30 Tips to Write a Story

updated on 18 November 2021

#1 The beginning

The Internet is full of forums where people tell their stories. These are gold mines to find ideas.

Stories begin with ideas. An idea can be very small. It can be a feeling, an image. Some moment of the story from the beginning, middle, or end. Two characters talking.

You know something is going on, but is that enough to start a story? Have faith in yourself as a writer. You need no credentials other than faith.

#2 Develop writing habits

Find a reliable workspace that's free of distractions.

Read as many books as you possibly can. Dissect the stories you love. Try to figure out what makes you love them. Your ears are your best guide. Train your ear to hear what every character is saying in a story. The more you read, the better you write. 

Write regularly. Create a ritual of drafting and revising. Come up with a target number of hours you'll put in. 

A page a day is a book a year.

#3 Choose a genre and theme

Understand what genre your story lives in - mystery, thriller, fantasy, inspirational, romance, sci-fi, and so on.

Come up with a theme like homelessness, mental health, people falling through the cracks, good vs evil, and so on.

Stories must have a focus, which means that at the highest level, it's about one theme.

#4 Feel excited

Make sure both the genre and theme excite you intellectually and emotionally.

#5 Be curious

The more you stoke your curiosity, the better the writer you'll be. Be alert to the common place, the ordinary.

Make up stories about people around you. Have a notebook and fill it up with overheard conversations. Try to bring together two disparate ideas.

#6 Dream about the story

Keep asking yourself, what's the story? As you live with this question, you slowly see it unfold.

#7 And then what happened

The "what's going to happen" game is the game you play as a writer with your readers. That's what keeps them turning the pages. Things they don't know. Things they need to find out.

#8 Tolerate not knowing

Great problems not clever solutions make for great stories. The longer you can be with the unresolved thing, the more beautifully it'll resolve itself.

#9 Create tension

As the story progresses, ramp up the tension. A gradual discovery process sustains arousal and engagement.

#10 Reinforce the themes

Repeat the same message in as many different ways as you can.

For example, the theme could be 'things are not what they appear to be.' Reinforce this by giving a 100 different examples.

#11 Add a clock

Add a clock into your story. A good clock limits time and so heightens tension.

A clock can come in many forms. In the story of the Titanic, the voyage is the clock.

#12 Show not tell

Don't use dialogue to further a plot. Depict it in a scene.

Underscore every dialogue with a gesture. It's a subtle effect, but it works. Focus on the physical sensations of your characters.

Make a list of all wordless gestures you use everyday - thumbs up, thumb and index finger ok sign, knocking your fist on forehead lightly to recall something, clutching your heart, the index finger held vertically on the lip for hush up, the hooked come-here finger. That way, you'll always be aware of the variety of gestures you can incorporate into dialogue. 

#13 Play with textures

You have three types of textures - descriptions, instructions, and exclamations. Descriptions combined with occasional instructions and punctuated with sound effects for exclamation - that's how people talk. Good writing mixes all these three types of textures to create a natural conversational style.

The shift from a moment-to-moment description to an instruction-aside creates tension because it cuts away from the action for a beat, and boom we're back in the description of events.

#14 Make promises

You can, if you like, summarize the upcoming plot right at the beginning. It tells the reader what to expect. Freeing their mind to indulge in the emotion of a story.

#15 Mix points of view

In conversation, we switch between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person points of view. The constant shift controls the intimacy and authority of your story.

"I" walked - 1st person carries authority, "You" walked, the 2nd person addresses the listeners and enlists them, the shift to the 3rd person controls the pace "nobody walks."

#16 Say who said what

Don't confuse the reader by leaving out who's saying what.

You want your reader to feel smart. Smarter than your main character.

#17 Imply passing of time

You can announce the time, depict some activities, then give the time. Boring! Instead, list the activities task after task and then suddenly arrive at the street lights blinking on or a chorus of mothers calling their kids to dinner.

You can also consider a montage. For example, describe a road trip, giving a quirky detail about what happened in each passing city. When the montage ends, the reader comes to a scene but with a sense that a considerable amount of time has passed.

Another way is intercutting, end one scene and jump to a flashback, alternating between the past and present. When you jump back to the present you don't have to arrive back at the time that you had left off. Fudge time, implying its passed. 

Or intercut between characters. As each character meets an obstacle, jump to a different character. Every jump moves the story forward in time. When you intercut between characters, the reader gets time away from each one. 

#18 Add lists

Lists break up a page visually. Use it to force the reader to really read word-by-word.

#19 Make up rules

Don't shy away from inventing rules or rituals in your story.

Readers love structure and rules. Establish the rules and begin to repeat them. Rules are the framework in which characters can feel confidant. They know how to behave so they relax and begin to reveal themselves.

#20 Don't paraphrase

When you paraphrase someone you distance and diminish them. Conversely, when you put a character's dialogue in quotes, you give a character a greater sense of reality. Put everyone's dialogue in quotes except the narrators.

#21 Get the small stuff right

A minute mistake can destroy all believability.

The first is 'head authority' where you tell your readers something they don't know. The second is 'heart authority' where a character says some emotional truth or commits an act that shows great vulnerability or says an awful truth. For example, a character kills a dog when it manifests rabies.

A wise intuitive observation conveys more power than all the facts in Wikipedia. 

#22 Experience the character

Instead of writing about a character, write from within a character. Tell your stories not just through your characters eyes and mind but through their skin, their guts, the bottoms of their feet. 

With a little practice, you'll begin to see the world via the character's eyes and the descriptions will come naturally to you.

Use language that only that character would use. Each character has their own wardrobe of phrases and slang. Make sure you give your best lines to the main character.

#23 Add surprises

Readers value surprise above all else in a story. 

You start with what the reader does know and move in baby steps toward what the reader doesn't know. Walk the reader from the believable to the incredible.

#24 Make things rhyme

Don't think of rhymes as being childish, they are very effective to drive home a point.

Your message goes down a little more easily. Rhymes makes it easier to absorb and more likely to be believed.

So deploy a rhyme, from time to time. 

#25 Make it yours

No matter how original your story plot is, someone somewhere has already written it. There's no new story. What's new is your perspective of it.

Your story is your moment of truth. It's your opportunity to be real.

#26 Write with your other hand

When you write with your non-dominant hand, you might come up with words you don't normally use. The style of writing might feel different.

You might get insights that might surprise you. You might write more creatively and become more emotionally expressive and intuitive.

#27 Ending the story

Endings should help energize and elevate. Pay attention to endings because that's how readers are going to remember the entire story. Bring your story to a messy noisy chaotic climax that's both surprising and inevitable.

#28 Perform a pre-mortem

Post mortem is after a person dies, figuring out what caused the death. Pre-mortem is evaluating possible ways of dying while still alive.

Think of everything that could have gone wrong with your story and then make sure you fix them.

Like Hemingway said, "write the best story you can and throw out all the good lines." Anything that's not the plot, throw it away.

#29 Reflect on your writing

If you ever want to look back and ask "did I do a good job writing"? You can break it up into three zones;

  • Here's what I want to communicate.
  • Here's what I did communicate.
  • Here's what I should have communicated.

When all three of these match up, you're good. 

#30 Be yourself

As you progress in your journey as a writer you'll become more yourself. That's the path for every writer. There's no way you can write like somebody else or fill somebody else's shoes. You be you because nobody else can write what you're trying to say in the way that you say it. Trust your intuition. Trust yourself.

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