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?