This Storytelling Business

One of my goals at the start of this year was to focus on good storytelling.  What makes Harry Potter such a great story?  Why are the “Girl” books (like Girl on the Train) so universally talked about today, whether or not you love them?  Why do some books sell like hotcakes?  Why are some classics still deeply loved today by many readers, in spite of being dated?

Ten months later, I still haven’t found enough answers.  Have I been deceiving myself (my nod toward this month’s monthly theme!)?  Can such answers even be found?  Have I been chasing the holy grail?

I don’t think so.  There’s a never-ending amount of learning we have to do as writers.  The more we learn, the more there is to learn.  So, with doubts hovering over my writer’s desk, I thought it was time to attend another workshop.  Now as I type this, I have just arrived home with 20 pages of notes, single-spaced.  A few nuggets keep surfacing, catching my attention because they have to do with process and this storytelling business.  Such as…

Some tips on how to turn around all types of negative thinking:

  • Instead of thinking you “failed” because you missed a goal, take a look at how much you actually did accomplish.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, try writing down each day at the end of the day what your progress actually was that day.
  • Don’t think of the entire book you have to finish.  Think of only one scene at a time.   Take one bite of the elephant at a time.

You know you’ve created good storytelling when…

  • readers really enjoy your stories and want more of them.  And they want to learn when and where to find them.
  • writers remember to have fun.  If we’re not entertaining ourselves, how can we entertain our readers?

This is just a sample.  There’s a LOT more in my notes.  I can’t wait to practice what I’m learning!

And I’ll keep readers posted about my progress in my newsletter a couple times per year.  If you want to sign up to receive it, let me know at


12 thoughts on “This Storytelling Business”

  1. Sounds like a great workshop, Sue! I’ve really enjoyed the tidbits you’ve shared this year on what you’ve been learning about storytelling. I just added a book to my To-Read list called The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers about an algorithm to try to explain runaway best sellers. I’ll let you know if I learn anything cool when I read it! 🙂


  2. I love all your blog posts about storytelling recently. They’ve been so thoughtful and have helped me improve (or at least make a stab at it), too. And no beating yourself up either! I hate to see that! Even though I was doing the same thing yesterday. 😉


  3. Kait, me too!

    And Kate, I am definitely checking out that book! Thanks for mentioning it.

    Mary, so sorry about the exploding outline. I just had one erupt on me, too.

    Thanks, Sam. I meant to add that your mention of Grand Deception yesterday needs to go on my list of elements of good storytelling. If only we can figure out how to not give it away!


  4. I am currently listening to auidiobook by Colm Toibin, New Ways to Kill Your Mother (about writers – mostly Irish – and their families). Big names like Samuel Beckett depressed when they get writers block and/or nothing is getting published. It is the same for all of us.


  5. For some reason, TV has shown me the power of good storytelling and I’ve discovered I’m in love with certain characters and their arcs and that’s why I keep watching these shows. I’m determined to bring more character-driven storylines to my books. As for negative thinking — I have yet to find a cure for that other than booze.


  6. As a reader, I ALWAYS look for books with a story not just a crime. To me, the stories are the reason to read about the “crime.” I like novels with “stories” about the characters, what they were like before and after the event.

    I can think of lots of examples, but some that I have recently read are “The Woman in Cabin 10” by Ruth Ware, “The Darkest Secret” by Alex Marwood, “Before The Fall” by Noah Hawley, and “You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott. Each of these books has some sort of crime and tragedy, but the real “story” is about the people and how they cope. The “crime” is just a backdrop for people.

    So, dear writers, in my opinion, if you spend a lot of time on your characters and their stories, they will drive the story and the crime will just go along for the ride. If I want to read just about crime, I’ll pick up the newspaper (I’m one of the growing few who do that every day, by the way, a real newspaper on real paper.)


  7. 3 no 7 – Totally agree. I bailed on a TV series recently not because of the plot (it was intriguing and realistic), but because the characters felt flat and cardboard to me.

    Sue, they blow up all the time. I’ve tried it a few times now and I really don’t know why I keep trying.


  8. I love going to workshops and conferences to refill my writing cup. I firmly believe that even if you heard the same presentation by the same presenter every year for ten years, you’d come away with something new every time because each time, you’ll hear what you need to hear at that moment on your journey.

    And I agree that TV helps me see story and character arcs. I think it’s easier to see than in a book. More immediacy, perhaps?


  9. Coming to the party late, and all I’m adding is a w00-hoo for caring about characters. As far as I’m concerned, they drive the plot. Well, except for when I’m being especially cruel to them. Then the plot kind of drives the characters… for a scene or two.

    Great post!


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