Starting Over – Figuring Out How to Tell Stories

I started writing a little over six years ago. I’m taking it seriously, and I have dreams and ambitions for what I want to achieve, but for the time being it’s mainly a hobby. It’s fun, but I want to take it further, and I’m trying to figure out how to get there.

Today I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about myself, where I am at the moment, what I want to achieve, and how I hope to do it.

Now

I’m a good writer, at least when it comes to word crafting – putting words on a page. Prose. I do prose well. I write great descriptions and snappy dialogue. I create believable characters and intricate worlds.

Unfortunately, I’m no good at storytelling.

Now, this isn’t a low-confidence issue where I don’t feel like my stories are good enough. It’s a case of me not being able to apply my knowledge of story structure, reader expectations, and genre conventions in an efficient and reliable way. In short, I don’t have enough experience telling stories to do it well.

How come?

If I’ve been writing for six years I should have picked up a bit of experience along that way, right? Shouldn’t I have learned something? Well, I have. I’ve learned a lot of things, but when it comes to storytelling I haven’t learned enough. For the longest time I focused all of my attention on improving other parts of my writing.

My main focus was on the technical aspect – making the words go, as it were.

I’m originally Swedish, and English isn’t my native language. When I got into writing my main focus was on writing good prose: easily readable, grammatically correct, accessible.

I didn’t want anyone to notice that English wasn’t my first language. I never talked about it, and I spent a lot of effort making sure the language barrier didn’t put any obstacles between the reader and the story. This is still important to me, but over the years it’s become a lot easier, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my voice.

Another priority of mine is immersion. I want to create living, breathing worlds, with characters that feel real and believable. I want readers to feel like the setting I’ve created could be a real place that they’d like to visit, and the people in it real people they could meet and have a cup of tea with – or a pint of beer.

The writing of descriptions has been a big focus of mine. How to do it efficiently, without letting the words get in the way of the imagery they invoke. If you click on my name at the top of the page you can see I’ve written several articles about that in the past.

Unfortunately, I haven’t finished all that many stories.

I wrote a novel. It’s very long and it took over a year and it needs so much editing that I’m better off just rewriting the whole thing from scratch. I wrote a novella, and after two years it’s finally nearing completion. I’ve written a few short stories, and I’ve started (and abandoned) a few bigger projects.

I believe that one of the best ways to learn how to do something is to do it. The results may not be very good the first time around, but you do it anyway, and then you try again, and again, and again. That’s how you gain experience. Every new attempt may not be an improvement over the last, but with time and repetition you slowly get better.

It’s got to be done though, and I can’t just sit around polishing descriptions and dialogue if I want to improve my storytelling. I have to write and finish stories, and that’s what I intend to do.

The Future

What do I want to achieve?

I’m happy enough writing for myself, but ultimately I want others to read and enjoy what I’m doing. I write to be read. It’s really that simple.

There are stories I want to tell, about characters I love, in a setting I have created, and I want to share all of that with the rest of the world. To do that, I need to figure out how to write my stories in such a way that people enjoy reading them.

Just like I’ve got a handle on writing easily accessible prose I need to figure out what makes a story flow. I need to better understand story, and I need to understand how readers relate to it.

If words are bricks, then story is a house. Right now I can stack bricks in intricate ways to make beautiful walls, but I don’t yet have the skills to build a house someone would want to live in. It’s time I get some decent tools and learn how to use them.

How to get there?

So I have a goal, and I know where I’m starting from, but how do I get from where I am to where I want to be?

I’ve got a two step plan:

  1. Write more and shorter stories.
  2. Stop trying to be fancy.

The first one is easy. I already mentioned earlier how I believe in learning by doing. I also believe in repetition as a way to improve. By writing, and finishing, more and shorter stories I hope to gain the storytelling experience I need.

My plan until just recently was to begin a new novel – a big one. Knowing me it’d take me a year just to write the first draft. The story is a mix between urban and epic fantasy, and it’s about a man who decides to drop everything and go find the woman he loved when he was young. It involves tons of traveling, a lot of complications, and several different viewpoint characters.

