The Power of a Storyteller

The difference between a great story and one that is forgettable is the author’s ability to tell a story with their writing.

Some of the most successful novels ever written capture the reader on the first page; often with the opening sentence. Here are a few examples from the article listing the top 100 best opening lines from the America Book Review:

  • Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice(1813)
  • Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

However, sitting down at your computer, tablet or pad of paper and trying to come up with a great story may seem impossible. How could you ever write another Tale of Two Cities or Invisible Man or Good Night Moon?

Pixar, the maker of such classic animated movies as Toy Story, Cars and Brave offer up 22 great tips for storytelling using their own personal success as a measurement. Tips such as:

  • Keep in mind what is interesting to an audience, not what is fun to do as a writer.
  • Come up with your ending before you write the middle – endings are hard!
  • Give us a reason to root for the characters.
  • If you were the character, how would you feel, how would you react? Honesty lends credibility.

Steven James, an author with Writer’s Digest offers up 3 Secrets to Great Storytelling. In the article he goes into great detail with each of the techniques, offering examples and explaining the process. One of his tips is to keep the story moving forward, rather than filling your tale with back history and dream sequences, keep a forward motion to your plot:

IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION. 

At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation.

Tension drives a story forward. When tension is resolved, the momentum of the story is lost. I’ve heard writing instructors differentiate between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories, but the truth is that neither character nor plot really drives a story forward—only unmet desire does.

You might include page after page of interesting information about your character, but that won’t move the story along; it’ll cause it to stall out. Until we know what the character wants, we don’t know what the story is about, and we won’t be able to worry or care about whether or not the character’s desires are eventually met.

happy birthday moonThis idea of escalation is not just for adult fiction but also great children’s literature. I am reminded of the book by Frank Asch, Happy Birthday Moon in which a bear is talking to the moon, believing his echo is the moon’s response. The story moves forward to a wonderful ending in which the moon receives the bear’s hat as a birthday gift.

As you write your book, keep in mind the audience and put yourself in the role of storyteller. Remember those days in pre-school when you’d gather with your friends on the rug and the teacher would still on a stool and tell you a story. You’d lean forward in anticipation; you’d gasp with delight or fear as the characters stumbled through one circumstance after another.

Your readers want to feel that same excitement and anticipation with your story. You have the power to take your readers away to different places, times and circumstances with your words. As a writer you have great power; will you use it for good???