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Ask HN: How do I learn how to tell a good story?
35 points by jramz 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments
Seems like when I try, it falls flat. How do I get people to want to hear more? Any advice would help. Books or articles to read, maybe?

Just like your favorite show or movie. Start dropping bread crumbs regarding your main point right from the introduction. Tell a few mini stories that have a clear beginning and conclusion along the way. And within those mini stories leave 1-2 of those bread crumbs. By the time you’re right before the conclusion, you’ve planted more than enough crumbs out there for the audience to follow. Then at the conclusion when you tie it all together, the audience feels brought along the journey because they recall the breadcrumbs you left. Work backwards from you point. Tell mini stories.

I've taught this for something like 20 years; happy to send you a deck with some notes that would offer a broad overview of things to think about.

Not trying to sell anything; just trying to help. gwb@gwb.one

Can I get one too ?

Could you please send me one too. My mail id is in my profile. Really appreciate your help with this

It's like telling a joke. The ending should be unexpected and inevitable.

Cut it as short as possible. Otherwise they get too confused to anticipate endings or may already get the ending if you give too many details. People sort of want to figure it out themselves and be surprised.

If you put it in an article form, and someone can comment on it without reading the article, it's not a good story.

Inevitable means that the ending was obvious in hindsight.

Three act structure is one way of splitting it into multiple parts to keep them hooked. But you can have multiple tension points within a few minutes, Toy Story is a great example of this.

I would be curious to know what the specific intention behind your storytelling is. All the same, advice on any specific stripe of storytelling is, as a rule, generalizable. That is kind of what makes stories stories. The first thing to do is to distill extraneous detail into clear forms. Taking a boat over an unending ocean will produce little more than ocean; but, if the water was to recede, it would gradually reveal a varied topography. You will want to bring the elements of the story down to the forms in which they interact with one another best. Taking code as an example, you do not want to string together conditional statement after conditional statement, all with the aim of getting one piece of information into a usable form, and then go on to repeat those conditional statements anew if you need that piece of information in a slightly different form. You want to create functions that can be used as building blocks toward neatly and efficiently getting to your end result. In Children of Paradise, Jericho's disheveled clothing and strophic refrains, so too the symbol that is the trumpet, not to mention his name, do much of the work for the audience. Once these details are established, the audience has an idea of how he fits into the scene upon his arrival. The end toward which all the elements of the story move is the art. But they will be too viscous to do so if they are not sufficiently distilled. Mimesis by Auerbach is the best book on this subject that comes to mind.

If you tell stories like you write it's gonna be a tough one. Maybe it's just me but I can't read walls of text without any line breaks.

My return key is broken. Please donate.

I've taken a lot of courses on story writing / telling. I still suck at it

There are fundamentals in story writing / telling. Depends on the medium you are using. You prob know all of this.

So, one thing that I've noticed is that people who are actually good at this is that they do it as their main passion. So, practice and see how others are doing it. Also get feedback. Telling stories is not a passive activity

Reading about what makes a good story was somewhat interesting to me and i thought just reading and knowing about it would make me better. If you don't do the thing that makes you better and just read about it's prob a passive activity

Btw, people I know who really loves stories wether sharing or writing can consume over 150 fiction books a year. Doing 100 a year was already insurmountable for me, so I gave up on that.

We're any of the courses you took worth recommending?

First of all, you need a really "good" story. What is "good" depends on people, there is no general rule for that.

Make sure people are ready to listen, try to get their attention. Take a smile and try to make your voice deeper if you are a man, or adjust your pitch if you are a woman. If people seems not interested, don't be afraid and continue to talk anyway.

Talk louder if necessary (but not too much). Look at people in the eyes, and be confident.

Keep it short. Keep in mind that nobody cares about your life or your stories, they care about THEMSELVES.

Be always positive, even if something makes you angry or sad. There is nothing more annoying than listen to someone complaining.

Practice and memory.

Tell yourself stories. When you like how you told it, remember and reuse phrases the next time you tell it to a group. When you tell it to a group, remember how they reacted and change how you tell it the next time.

Listen to other people tell stories and copy their mannerisms, word choice, and pace.

I run a lot and listen to podcasts/practice my own talks for work. I keep track of what’s working and what isn’t and keep adjusting and trying new things.

Remember that a lot of work goes into things that seem effortless.

I have the exact same problem. Never been good at telling stories. I have two recommendations for books:

- Story Craft - Jack Hart

- Story: Substance, Structure, Style - Robert McKee

The first one focuses on non-fiction the other on fiction. I was partway through the second one when I got the first. My immediate want is to be able to write better non-fiction text for my blog-posts etc. So I wanted a more focused book on that subject. But I think I will finish the other as well at some point because there are shared principles across.

Thank you, I've started reading the Jack Hart, looks great. It's about narrative non-fiction, like in journalism or history. (My favourite book genre is essays - mostly non-narrative non-fiction.) I've loved Story for a long time, one of my favourite books. It's full of wisdom, but note that it focuses on writing, analysing and understanding movies–its full title is Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting.

I have no expertice in this, but; Watch stand-up comedy and observe. They are masters at pacing and story arcing. Observe how they bring the energy up and down. They start off with a premise that needs resolution, so that under the whole bit, the audience has the resolution on their mind, and much of the interest in the bit lies in the interest in the resolution. The resolution cannot be uncovered unless a new premise is brought forward or the story is finished.

