rest of us can learn how to do it. And the good news is, we really can improve!

Tip #1: It’s all about the 5Ws.

Stories need facts. The basic facts are the 5Ws: who, what, when, where, why. Usually, the 5Ws are joined by an H-factor: how.

Every story has multiple Ws and multiple 5Ws.

WHO is involved? WHAT is at stake? WHERE is the story taking place? WHEN and WHY did certain things happen?

The HOW of a story is critical too. How did a situation come about? How did matters get resolved?

From here, prioritize your 5Ws. Not all facts are equally important.

Tip #2: Gee/wow facts drive a story.

Do you remember the last time you read a story or news article that held your interest? I’ll bet that as you read, you talked to yourself.

Oh, wow, that’s unbelievable.

Oh, gee, I didn’t know that.

From the opening line to the very last word, good stories are packed with 5W facts that grab you. You’ll make unexpected connections, find careful details and delight in surprising developments.

If the story is truly riveting, you’ll read it from beginning to end. Along the way, you’ll keep saying: Oh, gee. Oh, wow.

Tip #3: You must pass the “so what” test.

When readers dive into your work, they have only one question on the brain: So what?

It’s not enough that you love your themes and opening sentences. Your readers will only stick around if you hold their interest. To quote the fabulous writer Elmore Leonard:

“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

If you need to retool, be prepared for anything from minor tweaking to major surgery.

Tip #4: Information must be presented in a logical sequence.

Sometimes, the only problem with a story is that the elements of the tale are not in proper order. Words trigger images. The images create actions that readers want to follow. What happens first, second and third?

So let’s say you’re sitting at your computer reading this blog post. To reach this moment, maybe you walked into a room and sat at a desk or crashed onto a couch. Maybe you opened up your computer and went through your emails before clicking onto my post. Let’s also say that maybe, after reading this blog post, you left the room and walked down the street to have dinner at a restaurant with friends.

Well, what if I presented the scene as follows: You’re sitting with friends in a restaurant. Then you’re alone in a room, on the couch with your computer. Next, you are eating with friends. And then, we see you reading emails alone.

Whoa, what’s happening here? Readers are left bouncing between scenes, unsure of where to land. But you can easily settle them in by  re-sequencing:

You’re on the couch with your computer, reading emails. Then you’re leaving the room. Next, you are walking down the street to a restaurant. You go in, greet friends who are at a table. Then, dinner.

Is each step important to show the reader? Hmm, you decide. To answer this next question, go back to the “so what?” test.

Tips #5: Quotes humanize the story.

The minute you add quotes to a story, you bring readers closer. Suddenly, they are inside the story and talking to the people you are quoting. The storyteller knows how to create conversations.

In journalistic articles, reporters try to get a quote into the story as soon as possible. The most classic form is to use the first paragraph to focus the piece. The second paragraph offers a bit more depth or background. By the third paragraph — if not sooner — you slip in a quote.

Tip #6: One idea per paragraph.

Most of my students struggle with the idea of paragraph breaks. They feel like they’re doing something naughty. After all, they’ve been trained since high school to write research papers filled with long, blathering sentences packaged into monster paragraphs that go on forever.

No more, no more! Instead, keep your paragraphs short. The secret is breaking up your material so that each paragraph is a nugget of information. A clearly-presented idea.

Once you feel yourself moving on to another idea, hit the “return” key. Start a new paragraph.

Tip #7: Organize your facts into groupings.

I call this “apples to apples and oranges to oranges.” Don’t make your paragraphs a fruit salad. If you’re writing about apples, give us all the apple info in one paragraph. Then, you can put the orange-related material in the next paragraph.

If you jump between apples and oranges, and oranges and apples, your readers are ping-ponging. Very confusing as you lose momentum — and lose them.

Tip #8: Write in short sentences.

One word can be a sentence. Really. The goal is to hold onto your audience. Mesmerize! If your sentence wanders, they will get lost. Keep them on track, moving from one point on your trail, to the next.

Short sentences are also great because you can move them around like puzzle pieces. This helps you to sequence your information more effectively.

By comparison, long sentences can get so twisty that they’re impossible to relocate. They don’t fit anywhere. To save them, chop them up into multiple short sentences. Now you can insert them here and there as needed — or even delete.

These short sentences are also a gift for anyone who has problems with grammar or who is learning English as a second language.

The basic structure of the short sentence is the simple subject-verb- object setup. Such a clean, tangle-free format! Here’s an example:

The dog ate my homework.

Let’s analyze this example:

  • The dog is the subject of the sentence.
  • Verbs describe action. In this case, the verb is ate.
  • The object of all this activity is my homework.

 Tip #9: Show don’t tell.

Right this minute, I’m blogging at my fantastic local public library. But telling you that it’s “fantastic” is meaningless.

Everyone has a different idea of “fantastic.” In order for you to understand how I feel, I must show you:

My local library has floor-to-ceiling sunny windows that look out onto a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades Cliffs. And the wifi here is very fast. I’ve got my stuff spread out on a clean, wood table with six electrical sockets. The room is quiet and almost empty. 

Does that sound fantastic to you? Maybe yes, maybe no. But no matter what, when it comes to my library, you know exactly what I mean when I say “fantastic.”



If you like these tips, here are a few more:

Rule of 3: So many facts, so little space. How do you figure out exactly how to describe a person, place or thing? Well, pick three defining qualities. That’s all you need. I have a Rule of 3 blog post for you, right here.

Describe your story in a nut shell — or rather, make that a nut graf. I was on the phone a few minutes ago with a student who raved about the nut graf. She said it changed her writing. The student happens to be an essayist and author. So here’s the link to my nut graf post. The point of the nut graf is to capture change. What was, what’s new, what’s now.

Be concise. If you fear that you’re writing too much blah-blah, the check list in this post will help. Finally, you can free yourself from the Research Paper Mentality that infects students. No more deadly filler material in your stories!