Everyone has a story to tell.
It might be a real-world story that changed your life, like a meaningful experience you had when you were a child.
Or it might be a fictional story spun entirely from your own imagination, like a fantasy novel or a rom-com screenplay.
No matter what kinds of stories you’re hoping to write, there are certain storytelling principles that can help you communicate your tale in a powerful and convincing way.
In this article, we’ll give you our top ten tips for how to write a story that resonates with readers.
What Is a Story?
We all know what a story is. After all, we encounter stories every day.
We consume stories in books, movies, newspapers, advertisements, and songs. We hear real-world stories from our friends, family members, and coworkers.
The dictionary definition of a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events.” But we all know there’s more to it than that.
One particularly powerful definition is from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story. Truby writes, “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.”
From this definition, you can see that stories are fundamentally driven by their characters. A laundry list of events that happened doesn’t really feel like a story—the chain of events only becomes a story when you understand the “why” that caused those events.
When we consume stories, we learn about how different people handle different circumstances. Stories can entertain us, teach us, and help us relate to new ideas and experiences.
Different Types of Stories
There are so many different types of stories, and they can be classified in several different ways. Here are a few examples:
- Fiction vs nonfiction: Some stories are made up while others are based on real-world events
- Format: Stories can be told in different formats, such as novels, short stories, flash fiction, plays, movies, songs, television shows, and more
- Genre: Stories can be classified by genre, such as romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and more
- Style: Stories can have many different styles, such as realist, romantic, or modernist
- Point of view: Stories can be told from different points of view, such as first person (told from the perspective of a character in the story) or third person (told from the perspective of an outside observer)
One story can belong to several different categories at the same time. For example, a true crime TV show counts as nonfiction, belongs to the crime genre, and fits the TV show format.
10 Tips for How to Write a Story that Resonates
Now that we’ve discussed what a story is, it’s time to learn how to write a good one. Here are our top ten tips for writing a great story.
Tip 1: Start with an Idea that Excites You
If you’re not excited about your story idea, no one else will be, either.
Besides, it’s much easier to write a good story if you’re passionate about your story ideas. The story writing process often takes several months or even several years, so you need enough motivation to keep you going.
When you have an initial idea, make it even stronger by emphasizing the parts of it that excite you.
Which parts of the story idea hook you in? Is it the character arc of someone who has to learn an important lesson? Is it a beautiful or unique setting? Is it an intense or thrilling conflict?
At the same time, look for any aspects of the idea that don’t excite you so you can strengthen or remove them. Can you make the conflict more exciting? Can you choose a more interesting setting?
The more excited you feel when you start writing, the more likely you’ll be able to finish the writing process with a story that you love.
Tip 2: Know Your Audience
Your favorite movie might not be your grandma’s favorite movie.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that either you or your grandma have bad taste in movies—it just means that different stories appeal to different audiences. In fact, it’s impossible to find a story that everyone in the world likes.
When you’re telling a story, it’s important to figure out your target audience and what they want to see.
How old is your ideal reader? What topics and philosophical questions do they find interesting? How long is their attention span? Which novels, films, and TV shows do they enjoy?
Knowing the audience you’re writing for can help you make the right choices, such as deciding what tone to use and how long to make your story.
Tip 3: Develop Your Characters
Character development is essential in fiction writing.
Take the time to think about your characters’ personalities, motivations, goals, and fears. You need readers to relate to your characters and to feel invested in what happens to them.
You should know what each character wants and why they desire it before you even begin to write the first draft. What is it that each character desires most in the world? What do they fear the most?
Remember that each character sees themselves as the main character of their own story, even if they’re just a side character in the story you’re writing. Make sure they all have their own goals and motivations, and keep those goals in mind as you’re writing the story.
Tip 4: Establish a High-Stakes Conflict
A good story needs conflict to create tension and keep the reader engaged.
Many amateur writers assume that the word “conflict” refers to bad things happening to the main character, but conflict is actually much more specific than that. You can’t just throw in a bad hair day and call it conflict.
The real meaning of conflict is any obstacle that the main character faces while trying to achieve their goals.
For example, if there are no goals involved, a bad hair day is just a bad hair day. But if the main character is a fashion model trying to land a lucrative modeling job, and they need their hair to look good in order to get the job, then the bad hair day becomes a real conflict.