It’d be a cool project to do, and I think it’d make for an awesome story, but it’s too big. Several hundred thousand words, and a huge time investment for anyone to read. It’d be a nightmare just trying to get feedback on a story that long.

I could do it, but it wouldn’t be much of a learning experience as far as storytelling goes. It’d take ages to complete, and even if I did manage to get someone to read it and provide feedback, it’d still be only just one story – or mess of intertwined stories.

Sure, I’d learn things, but not the kind of things I’m hoping to learn.

What I’ve decided to do is split the entire thing up into multiple shorter stories. Going over the outline of the novel I identified twelve different events that are interesting enough in their own right to work as short stories or novellas.

All of a sudden I have loads of stories to write, and I’ll get to tell the original story I wanted to tell too. Instead of one massive undertaking I’ve got a series of smaller projects to work on.

It’ll be easier to get feedback, and with the more limited scope of each story it’ll be easier to identify and address any issues with them – for there will certainly be issues. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t need to learn.

This bring us to the second step of my plan: Stop trying to be fancy.

I have a tendency to complicate things for myself. I want to feel special, and I want to try out new and interesting things that no one else does. I like to experiment.

It’s good fun, and I’ve learned a thing or too about writing through experimentation. Unfortunately, it’s all fairly specialised knowledge, like four-act structure, or how to mix past and present tense voice in a story. Neat tricks, but not basic skills.

I know about three act story structure, tropes, reader expectations, and all that, but only in theory. I’ve never really used them. I need to stop messing around with fancy toys and get to know the basic tools of the trade. Once I know them, I can get back to tinkering with the details.

This is what my series of shorter stories is for.

I’ll stick to a simply story structure, and I’ll use established tropes. I’ll try to conform to expectations. Most of all I’ll try my best to write a plain and simple story without any quirky twists or turns.

That doesn’t mean I won’t use my own voice, or that I won’t write my own stories. I just want to try and not reinvent the wheel all the time.

I don’t mind putting on some fancy new hub caps though – but that’s a different story.

Final Words

That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my journey towards becoming a better storyteller. I’ve figured out what I need to improve, and I’ve got a plan for how to do it:

  1. Write more and shorter stories.
  2. Keep it simple. Seriously!

What’s your take on this? Have you found yourself in a similar situation where you find you need to take some sort action to take your writing to the next level? What did you do, and how did it work?

How did you get to where you are today, and where do you want to go?

Nils Ödlund is a writing and fantasy enthusiast. He’s currently chipping away at a series of novellas about the adventures of two shape shifters and a paladin, while at the same time trying to crack the secrets of storytelling. Ödlund lives in Cork, Ireland. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the countryside on foot, and when the weather gets too bad he’ll stay home and play games on the computer (or write some more). You can follow Ödlund on his blog (link just above) where he mostly posts pictures of coffee, beer, and the Irish countryside, as well as the occasional update on his writing progress.

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R Snyder
Guest

Another Nils article and one, like the others above, I really relate to on many levels. But I have questions. And first:

Writing when English is a second language. If I had that as an obstacle, I would not be writing. Not in English anyway. I commend you for overcoming that barrier successfully.

Now to storytelling. Did you read (extensively or otherwise) growing up? Do you continue to read? Do you watch movies? Surely you have come across some stories, large or small, that had an effect on you, right? And have you thought about the ‘why’ of it? What is your favorite story and what about it moves you? And then why are the stories that you have in hand problematic?

You mentioned an idea about a man who drops everything to set out and find the woman he loved when he was young. That’s a great premise. But why does it have to be several hundred thousand words long? And very complex? Those are (huge) self imposed obstacles and likely stem from your desire to create worlds for people to visit and explore and I understand that. But consider that you can do that, tell that story, say, in a hundred and fifty thousand words — not as a target, a goal, but let’s say you begin to write and that’s where you end up.

I’ve never been able to complete even one Lord of the Rings books. To me, world building is highly overrated, and I think that you can create a world in someone’s head by letting them do most of the heavy lifting. Give them enough detail and allow them to imagine the rest of it. The real thing is the story. How is this guy going to find the woman. What’s in his way, what lies unknown to him; maybe she’s already dead but he doesn’t find out until the end and so on.

