It’s Not The Story, It’s How You Tell It

Any story can be fascinating. It’s true! Writers get so caught up in what kind of story to write, when they should be more interested in how to tell the story. (If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read “Fortunately, The Milk” by Neil Gaiman. It’s a children’s book, but it’s not, and it’s a case study in how the way you tell a story is far more important than the story itself.)

But don’t stop at Gaiman. In fact, I think you should read everything you can. Up to and including (and especially) the bad stuff. Read it all. If you do, you’ll start to understand that ANY story can sell if it’s told correctly, and even the most wonderful story can lose you as a reader if it’s not told in a compelling manner.

Stephen King says it best.

I have no patience with people who say they want to be writers, but don’t have time to read. If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the skills necessary to write.

That might be a slight paraphrase, but I don’t think Uncle Stevie would mind.

I’ve always thought this to be true. But today sealed the deal for me, and solidified the absolute nature of this truth in my mind.

I was reading a story. It was actually a really great story. It had a ton of potential. But about a third of the way through it, I got ready to click off the page.

Being a writer, though, I stopped and asked myself “Why am I leaving? I like the story, so why am I bored? What made me lose interest?” If you’re a writer, you should read like a writer, meaning whether a book is really doing something for you or you think a lecture on the finer points of Jenga might be more interesting, you should be asking “Why?”.

So I started thinking about it. The story was actually really good. I loved it. The idea was great, it was horror – right up my alley – and I was genuinely interested in what would happen next. So why was I so entirely bored?

It boiled down to three main things.

The Barren Planes of Tensionless Boredom 

You know those children’s books that kids love but, if you have to read it more than a few times, adults start to wish would disappear unexpectedly and mysteriously? One of the main themes is that a scenario will repeat over and over. Little Johnny Jackrabbit will be walking through the forest, looking for the basket weaving competition. (Don’t ask.) Polly the Parrot will tell say “You’re a jackrabbit, Johnny, and jackrabbits don’t weave baskets!”. Which will be followed up with “But Johnny kept going anyway.”

And you know what happens. Exactly 76 forest creatures later, all of whom say the same thing, each encounter followed by “But Johnny kept going anyway”, Johnny finds and wins the competition, you’ve successfully drilled the point through the heads of the children (and driven a drink into the hands of the adults reading it) that you’re a special snowflake, just like Johnny, and if you keep at it, no matter what anyone says, you, too, can enter and win the basket weaving competition.

Right?

Well this is charming and great when accompanied with pictures and interrupted by the adorable giggling of children. But when you’re reading a grown-up book, that kind of repetition starts to send your story somewhere you don’t ever want it to go.

The Barren Planes of Tensionless Boredom.

There is no tension involved in repeating the same kind of threat over and over if that’s all you do. It becomes predictable. Your character might face the same kinds of things – aka Harry Potter is continually tormented and must defeat Voldemort in his many forms. But there’s a WHOLE lot of crazy tension-filled glory going on around it. Which is why we all stayed up until four in the morning and shouted with glee when Dolores Umbridge finally went away. Or cried and swore aloud to Rowling when EVERY CHARACTER died in the seventh book. (Okay not every, but seriously).

If you’re not creating tension surrounding the predictable bell curves of your plot, then you’re not holding the reader. Torture thy characters!

Case Study: Once Upon a Time. It might kill me with a stroke one day, but I’ll be a happy audience when I die. *shrug*

Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn

The second thing wrong with the story was that I didn’t give a hoot about the character. The main character was described as being shy, quiet, but not really liking a whole lot of people. That was literally it. That’s all I got. No internal conflict. No moral quandaries. No tension with other characters. (In fact the only other character of any importance was a computer.) Nothing. Just a guy, doing the same thing over and over. I’m sure this guy had a really interesting past. I’m sure he was a deep character that I could have grown to love. And when he died at the end I would have been sad. But to be honest, I was just kind of glad it was over.

You MUST make readers care about your characters. You must. If they don’t care about your characters, they will leave your story and move on.

A Little Less Conversation 

The third thing I noticed that was really turning me off was the complete lack of showing and the over-abundance of telling. The whole story amounted to a summary of events. It was in third person, but I almost felt like it was in third-third person. Stephen King does an excellent job of writing in third person in such a way that you can still see through the eyes of the character. Readers should feel that they’re seeing this story through the character’s eyes, not that they’re seeing the character do things through a shiny cloud in the sky.

Unfortunately, I was on my shiny cloud, and it was starting to get foggy. I stopped caring about the story because I couldn’t connect with it.

This is what I mean.

Amy was shocked when the ghost of her mother appeared before her.

I told you Amy was shocked. I told you her mother appeared. And I used the word “when”, which is a great flag for telling instead of showing. If you’re saying “when the ghost appeared”, you’re stating that Amy should have already known this would happen. “When I had surgery a year ago,” is something you say about the past that you already know. “When I go to Disneyland on Friday” is a statement about something you already know. As the author, you know Amy’s going to see the ghost of her mother. But Amy shouldn’t know. And you should pretend not to know, either. Because if you’re going to tell the story effectively, you must be telling it through Amy’s eyes. Nobody should know about the ghost until Amy does. Here’s a way to show this scene instead of tell it.

Amy brushed her hair, allowing the repetitive motion to lull her into a sort of trance. The empty room was a perfect metaphor for her life. Barren. Worn. Past its prime. A mirror in the corner was the only other inhabitant.

She put the brush back on the vanity and turned to leave. A sudden chill graced her arm, traveling up her back, causing her to wrap her arms around herself. She looked behind her to see if she’d left the window open – and froze.

The white, misty figure before her was beautiful and terrifying all at once. It twisted and swirled and then began to form  into a recognizable shape. Features appeared, and her eyes welled with tears as the translucent woman before her smiled.

“Mother?”

Much better, yes? Try to see the story through the eyes of your POV character. If something is going to happen, great, but your readers shouldn’t know until your character does, and even using a word like “when” will sink the tension and break the spell you must have over your readers. Show, show, show.

Moral of the story: You must read in order to write, because in reading you learn what you should be doing, and, more importantly, what not to do. 

I hope this helps! Can you think of a time that reading helped you become a better writer? Share it in the comments below!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. J. Dominique says:

    I agree completely. A good plot, sound characters, and nice description!

  2. Helpful points! Thanks!!

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