If your conflict doesn’t feel interesting enough, you can raise the stakes. Maybe the character needs to get the modeling job so she can afford to pay for her dad’s heart surgery. Now, the bad hair day matters much more than it did before because her dad’s life could be at risk if she fails.
The higher the stakes are, the stronger the conflict will be, and the more invested the reader will feel.
There are seven types of conflict: character vs character, character vs self, character vs society, character vs fate, character vs nature, character vs supernatural, and character vs technology.
Tip 5: Choose a Compelling Setting
The setting of your story can help you create the right atmosphere.
On a large scale, your setting might refer to the country your characters live in and the decade the story is set in.
On a smaller scale, your setting might refer to the specific apartment your character lives in and the time of day a scene takes place.
The more unique you can make your setting, the more interesting the rest of the story will become. For example, a conversation that happens in a coffeeshop in the middle of the afternoon might feel more interesting if it takes place in a cemetery at night, even if it’s the exact same conversation.
You can even treat the setting as a character in its own right. For example, in horror stories that include a haunted house, the house often acts as an antagonist with its own desires and goals.
Tip 6: Show, Don’t Tell
The renowned Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
If you “tell” someone about what’s happening in your story, they’ll simply understand a summary of the story.
On the other hand, if you “show” someone the story through actions, sensations, and other descriptive language, they’ll feel like they experienced that event alongside the characters.
Showing has a lot of benefits. It can engross your readers, convey more depth, and make your story feel more immersive.
If you’re not sure how to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, start by trying to use all five senses when describing your scene. What is the main character seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching?
ProWritingAid’s Sensory Report can help you make sure you’re using all five senses in your writing. The tool highlights words that relate to the senses, such as “bitter” for taste or “silence” for sound, so you can see how well you’re “showing” instead of “telling.”
Tip 7: Learn Story Structure
Different formats of stories have different structures. For example, many plays, films, and novels follow a three-act structure that suggests placing specific plot points, or “story beats,” at specific points in the story.
If you’re writing a short story, on the other hand, you have much less room, so you don’t need to hit a lot of different story beats to create a story arc. Most of the time, you only need two major story beats: the inciting incident and the climax.
You don’t necessarily need to create a story outline in advance if you don’t enjoy the outlining process. However, you do need to understand how to create a satisfying story arc.
A great way to start learning story structure is by studying three-act structure, because it’s a simple option that follows your intuitive understanding of a story’s beginning, middle, and end.
Tip 8: Explore a Thematic Question
Many stories raise interesting philosophical questions.
You can explore your theme through your protagonist’s character arc by having them struggle with that question throughout the movie.
For example, the protagonist of the movie Whiplash is Miles Teller, an aspiring jazz musician at a prestigious music conservatory. Miles struggles with the question of whether the pursuit of greatness is worth sacrificing his happiness.
You can also explore themes by having different characters in your story represent different answers to a thematic question.
In Whiplash, the maestro of Miles’ jazz band abuses his students both physically and emotionally to try to make them great. Meanwhile, Miles’ father is an engineer who seems content with living a boring, unremarkable life, and discourages Miles from pushing himself too hard.
You can use themes to make your story resonate more deeply with readers.
Tip 9: Use Subtext to Add Depth
Subtext refers to a hidden or less obvious meaning within your creative work, rather than what’s announced explicitly on the page.
In real life, we rarely say exactly what we mean. All our interactions have subtext underneath the surface.
For example, you might say, “I’m fine” when what you really mean is, “I’m extremely annoyed, but I’m too polite to say so.” Or you might say, “I’m fine” when what you really mean is, “I’m a little sad, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
The same should be true for the characters in your stories. Think about what they’re leaving unsaid, and try to convey that through subtextual clues like body language and emotional tells.
Using subtext can help add depth to your story and make your writing feel more nuanced and realistic.
Tip 10: Edit and Revise Your Work
A good story often requires multiple drafts and revisions to get it just right. Don’t be afraid to cut or change things that aren’t working.
You can ask friends and writing partners for feedback on your story to see if they have suggestions for how to revise.
A grammar checker can also help you revise your story more efficiently. You can use ProWritingAid to catch mistakes, improve your sentence structure, search for clichés, and more.
Conclusion on How to Write a Story
There you have it—our top ten tips for writing a great story, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay, or something else entirely.
Check out our article on how to start writing a book if you need more ideas.
Good luck, and happy writing!