Is storytelling really just about talent?

Whether you’re working on a novel, annual report or a corporate case study, is great writing really just about talent and creativity?

As a journalist and PR, I’ve done plenty of the latter, but I’ve not written a long creative piece since I finished a novella at university…which was some years ago. However last month, armed with an idea, I started work on a novella – but have had little success so far.

I know I can write, so what was the problem? Was it writer’s block? A lack of inspiration perhaps?

As I struggled to get creative, I turned to some great writers to better understand what makes storytelling happen – and found there were some basic rules to building a story that I needed to understand before I could find any of this mythical free flowing creativity.

There are just two types of stories

At the very foundation, there are just two types of stories. And it is believed Homer – the Greek one – defined them both when he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey around the 8th century.

In the Illiad he chronicled a few weeks of the decade-long Trojan war, while the Odyssey follows Odysseus’ perilous journey home after that battle.

Homer's Iliad - the original siege story

Homer’s Iliad – the original siege story

The siege

The action comes to the main character, and the drama often comes from the abilty of the main protagonist to resist and endure.

The Iliad…or The Martian.



  The Quest or Journey

The main character has to move forward, taking action which require courage and intuitive

The Odyssey…or Star Wars

Applying this to my emerging story, I was able to lay the platform from which to build the narrative. It’s to be a siege.

Every story has a shape

On top of these simple foundations, Kurt Vonnegut explored the shapes of stories – and his work was turned into a brilliant infographic by Maya Eilam.

Kurt Vonnegut's Shapes of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories

What these stories have in common is there is always a change, a problem or an interruption that sparks or forces a reflection, a reaction or a transformation within the characters.

For example, this is a pretty terrible idea for a story:

A man and his wife have been having problems. But they sort their problems out.

Whereas this could be the start of a summer blockbuster:

A man and his wife are having problems. Aliens land. They are forced to work together in order to save the world. They sort their problems out.

Although I think Will Smith may have done this one already.

There are obvious exceptions, writers such as David Mitchell often tear this rule book up, but before I started to write I took some time to work out the shape of my story.

It’s roughly boy meets girl, but with an extra bump or two.

The rules of write club

Now I’ve got my story structure and shape, I’m turning to write.

And, having now consulted the thoughts of many successful writers, here are some of the other nuggets I’ve found to help turn a blank page into something you’d be proud to share.

Read. Read all the time. You can’t be a great writer if you’re not a great reader.

Write. Write every day. At the same time if you can. Ritual, habit, consistency – it’s like training for a marathon, it’s hard, sometimes you won’t want to, it’s raining and there’s something good on the tele…just write.

Plan ahead. In order to keep the complicated narrative on track JK Rowling plotted  her books using a simple, hand-drawn spreadsheet. Know where your story is going.

No distractions. In a world with endless TV channels and 6,000 tweets tweeted every second you should unplug from the noise for a bit.

Write, reread, revise – repeat– Write it all down, tell yourself the whole story, then go back and hack away at it until only the words that really count are left.

Don’t be constrained by what you know.Research it, read about it, talk to people about it – then write about it. Otherwise our imagination can never travel far. As far as we know, JK Rowling is not a wizard.

For more advice, from a man that’s sold 350 million or so books, have a look at the great tips on how to write by Stephen King.

And now, the Dénouement

Whether you’re stuck with a piece of writing, or have been putting off starting that book you’d always wanted to write, I hope some of these tips have been useful to get your project on track, they’ve certainly helped me.

But the best piece of advice I’ve found, among the vast swathes of writers writing about writing, is to be yourself. Find your voice, write your way, and most importantly write for yourself first – enjoy it.

With my plot plotted and characters taking on a life of their own, I’m planning to have my novella finished by the end of this month. Wish me luck.

I hope the ending for my writing story is, as Kurt would say, New Testament, off-the-chart bliss.

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