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Write the Story That Works

March 03, 2019


You can write all kinds of stories. Only write the one that works.

This morning I tied my shoes successfully and continued on my day. That's a short story. The other day I was walking my dog and she got away from me. I found her playing with another dog across the street. I chased her down and brought her home safely. That's a short story too. Both of these stories are actual events that happened in my life. One of them I told to my wife, the other I did not. The reason for this is that one of them is interesting and the other is supremely uninteresting. What makes a story interesting is when it conforms to certain conventions. Conventions which do not make a story formulaic or boring, but are actually required to make the story work.

We do and experience a variety of things every single day. Each one of those things (or combinations of them) can be told as a story to another. But we don't tell everyone everything we do and experience. Why is that? What is it about the experience of losing my dog that makes me more likely to share than the one about tying my shoes?

I'm more likely to share the story about my dog because that experience happens to conform to storytelling conventions. There's an inciting incident, a turning point and progressive complications, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution. There are characters. There's conflict, both internal and external. These and many others are conventions that are all part of making a story that works.

My short story above does not demonstrate all the elements of conventions that make stories that work, but the experience does and that's what makes me interested in telling that story and that's what makes people interested in hearing it. That said, even a story which has all those elements can fall flat if it's not told well.

Some writers aren't interested in learning about or using some storytelling tools because they're worried that they will make what they write too formulaic. They prefer to set their muse loose and "blaze new trails" in storytelling, only to find out that very few people interested in what they have to offer.

I would suggest that writers consider the fact that stories which do not conform to some storytelling conventions are unlikely to capture a reader's attention.

There is a plethora of tools you can use to do this kind of story analysis (by "analysis" I'm suggesting even if you're a "pantser" you can use these kinds of tools). My personal favorite is Story Grid. I feel like it allows me to tell the story that I personally think is interesting and check to ensure that it wont fall flat for my audience.

One thing that I really appreciate about the Story Grid methodology is that it teaches that conventions vary from genre to genre. There are character roles and scenes that should appear in stories of one genre which should not appear in another or the story will not work. Identifying your story's genre is of paramount importance when using this tool, and once you do, many things fall into place for you to check against your story to ensure that it will work and that you'll make and keep the promises that readers of that genre expect from you.

Whether you're telling a story of a personal experience, or a story you created in your mind, you can only find success in capturing your audience when the story you tell follows the obligatory conventions of storytelling. You can write all kinds of stories. Only write the one that works.

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Kent C. Dodds

Kent C. Dodds is a JavaScript software engineer and teacher. He's taught hundreds of thousands of people how to make the world a better place with quality software development tools and practices. He lives with his wife and four kids in Utah.