Why and how to tell better stories

Reading time: About 3 minutes

If you don’t learn how to tell better stories, you’re at risk of losing your clients to the ChatGPT monster…

We had 13 people over for a big, celebratory dinner last night — the most I’ve hosted since the start of the pandemic — and we wrapped up the evening with a gigantic carrot cake featuring the number 30.

The occasion? A combined Easter dinner and birthday party for our triplets. Our children were born 30 years ago this weekend, and while one of them is no longer with us (she died of a brain tumour in 2022), I still refer to them as triplets, on the request of my late daughter. We consider the day to be a special celebration of all three of their lives.

I’m telling you this not because anything special happened at the party (It was noisy! There was cake! Everyone ate well!) — I’m telling you about it because my topic today is storytelling, and I wanted to begin with a kind of a story.

I know storytelling is at odds with how many writers view their work. Many seem to think their number one job is to convey information. But while that might be a useful guideline for essays for school, it’s definitely not true for the rest of the world where the number one job is to get people to read what you’ve written.

Remember: there are already centillions of words in the world, and we’re all drowning in facts.

Here, for example, is a list from UNESCO of the number of book titles published in a single year from the top five book-producing countries of the world:

  1. US: 275,232 books
  2. China: 208,418 books
  3. UK: 188,000 books
  4. Japan: 139,078 books
  5. Russia: 115,171 books

Canada, where I live, is a relative lightweight with just 14,625 books a year. (That a lightweight country can still produce 281 books each week tells you something.)

And, in fact, the volume of books pales in comparison to the volume of words on the internet. Did you know:

  • There are nearly two billion websites.
  • There are 154.6 million .com domains.
  • Writers were expected to produce roughly 2.7 trillion blog posts by the end of 2022.

If we want to get readers to pay attention to us, we need to do the literary equivalent of pulling off our clothes and walking down Main Street.

And you can do that by telling interesting stories.

Storytelling is also the best defense that writers have against artificial intelligence. Yes, ChatGPT can round up a good list or assemble an impressive array of facts (some of which may even be true!), but it can’t tell stories. Why? Because it’s not a human being.

Experts say some 65 percent of our communication is stories and gossip. We watch TV shows and movies because we’re interested in characters and we want to know how the story is going to end. We are hard-wired to love stories.

I recently noticed that I’d fallen out of the habit of storytelling in my blog, so, last week, I returned to it with reflections on my broken treadmill. (I think I did a kind of meandering job, but I’ll sharpen up in the weeks to come.)

In the meantime, let me summarize the five necessities you should keep in mind when telling a written story:

1-Start in the middle of the action.

Don’t give context or background, just dive right in, in medias res. Your readers are intelligent. They’ll be able to figure out what you’re doing. And they’ll appreciate the shortcut to the good stuff.

2-Show, don’t tell.

Give enough descriptive detail so your readers feel as though they’re really there. Use as many of the five senses as you can: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

3-Build tension.

This means not spending too much time on unnecessary detail and, instead, focusing on the conflict or what’s really at stake. You want readers to wonder and worry. “What’s going to happen next?” they should be asking.

4-Describe the transformation.

Your grade 8 English teacher probably told you that the main character in a novel needs to change in some way. The same goes for your writing. Show your readers how the dominant player in your story has changed.

5-Explain why you’re sharing the story.

Don’t make your readers work too hard. Tell them explicitly why you’re telling the story. You can just say, “I share this story because…”

And if you ever hesitate to tell a story, remember the words of the celebrated filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”


My video podcast last week addressed how to write better cover letters. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


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Do you know how to tell better stories in your writing? How do you do it? We can all learn from each other, so please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to John Wills, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a comment on my March 12/24 blog about starting with the easy stuff. (Please send me your email address, John!) If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/24  I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please scroll down to the section directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!


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