“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” - Joan Didion, writer and journalist
From ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the 280 characters of a Tweet, the ritual of sharing stories through writing continues to be a vital component of human connection. For writers looking to connect with their readers on a deeper level, it’s imperative to learn the basics of powerful storytelling.
That’s why in Part II of this interview series, we talked to writer, editor, and writing coach Ben Riggs of Riggs Writing LLC to learn more about effective storytelling and writing techniques. In Part I, Ben shared his insight on the writing process, what it takes to “write well,” and how to get started with writing if you feel stuck.
How does storytelling relate to good writing?
Good storytellers know what it takes to connect to and keep the interest of another busy human. Storytelling requires copious amounts of thinking about how to bring a reader through an event or series of events while also informing and entertaining that reader. For short storytelling in particular, you have authors who’ve had to think long and hard about how to create worlds, dilemmas, and resolutions through a fairly narrow focus. To do so, they have to think about what will be meaningful to readers, what will keep them engaged, and what will get in their way that needs to go. Short story authors are ruthless clutter cutters. We can learn a lot from them about what makes for good writing.
Is there a specific structure or flow to compelling storytelling?
It’s an age-old question with many answers. Since the days of Aristotle, we’ve toyed with what makes for a good story, wandering into weird territories (often called literature departments) only to come back to the same “storyteller tested, listener approved” domain of appealing to human empathy to tell tales of others navigating life’s problems.
For me, before I consider what structure makes for a compelling story, I consider two variables as non-negotiable: meaning and momentum.
Good stories—like good writing—have a clear (but not painfully obvious) meaning readers can connect to that keeps them engaged through action or the sense of momentum. This is why I tell writers that keeping a reader moving (what novelist John Gardner called “profluence”) is the best way to keep a reader engaged.
How can writers connect better with their readers?
Remember that a reader is more likely to put a piece down rather than get lost, as long as the writer has done their job.
When a writer assumes a reader is always at risk of getting lost, that writer will anxiously overcompensate to keep that reader from wondering where to go between the recent period and the next capital letter. Ironically, that writer risks insulting the reader and it makes for clumsy writing. Some indicators a writer has gone this route are mile-long warm-up phrases at the beginning of sentences, painfully obvious transitions between paragraphs, and more than one parenthetical in nearly every sentence.
My advice: envision the sentence as a walking trail or path. A writer’s job is not to bludgeon the reader and drag them through the sentence. A writer’s job is to clear the path of problems to let the reader enjoy walking along at their own pace.
About Ben Riggs
Ben helps others communicate with confidence and clarity. He is a writer, editor, and writing coach in Dayton, Ohio. He's married to his wife, Emily, and is an unabashed dog dad to Lewie. He's the author of Tell Them a Story, a booklet on using narrative in everyday writing. And he posts regularly on his LinkedIn page.
About the Author
Nicole Abboud-Shayan is the Business Development Associate for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, Nicole practiced law for several years and then launched her own media and marketing company. Follow Nicole on Twitter @nicoleabboud or connect with her on LinkedIn.