Success factors of Storytelling (Part 2): Exploring the “WHAT”

This post continues from the previous post, which can be read here.

While the first post investigates the “why” of storytelling, this post touches on the “what”. However, even this is too wide a subject area to be covered in a single post. Hence, we are going to zoom in on this specific question:

WHAT do I want readers to take away by reading this story?

Understanding the reason for writing the story establishes the scaffolding for continuing and completing the story but writing – as in all if not most forms of writing – goes both ways. Readers would often ask the “what’s in it for me?” question. In the same way that one would question the need to attend a particular speaking seminar or to take the time to participate in a lesson on children education,  readers will also ponder on the necessity to read a story – and this is even more so if it is a novel.

A writer might think that their readers will be happy just by merely reading a story. But in current times, there are tons of titles and countless stories to choose from. So, why should it be our stories?  What is the special attractions of our stories? Each author has their own unique strengths in creating a powerful story.

What is yours?

Just to provide a few examples. I was enthralled when I read “My Sister’s Keeper” by writer Judi Picoult – because her stories often do not only show the readers what the story is about, they also ask the readers very interesting questions about dilemma and life. This is the essence of what makes her story shine.  I was equally mesmerised by “Warrior of the Light: A Manual” by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer who has his works translated into so many languages that one will have to select “English” so as to access his official website. Coelho’s writing strength lies in this ability to narrate very educational and insightful stories with a dose of spirituality that leaves the reader enlightened with life’s wisdom.

In Asia, a Japanese writer by the name of Haruki Murakami rose into prominence with “Norwegian Wood” and “After Dark“, both of which are among his more popular titles. He has mastered an ability to turn artistic cinematic flicks into literary words, transforming what the movie medium wants to tell us into art house literature – thereby giving readers a feel of the cinematic reel without being in the theatre itself. This ability of his is matched by few and herein lies his forte.  And Terry Brooks is a great fantasy writer whom I have come across during my primary school days. His novel “The Sword of Shannara“was the first novel I have read and it was this title that brought me into the world of fantasy. A strong ability to characterise heroes and villains enabled Terry Brooks to be one of the most popular fantasy writers around.  “Watchers” by Dean Koontz  was the book that brought me into adult fiction, and he has the ability to bring his characters to life through unusual story twists and almost unrivaled suspense.

So, what are the ingredients that attract readers other than the story content itself?

For story writing, readers are attracted by various elements in the stories and they are summarised as follows:

1. Values: This is one of the most important things that readers would usually want to take away from the stories they read. Values usually go both ways. The protagonist advocates the positive values while the villains promote the negative ones. However, a great story will portray the various characters with some flaws, thereby making them more human and easier to relate with. Look at fairy tales titles such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Most of them carries with them certain values that readers can learn from. Writers should ensure that the same goes for their  stories. You can ask yourself this question. What makes Lord of the Rings such a classic hit years after the book has been written? What has its author Tolkien done that makes his tale such a memorable one – that even a movie trilogy has been made based on its content?

2.  Communication skills:  A commonly overlooked area is communication skills. This is where the use of conversations are put to great use by writers to personalise and characterise the characters in the story. Many communication skills can be learnt through conversations in the story. Thus, readers should put in a great amount of effort in choosing the time and content to insert conversations into the story. A careless insertion of conversations into a story will make it less interesting while a strategic insertion of conversations into the story will turn a mediocre tale into a lively one. It is challenging to determine where and when to insert a specific conversation into a story as this skill can only be mastered through consistent reading of other writers’ works, as well as continuous writing practices on the part of the writer.

3. Self-reflection: One of the unique talents that seems to be found among great writers is the ability to enable readers to self-reflect not only when they have finished reading the story but also, when they are reading the stories. And to do this, writers have to master not only strong observation skills of everyday happenings and integrating them into the story, they should also have an in-depth understanding of psychology, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences, as well as the ability to ask the right questions (which are usually not directed at the readers but the questions usually materialise in the form of inner thoughts within the readers’ minds).  Self- reflection can take place at any place in the stories – when the character faces strong doubts in their lives, when they encounter a challenge, when they question life, and when their inner thoughts are portrayed in words.

4. Learning lessons to be applied in real life:  Unlike some who feel that fictional stories – like movies – are meant to be regarded as a form of escapism, stories are in fact portals and channels which allow readers to delve themselves in, thereby gaining the experiences and insights that are useful to be applied in real life. If a writer is able to enable readers to see themselves in the story and whose stories resonate strongly with the readers, he or she is a great writer. Solutions can be found in stories – and usually in an unintentional manner. We can learn much from stories , and because we usually find lessons in stories by chance, we learn them in a more relaxed manner than a deliberate search for answers in non-fiction titles. And it’s often this experience of falling in love with the characters and understanding ourselves through them that we discover aspects of ourselves that we have not realised before.

These are the four main types of elements that distinguish a great writer from an average one. While the four elements are simple to understand, it’s challenging to apply them strategically to maximise the emotional impact of your story. Consistent practice in writing is key. Nevertheless, a basic awareness of these elements are necessary to establish a strong base on which your journey towards excellent writing can begin.

Begin your writing journey now, as we continue to explore the “HOW” of writing in our next post.

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