10 eye-opening tips to add impact to your storytelling

2013-04-29-eye2When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.

1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity

When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)

2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader

Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.

3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans

You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.

 4 Show not tell

Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.

5 Decide what you want to emphasise

Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.

6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age

You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.

7  Home isn’t just a geographical location

It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.

8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character

A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.

9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene

Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.

10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone

Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.

3 nynsPsst…. all these points are discussed at greater length in the Nail Your Novel books.

Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?




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  1. #1 by Beth Honeycutt on August 7, 2016 - 7:06 pm

    Roz, thank you for tips that consistently hammer in those nails that help us perfect our craft. I return to an active voice when I write, as my first draft comes out in a passive voice. I try not to let that stop the flow as I write, yet I am aware of the power in the voice we give to each character. Thank you again for the tips!

  2. #3 by Kim Knight_Author (Romance/Suspense & Crime Fiction Writer) on August 7, 2016 - 8:01 pm

    Thank you for the great tips!

  3. #5 by jrhandleyblog on August 8, 2016 - 3:20 am

    Great tips, thanks for the article!!

  4. #7 by Keith Dixon on August 8, 2016 - 10:45 am

    The point about not creating a passive main character is interesting. I’m currently writing about someone who gets ‘drawn into’ a bad crowd, though he’s not a bad person himself. So trying to show him being sucked into their environment – passively – and then being an active player in other areas of his life, and later in the story, is an interesting technical challenge!

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 8, 2016 - 12:29 pm

      Hi Keith! That’s a nice example. A quiet person might be pulled into trouble, as you say, but they then need to take some initiative. It sounds as though you’re well aware of the dangers. Have fun!

  5. #9 by Erzabet Bishop on August 8, 2016 - 11:54 am

    Reblogged this on erzabetbishop and commented:
    Some great advice.

  6. #11 by Carol Riggs on August 8, 2016 - 6:02 pm

    Super tips! I am running my WIP through the sieve of this info! 🙂

  7. #13 by Don Massenzio on August 8, 2016 - 8:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  8. #14 by Dawn Ross on August 9, 2016 - 2:57 pm

    Since I do deep PoV, I tend not to describe my characters much. But you make an excellent point that I should at least try to convey their age. Great tips overall!

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 10, 2016 - 7:14 pm

      Nice point, dawn – we don’t have to describe every toenail! But some details are more necessary than others.

  9. #16 by DRMarvello on August 9, 2016 - 10:06 pm

    Great tips. I don’t think I’d add any, but I’d expand on #7 regarding geographical locations.

    A writer friend of mine once told me that every location has its own personality. Perhaps that gestalt comes from a sum of the location’s unique characteristics. In any case, characters react to each location differently, based on their own history. Capturing the character’s reaction to a location (or individual elements of that location) is even better than describing the place in detail when it comes to helping readers get a feel for the story world.

    In a sense, prominent locations in the story world are characters themselves. Some visitors will love them and some will hate them. Knowing *why* characters feel the way they do helps us describe a location with adjectives that do more than state the facts. For example, you probably wouldn’t use the word “dingy” when describing a palace unless the palace is in a state of disrepair. I think filtering a description through the emotions of the character making the observations really adds depth to a scene.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 11, 2016 - 5:34 am

      Ooh, nice point about geographical locations, Daniel! And they’re more than just a physical space. They’re history. They can be like weather, full of associations and emotional effects.

  10. #18 by Loren Killdeer on August 12, 2016 - 5:44 pm

    Simply awesome blog and awesome tips. I’m just starting, or kind of starting, but I can swear that sometimes I’m all doubts and less expressing!

    Thanks a lot for the help with these advises!

  11. #20 by rajivbakshi on August 30, 2016 - 5:34 pm

    Great tips .

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