How to write a story: two essential tools

Frog with butterfly - How to write a story, two essential tools - Peter Rey

Nowadays, the number of books which promise to teach you how to write a story, and that you can find both in real stores and surfing the web, is staggering. Yet it keeps growing  by the minute.

But while it’s important to know the rules of grammar and composition and storytelling in general, I believe that once you’ve got to grips with the basics of writing, any additional how-to book offers you ever diminishing benefits.

Sure, someone will say that I’ve just stated the obvious, and that reading a slew of how-to books is necessary exactly because any new book or blog post you read adds up, at least a bit, to your overall creative writing expertise.

Sorry, but I beg to disagree. I mean, reading how-to books isn’t exactly all there is to learning how to write a novel. In fact, I’m sure that while many people have under their belt one hundred how-to books or more, they aren’t necessarily able to write a great story. Vice versa, there are many published authors—and whose works are as flawless as exciting— who never read a how-to book.

Albert EinsteinIn short, about how-to books, I’m with Albert Einstein, who said that: “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

So, you can read how-to books. Sure you can, but you have to dirty your hands trying things out in first person. You have to question what you read, you have to reinterpret it, and adapt it to your own style and sensibility. The problem with the ever growing avalanche of how-to books on creativity is that they can pressure you into reading faster and faster, to read them all. As a result you might end up reading a lot but understanding and pondering on what you’ve read less and less.

How to write a story, putting things in perspective

The simple truth is that books on creative writing aren’t the only type of resource you can turn to. Sure the best how-to books about creative writing can guide your first steps as a writer and help you to have at least a vague understanding of a novel’s inner mechanics.

But if you want to become a writer and you’re serious about your endeavor, chances are you’re an avid reader. And if you’re an avid reader you already have at your disposal a powerful tool to help you grow as a writer.

Indeed. You can red and reread all the books of the authors you most love and admire. You only need to make a habit of reading them using a pen to underline those passages you find particularly effective, and also those you don’t find effective enough.

If you make a habit of rereading such passages and try to understand both why they work and why they fall flat on their faces, you’ll develop your understanding of how a story works.  You’ll be able to notice more clearly all those subtle choices of words, of construction, sequencing and on and on that constitute the inner, and hopefully, invisible framework of a novel.

Learning from the masters

This approach I just outlined can seem difficult and too vague. But it gives you the opportunity to read a lot of great novels, in any genre you want to—in fact the wider your reading tastes are, the better.

In addition, every time you come across a passage which stirs your curiosity you have the opportunity to analyze it in context, from the perspective of a reader. So, a passage that might seem slow if taken out of context can instead immediately be considered a necessary device to put the story on a pause after a particularly shocking scene. This to give the readers enough time to fully appreciate what just happened without risking an informational overload.

Of course, in a thriller the same passage could instead be just as packed with action as the previous one. In this way there would be a good chance for the readers to overlook some important cues. Cues that will become apparent only later on and consequently, will contribute to the final ah-a moment.

Another advantage of reading a lot and studying directly the novels of other writers is that you don’t have to put up with the examples provided by how-to books. In fact, the authors of such books often present examples coming from their own works. This is not necessarily bad, but in many cases such examples are far from being the most illuminating ones on the market. Some other times instead such books will provide you with examples that have been already used over and over. But if you are to be fed with examples from the classics maybe you’d be better off reading them in their entirety. Just saying.

Last but not least, you must remember that selected few examples with very detailed explanations readily offered can fail in that they are too easy to understand. I mean, such examples don’t make any lasting impression exactly because they don’t put your brain under enough pressure. Instead, if you are forced to make your own research and to come to your own conclusions, you can bet that you’re going to retain an awful lot of useful information.

In fact, with how-to books it’s like you’re just leafing through a photographic book of mountains, whereas reading the actual novels and trying to come up with your personal interpretation of them is like hiking up an actual mountain.

Think of How to write a story as of a variant of How to hike up a mountain and you’ll see it straight awayBesides, while with hiking there’s a certain degree of potential danger, teaching yourself about how to write a story is really risk-free.

Form and Function

Just a question. Let’s say you need to paint your house. To do so you can choose between a stylish contraption or a no-frills paintbrush.

The stylish contraption, while attracting a crowd of curious neighbors around your house, forces you to sweat and toil for a whole week, and the results of your efforts are, to say the least, not-so-great. Instead, while attracting nobody’s curiosity, and letting you sweat and toil for a whole week just the same, the no-frills-paintbrush approach results in a flawlessly painted house.

Which would you choose?

For me the answer is obvious—I mean, unless you’re trying some new form of creative scam marketing. But then your purpose would no longer be the painting in itself.

The same goes for whatever you write. Form can be a pleasant nicety, sure. But I believe, like Louis Sullivan did, that it should always follows function, not the other way around. In fact, when reading fiction we readers want stories brimming with content. And in case we have to choose between form and content we will always choose the latter. Because we want to know what the story is about. And we care nothing about the author’s terrific skills with words if she’s going nowhere.

That’s why many experimental novels fall on their faces. It’s not that people don’t care about new ways of telling a story. Rather it’s because these new ways get in the way of the story–if there is a story at all to begin with.

In fact, how you write something matters way less than what you write.

This might look like an extreme take on the subject but it’s not.

The art of writing compelling dialogue

The Secret Life of PronounsSome months ago I read The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker. This is an intriguing book. In it Pennebaker claims that analyzing how you use pronouns and other function words you can gain illuminating insights about the person who is speaking or writing.

Among many other interesting discoveries he describes a study in which he analyzed the writing of several successful authors both from the present and the past. In particular, he analyzed the way such authors wrote dialogues.

For me what he discovered was just as entertaining as revealing. In fact, while you might think that great authors should all be able to write flawless dialogue, or at the very least be able to make them speak according to their gender, this isn’t always the case.

For example, according to Pennebaker’s findings, Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation, and Woody Allen in Hannah and her Sisters, make all their characters speak like women.

Instead, Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, and William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, have all their characters speak like men.

This seems nonsensical. Sure. But given that the works analyzed had enjoyed and still enjoy widespread success, Pennebaker comes to the conclusion that, provided that you make your characters say things that are interesting, readers and moviegoers alike won’t notice.

If this isn’t compelling evidence that form is less important than content—provided you reach a minimum standard of proficiency in your writing—I don’t know what else could be.


Content is king, they say. And sure it is. Besides, if you work hard and first-hand experiment with real books to really understand how their magic works, you’ll learn all there is to learn about how to organize your content in the most effective way. For if it’s true that in writing there are no shortcuts, it’s also true that you don’t need at your disposal the damn whole Babel library of how-to books.


PS: You can discover what your writing style reveals about yourself clicking Pennebaker’s tests page.

Picture by FrankWinkler and Wikilmages via Pixabay

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