Telling Stories: Tips for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers

After years of writing both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve come to believe that the term, “storyteller,” best fits what I do. Sometimes I tell stories about things that really happened in my life, sometimes I tell stories about things that really happened but with a healthy dose of invention added to the tale, and sometimes I make everything up by using my imagination. The point is that no matter the approach I take to the material at hand, I’m always relying on the tools of the storyteller to construct an interesting narrative. If I do it well, the story will also take me to a place in which I know something I didn’t before the telling began.

I’d like to look, then, at a few tools in that storyteller’s toolbox that he or she can’t do without. Whether you like to think of yourself as a writer of fiction or nonfiction, here are some techniques that should serve you well.

The Art of the Scene

Your first task as a storyteller is to persuade a reader. In both fiction and nonfiction, we have to convince readers that what’s happening on the page is authentic. We do that through the well-constructed scene. String enough well-constructed scenes together in a causal sequence and you’ll invite your readers to exist within that realm. What sort of material deserves the space that a scene allows? Moments made up of contradictions and turns, moments unlike other moments, moments that shake a character in some way or the other until they’re slightly different at the end than they were at the beginning.

The Art of the Detail

A combination of sensory details can fully immerse readers in a scene and establish a writer’s authority. Readers are more willing to trust and follow a writer when they feel that the writer has a great deal of confidence in what he or she is portraying on the page. Scenes need to happen in specific locales; otherwise they can seem not to have happened at all. Sensory details are the tools of the trade that the writer uses to convince us that something really happened. A carefully chosen detail can also provide an indirect path toward what the writer has come to say. Don’t say, “I’m going to write a story of the loss of faith.” Instead, ala Flannery O’Connor, in “Good Country People,” say, “I’m going to write about a woman with a wooden leg. I’m going to see where that leg might take me.”

The Art of Characterization

Characters are interesting when they’re made up of contradictions. It’s those contradictions and the writer who recognizes them that create the most memorable characters in works of fiction and nonfiction. If we give our characters’ free will—if we don’t fully know them too soon—they can take us to some interesting places that can either illuminate or complicate, or do both things at once, the thrust of the our exploration of any particular subject. Our characters have to be able to surprise us, and the plot of a good story usually puts enough pressure on them until they can’t help but reveal who they really are. “The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy,” Chekhov writes in “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” A good story doesn’t allow that secrecy to stand. A good story strips it away and leaves the character, to borrow from Woody Allen, without feathers.

The Art of Point of View

A good story locates itself within a particular consciousness. The interior journey of a point of view character provides an arc that co-exists with the arc of the narrative. Readers want to not only know what happened but to also know the person who lived through the experience. It’s the combination of the two that lends the narrative its significance.

The Art of Language

Mavis Gallant, in her brief essay about style in writing, says, “The only question worth asking about a story—or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall—is, “Is it dead or alive.” A piece breathes life, in part, from the style in which the writer has chosen to bring it to the page.  As Gallant goes on to point out, “If a work of the imagination needs to be coaxed into life, it is better scrapped and forgotten.” Style, she says, should never be separate from structure, by which I take it to mean that the manner of telling should always be in the service of what’s being told. Put another way, style is part of the form, and the form and the content and the meaning must be part of the same whole in order for the writer to say what he or she has come to the page to say. Style has always seemed like an instinctual matter to me. A voice emanating from the world of the work, a world the writer knows so well, he or she can’t help but speak its language. It’s amazing how an intimate knowledge of that world can make all sorts of decisions for a writer. Know your worlds and everything falls into place, including the style of the writing. Prose writers, don’t think that language is only the domain of the poets. Pay attention to sentence variety, word choice, prose rhythm, the sounds of words, metaphor, pacing, and the next thing you know, you’ll be stylin’!

To sum up, we tell stories because narrative allows us to make the lived life vivid to the readers, thereby convincing them that they share in the human experience being portrayed. We tell stories as a way of thinking through dramatization. From biblical parables, through Aesop’s fables, to Grimm’s fairy tales and beyond, people have hungered for narrative, not only as entertainment or a record of events, but also because it is through story that we often explore what we don’t know and find what we didn’t know we were seeking. A teacher of mine used to say that a good short story led to a moment of surprise, which he defined as “more truth than we think we have a right to know.” The same holds true for a good piece of nonfiction. As we read, we participate in the writer’s attempt to find what he or she didn’t know when first coming to the page. Narrative is the art of constructing visual images, scenes if you will, that make a dream world for the readers and that require those readers’ participation in the intellectual and emotional life of the story. A good story, then, dramatizes, explores, illuminates. Characters move through time and space, and are profoundly changed because of the journey.


By | 2013-10-14T09:17:36+00:00 October 14th, 2013|Uncategorized|4 Comments

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  1. Bren McClain October 14, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Lee, you gave me a real gift this day — reminding me of this: “As we read, we participate in the writer’s attempt to find what he or she didn’t know when first coming to the page.” I am beginning my next tale, so I am starting with what I “think” I know about Eula Bates. Mercy, I am so looking forward to finding out what I don’t know. Thanks!

    • Lee Martin October 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm - Reply

      Bren, how exciting that you’re already on to the next tale. May Eula Bates bless you along your new journey.

  2. stuart rose October 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Lee. This post will certainly help everyone out in need of it.
    For me, it’s a nice follow-up gift to your response to me last week.
    Some moments in a non-fiction piece, plenty of them perhaps, require nothing more than a vivid, summary-like recounting. Speedy narratives, Jeff Gundy calls them. We do scenes, however, when contradiction lurks or the characters are different at the end.

    • Lee Martin October 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks for leaving your comment, Stuart. Jeff Gundy is a wise man. . . and, I’m told, often speedy! A scene should give a crucial moment the space and the dramatization that it deserves.

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