Maybe you know all of this but still, you struggle with how to tell the story. My last thought would be maybe you’re not the writer you envision yourself to be. Maybe if you downscale what you want to do — build worlds or whatever and just focus on the story, the characters, you’ll find your way to books that people will want to read; short or long.

Grace Allison
Guest

Writing is a lonely job. So I would suggest you connect with other writers either on-line or near your home. I think you will find synergy when you are around members of the writing tribe.

Have an inspired day. Connect with me on Twitter @gracethemystic.

Joe
Guest

Thank you, Nils, I really needed that. I enjoyed the story of your history as a writer. It is the same for native speakers as well. I hadn’t used grammar rules for forty five years when I chose to sit and write instead of going insane in forced retirement. My journey is only four years old and I have learned or relearned grammar, read a library full of how to books and I have improved. I stubbornly refuse the need for an outline and here I am 600,000 words later and I’m looking for the name of that girl in chapter two.
One little misstep!!
I hope you continue to have fun writing and enjoy the Irish terrain. I was there for the month of August last year. If I were or when I become single again, I’m moving there. I can see writing my book and heading for the coast for inspiration. Good luck and for sure, have fun

Caroline
Guest

Reading your article was like reading about myself. English is my second language and like you I have decided to dedicate most of my time to perfecting short stories before I attempt to write another novel. Splitting the concept into shorts is a great idea. I wish you the very best.

Vincent Lakes
Guest

What an excellent article. Deep bow for taking the step to write in your second language. I spent 6 years to expand my English vocabulary to feel comfortable enough to write in English – Finnish being my native language. It took me 12 years to take my beloved hobby to a level where I began to dream about being published. I have my first manuscript of a novel flying out to agents right now, and what a ride it has been, so never give up and keep dreaming because you just never know when they may come true.

Short stories are a great way to hone your craft. I made mine acting as exercises concentrating on a specific aspect of writing: different types of narratives (1st person / 3rd person), environment descriptions, dialogue, even detailed descriptions of different feelings (joy, sorrow, pain, etc), and slowly I found myself improving in each area. I still like to do this with short stories if the idea supports a certain style of writing. It helps you to get deeper and gain a stronger voice as a writer.

Thank you for this article. It’s a great read.

Alexandra Butcher
Guest

When I read some of my early stuff I cringe. I think storytelling can be learned. Short stories are a good place to start.

TA Sullivan
Guest

Rather than turn your 12 events into novellas, you could just as easily call them books for an overall series.

As for the art of storytelling, I believe you’re on the right path. For me, I read books to see how other authors told their stories, I wrote short stories by the dozens (I then used that skill to craft chapters in my books), and I went to see story tellers perform (libraries, Medieval Faires, on stage, and comedy clubs–yes, comedy clubs. Many oral artists start out with humor.

Ruru
Guest

Thanks Nils. Your article made for very interesting reading, and has taken me down an intriguing, if terrifying path.
I am a hobby writer, I’ve been writing for years, and all on the same story. It was never supposed to be a big story, but the more I wrote, the more I read things that inspired me, the more convoluted the story became. The world is well developed, I now have two main characters and a host of support characters, many different cultures and races. Even after my most recent edit, I’ve reached one hundred thousand words and there is a lot more plot to go.
After reading your article I am wondering if a better way to go forward, and as you say, learn more, is to break this story into smaller sections, instead of the four book behemoth it is turning out to be.
This is a terrifying concept, but I do have a tenancy to stall while writing, even when I known where I am writing to. Perhaps having shorter goals to aim at will help.
Thanks!

Gabriella L. Garlock
Guest

Hah! I find myself in YOUR situation: I have about the same skill sets and weaknesses. I like to build worlds, to describe, and very much like to create characters and learning arcs for them and dialogues among their various beliefs and world views. I even find fore-shadowing second nature. But in spite of that, I struggle to create interesting plots, twists and turns and pacing.

I know that it can be learned, but I envy those writers who have the opposite strengths and challenges.

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