5 Storytelling Tips to Win Readers

Storytelling Tips

When the freelance gurus at TurnPoint asked me to outline my top five storytelling tips as a fiction editor, I was happy to oblige. Almost every rough draft I encounter would benefit from at least one, if not all of these storytelling tips. But before you toss that manuscript away, rest assured, each tip is easy to implement once you’re aware of the principles at play, and why they’re important.

Storytelling Tips #5

Identify a Theme

Great storytellers understand the difference between subject and theme. A theme is not about the plot or twist, but the emotional residue a reader walks away with. It is the ‘point’ of your story, the moral, insight, lesson, and reason for telling it in the first place. Your theme could be the enduring power of love, the loss of innocence or the devastating effects of greed.

Your chosen theme then creates the foundation upon which you settle your plot, the two opposing forces that push and pull the story along. For example, if your theme is about greed, you will need to introduce a character or external force that embodies generosity, for the greed to bounce off. This dynamic interaction will shape the starting problem, plot and ultimate resolution.

Sound scary? Find your dream theme in just a few easy steps.

Storytelling Tips #4

How High is Your High Concept?

This is your three sentence elevator pitch, and sums up the entertainment potential of your story. Your high concept must be really obvious: either comedic or dramatic. It’s the, “what if…” scenario. Examples could be: What if a giant Japanese sea monster invaded New York? Clichés bore readers so make it unique and original by taking existing conventions and twist them.

If you want to do a story on three people robbing a bank by tunnelling underneath, we’d say: so what? We’ve heard that before! But take three elderly men, as the writer Edward Cannon did in “Going in Style”, and suddenly it’s fresh. You should be able to state your idea and have people respond: that’s trouble/comedy/entertainment in the making!

Storytelling Tips #3

Get Into Character

Theme and high concept might form the skin and bones of a story, but characterization is the ‘face’ we fall in love with. Great characterization is about making a reader care about the person they’re following, we need to see growth, conflict, plus good and bad decisions driven by believable motivations.

Research archetypes for inspiration. Some Jungian examples are: The Innocent, The Orphan, The Hero, The Explorer, The Sage. Take Game of Thrones, for example, every character represents an archetype. The Knight, The Mother, The Jester, etc.

Storytelling Tips #2

Show Us the Goods

“The man clenched his fists” is far more effective than the “the man was angry”. Why? Because it’s not the role of the narrator to lecture the reader on what they should think and feel. Good writers recognize that the beauty is in reading between the lines and allow their reader to take their observations and draw their own conclusions.

Showing through action and dialogue as opposed to telling makes the reader a ‘part’ of the story. When you describe the man clenching his fists, you are conveying meaning more credibly and effectively than when you spell it out, and honoring the reader’s intelligence. Learn how to show, not tell in this simple guide.

Storytelling Tips #1

Keep it Simple

Limit allegory, metaphor and flowery description. You are writing for the reader, so keep it simple and engaging. Contrary to what some might think, this is not about showing off, and if you let your creative ego get in the way you can distract your reader from what’s important: the story.

Have you got some storytelling tips to share? Comment below! Or read more storytelling tips at:

The Power of Storytelling: 7 tips for success.

Michael Moorcock: 10 tips for good storytelling.

Storytelling Tips from Billy Wilder:  The 10 commandments.



  • Reply August 14, 2016


    #5 and #1 were extremely helpful! Thank you for such an informative post!

    • Reply August 22, 2016

      Cate Hogan

      My pleasure Mary. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply June 24, 2016

    Tony Faustino

    Cate, thank you for this informative post! Your delightful writing reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite writers, Ann Handley. Ann’s quote: “Good writing is like good teaching.” Thank you for sharing these five (5) generous teachings so we learn how to tell great stories well!

  • Reply June 18, 2016

    Michael Rounds

    Thank you, i loved the push/pull. it helped.

    • Reply June 24, 2016

      Cate Hogan

      Glad to hear it. 🙂

  • Reply June 17, 2016

    Kate Romero

    For me, writing the way I talk works best. Great article. Thanks!

    • Reply June 24, 2016

      Cate Hogan

      Certainly, Kate. Explains why reading work aloud is one of the most effective ways to edit in-house. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • Reply June 17, 2016

    Judy Masters

    Excellent, succinct and insightful. Thank you

    • Reply June 24, 2016

      Cate Hogan

      Thank you Judy!

  • Reply June 16, 2016

    Gabriela Arellano

    I usually don’t like writing tips. But these make a great sense and are really educational. Thanks, Cate!

    • Reply June 24, 2016

      Cate Hogan

      I hear you Gabriela! And I’m pleased you enjoyed these ones. Happy writing!

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