The 5 Steps of Storytelling


One of my favorite personal writing rituals is watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts on the subject of – you guessed it – writing![1] Yesterday, I found a wonderful 17-minute TED Talk featuring British author Simon Van Booy. I jotted down a few notes, which you will find below, and felt inspired to expound based on my own experience.

As a disclaimer, I will say that following these steps is by no means mandatory. Writers are nothing if not non-conformist and a wee bit eccentric, so expecting us to stick to a pre-determined set of rules is a ludicrous notion to begin with. However, as you read and consider Mr. Van Booy’s take on the writing process, perhaps you’ll discover the remedy for a current bout of writer’s block, be motivated to consecrate a special space solely for your storytelling, or feel a wave of relief when you realize that plot and characterization are not the mystifying monsters so many writing teachers and “experts” proclaim them to be.

Step I: Establish Time, Place, and Conditions

Form a writing routine that is exclusively yours. Before you start your week, look at your calendar and firmly decide on which days and at what times you are going to write. And, as you would a doctor’s appointment or other significant occasion, respect it and stick to it, no matter what pops up (within reason, of course…)!

Next, pick a place to settle into, where you can invite your muse to visit on a regular basis. Van Booy believes this should be somewhere reserved only for writing, such as a private room or section of the dinner table. Personally, I write on a super-comfy sofa, the same one on which I read, relax, scroll through Facebook, and watch movies with my husband. If you have trouble switching gears from playtime to work time and are easily distracted, then I think finding a writing-only location is in order.

Finally, do your best to set the writing mood. Maybe you like to sit near an open window or outside on the porch. Or perhaps there’s a certain candle you like to burn or music you prefer listening to. Realize, of course, that even when conditions aren’t perfect, you can still have an excellent writing session. I’m of the opinion that if the fiction you’re writing about hasn’t drawn you out of your reality and into its world, it might be that dreaded “B” word…Boring! You writing should so thrill and captivate you that you quickly tune out your surroundings.

5 Steps of Storytelling by Diana Anderson-Tyler

Step II: Don’t Read Anything You Don’t Love

I love this one! Remember, part of our job description as writers is “reads a lot!!!” Reading not only teaches us, it inspires us and fans the flames of our love for literature. Reading should never – unless you’re in school – make you miserable. Read something that, as Van Booy put it, “makes you tremble” because of how exciting you find it. If you’re not reading what you like, you won’t be inspired, which is a major disadvantage if you’re wanting to pen inspiring stories.

Step III: Sketching

My mom, an art major and former art teacher, is always sketching! Whether she’s in church (busted!), on the phone (busted again!), or anywhere near a tree, a garden, or a person’s profile, she’s making art and/or getting ideas for future projects. Writers should be no different.

While you can certainly schedule “inspiration outings” for yourself, in which you purposefully venture off in search of inspiring people or thought-provoking stories, you don’t have to do anything more elaborate than simply being aware of your surroundings and ready to take notes at any given time. Have a notepad (I use my iPhone) on hand to record anything – and I mean anything – that could serve you in your writing. I write down everything from book title ideas and plot twists to facial features and vocabulary words!

If you don’t know what to write about, “sketching” is an excellent way to generate ideas. After a few days of observing and notetaking, sit down and transcribe everything into your computer and see what catches fire in your imagination.

[Tweet “If you don’t know what to write, “sketching” is an excellent way to generate ideas.”]

Step IV: Create Characters and Plot

“Easy.” That’s what Mr. Van Booy had to say about the notoriously nerve-racking and complicated process of concocting characters and the plot in which they’re embroiled. “Don’t let people overcomplicate this for you,” he said. Then he proceeded to tell this story:

“‘A man walks into a Chinese restaurant.’” He stopped himself because clearly this scene is already dull as dishwater. To make it come alive, he called upon someone he knows – his uncle Martin, to be precise – so as to inject his character with an invigorating dose of realism. He used his familiarity with Martin’s appearance and mannerisms to create a character whom readers can visualize and with whom, eventually, they can empathize. Writers, Van Booy said, “describe something real because it is real!” In other words, writers aren’t making things up, or not everything, anyway; “they’re simply taking bits from real life and weaving it together, and getting rid of the seams.”

When it comes to plot, Van Booy used the image of a string of pearls to illustrate the structure of a novel. Each pearl represents a chapter of your manuscript, and “each chapter is a major scene” in your protagonist’s life. You’re not telling their whole life’s story, only the crucial, conflict-riddled pieces of it, which together show the sweeping arc of your character’s evolution. As you did with characterization, you will draw from your real-life experiences and journeys, both physical and emotional, even spiritual, to lend to your novel an added dimension of believability, truth, and poignancy.

Step V: Rewrite, Revise, Edit

After you’ve strung all your pearls together, it’s time to make that necklace shine as brilliantly as possible. The editing process commences with the toughest and most painful exercise: rewriting. Read through your manuscript and pay careful attention to each and every pearl. “If you can take away a pearl and it’s still intact,” said Van Booy, “then you’ve found a superfluous chapter. If you take away a pearl and the rest of the string collapses … it’s good … because every chapter needs to drive the narrative forward.” Rewriting usually calls for extreme surgery on your first draft. Entire chapters, characters, and subplots may be eliminated, and that’s okay! Unnecessary elements will only slow and weigh your story down. If it makes it any easier, tell yourself that what you dispose of can be recycled into another book. 😉

Revising doesn’t require as much of an overhaul as rewriting does. This may consist of shifting scenes around and tightening the pace. Certain scenes may require more depth, dialogue, or description, or perhaps less!

Editing is the final polish. Don your Grammar Police hat and have a ball correcting every run-on sentence and comma splice! If you did a thorough job in the revising and rewriting stages, this part will virtually be a breeze!

5 Steps of Storytelling by Diana Anderson-Tyler


There you have it: five easy-to-follow steps to help you reach a finished work of literary art! Which ones do you find helpful? Which, if any, do you disagree with? Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below or tweeting me @dandersontyler!



Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

[1] I like to listen to something in the morning while I’m putting on my makeup and cooking breakfast, before I sit down to write.

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