Sorry to hijack the post, but how do I learn to write for CRPG such as Neverwinter nights, Baldur's Gate or Pillar of Eternity? When making mods for Neverwinter nights, the biggest obstacle is to write proper dialogues and interesting stories.

Maybe (as a foreigner) I should get my grammar straight first? I do work in an English speaking country and use English everyday, but my writings (emails, posts on HN) always show amateurism in one way or another.

For a long time I thought Grammarly was rubbish due to how hard they try to sell it everywhere online, until a co-worker started using it to help with professional writing, and I have to admit it's pretty good at fixing bad or poor English.

The downside is after a while you start to sound just like every other writer on the internet.

I have the same problem and found a book I'm enjoying so far: Everybody Writes - Ann Handley

Easy to read, has lots of examples, and gives lots of tips on how to make content engaging and write good stories.

Going to keep an eye on other users recommendations, since I'm also interested in learning more :)

Thank you for recommending this, I started reading few pages and I love it! The book is very easy to read and understandable

I had a book agent tell me once that every business book is made up of a simple structure:

1. What? 2. So what? 3. Now what?

Say what you will about most business books, but the structure has stuck with me as a good way to make sure you’ve got the building blocks to a good story (in a business context).

There is a video of Kurt Vonnegut talking about story telling called Shape of Stories thats pretty good. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOGru_4z1Vc

Start with the Pixar story structure as a model:


There's a free course on art of storytelling by Pixar on Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/pixar#storytelling

Thanks a lot for this. I am not OP, but have the same issues so really appreciate this.

Read more stories.

Don’t try to be original.

Understand classics are classics for a reason.

Maybe try some books about creative writing? Try to write down your story and workshop it.

What does workshopping something mean?

It means joining a writer's group where you each read each other's work and provide critique on it. Even doing this a few times will give you a better grasp on what makes for better story telling.

start from the beginning and highlight stuff your audience will drool to hear

I am sorry in advance if this is going to be too rambly or not at all what you are looking for, but the subject of story-telling has been very close to me lately as over the last year I've started publishing fiction.

This depends largely on your end goal. But if your goal is to get people (as in a large group of people) to want to hear (or read, in my case) more, I believe the safest bet is to write/storytell "to market".

My goal was to write stories that make people want to read them enough to pay for them. There are very well defined genres in our stories, and common tropes that resonate with large groups of people. Some genres of stories are much more strict than others in terms of their story arcs, but all genres have overarching structures and tropes that tend to draw readers in. I will use the romance genre as an example.

Romance can be a very strict genre. First, the arc of a romance story (note: not a _love_ story, a _romance_ story that specifically fits in the _romance_ genre) tends to be very formulaic. Most romance readers expect to see a certain type of meeting of the main characters, a point of high tension between the characters, a point where the characters are somehow forced into each other's proximity, a "maybe there's something here" point, etc etc until the most important part: the Happily Ever After (or at least the Happy For Now). If you publish a story in the romance genre and there is no HEA/HFN, your reviews will tank and people will likely not move on to read more of your stories. Now, you might think having to follow a certain structure sounds _boring_; you might think you will end up writing the same thing over and over. But there are millions of romance readers out there reading millions of romance books, and a huge variety of plots, characters, themes, etc within them. Yes, there is a structure, but creatively you will never run out of new stories to tell despite that structure - the only limit is our own imagination.

* So Step One to learn how to tell a good _romance_ story that will get _romance_ readers to read and pay for your story, a good starting step is to learn about these popular romance formulas. There are craft books that can help, and plenty of accessible top seller charts where we can read and learn from successful examples.

Next, there are the different sub-genres of romance: science fiction romance, contemporary romance, paranormal romance, and so many more. They, too, follow certain patterns unique to their genres within the overall romance formula. For example, science fiction romance can get quite dark and this is usually acceptable for/expected by sci fi romance readers. Small town romance might lean to something lighter and more "comforting", etc.

* So after picking your main genre, Step Two is to read and learn more about what sells in the sub-genre of the story you're telling.

And then you have tropes. Certain tropes are more common to certain genres, but they can be mixed and matched within genres. Following the romance example, you could have a sci fi romance in which the female main character is abducted by aliens and forced to live on an alien world with the evil alien overlord whom she tries to kill, but they fall in love instead. The alien abduction trope is very popular, as is the enemies-to-lovers trope.

You might have a road trip romance story where the heroine is forced to take a trip back to her old hometown and meets her old crush there. Their feelings for each other develop over the course of her stay. The childhood-crush-to-lovers trope is also very popular. And within each trope, readers of that trope have certain _expectations_.

* Step Three is to read successful works within the trope and figure out what these expectations are.

As we can see, all of these steps have one thing in common: you have to read. To know how to write a good story that people want to read, we need to read good stories that people want to read; think about what makes them good; analyze them.

And then we need to write/tell. We need to write _a lot_ of bad stories before the good ones start coming out. There's no way around it: our stories are going to suck, but there's no way to get to the good ones until we get all of the bad ones out. The more stories we write/tell, the better our stories are going to get.

I would also argue that _publishing_ or otherwise presenting the stories to an audience is a prerequisite as well. If we just write things that never sees the light of day, we can't measure its performance. If we are writing/telling into a vacuum, we might at some point just start repeating the same mistakes no matter how much we practice. Only with measurable feedback and seeing if people are actually interested can we actually tell what's working.

there is no short path, just try and exercise.

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