3 keys to storytelling

There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re driving. Stay between the lines, watch the speed limit, check your mirrors, signal when turning, DO NOT TEXT…

The list goes on and on. It’s a wonder that anyone can get in a car and go somewhere when we’re supposed to follow so many rules at the same time. But the human brain is an amazing thing, and people drive all the time with no problem.

(Well, some people drive all the time with lots of problems. I honk at those people.)

Anyway, writing is kind of similar. You have to mind your punctuation, spell things correctly, match your nouns and verbs, organize thoughts into sentences, organize sentences into paragraphs… The list goes on and on.

But these are the mechanics of writing, and after a while, they become second nature, just like using your turn signal or obeying a red light. (Yes, those should be second nature!)

What’s harder to remember is how to tell a good story. Probably because there are so many different ways to accomplish that. Now, I’m hardly an expert, but back at the Kenyon Review workshop, I did learn about 3 things that have really improved my storytelling: Object, Conflict, and the Ticking Clock.

The Object is something threaded throughout a story that the reader can follow. The Object can be an actual thing (like a watch) or a place (like a park) or it can even be a secondary character (like a pet pig). Usually the Object is important to the story or the story’s themes.

Conflict can come about in a variety of ways. We know the English teacher definition (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, etc.). But simply put, Conflict is when a character wants something and can’t get it. An easy way to create Conflict is to put another character into the scene/story. Even better, put TWO characters in.

The Ticking Clock is similar to Conflict in that it adds tension, but it isn’t a hindrance to the character’s goal. It merely adds urgency.

Here’s an example of what Object, Conflict, and a Ticking Clock can do for a story:

Olivia ran to the lab.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher could poison Isaac with it.

The last sentence is a bit more exciting than the first, no?

Not every scene/story is going to have all 3 elements, but if you ever find yourself stuck, try looking for an Object in your story, or try putting one in. Try adding another character (or two) to the scene. Try a Ticking Clock. You might be surprised at how quickly things get interesting, and interesting scenes/stories are the ones that suck us in, both as writers and as readers.

(Note: Despite my analogy, I do not recommend adding an Object, Conflict, or Ticking Clock to your driving.)

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  1. That’s an interesting way to think about scene construction. I just read a book written for approx age 10 called “Celia and the Fairies” and I wouldn’t be surprised if the author wasn’t using guidelines like those – knowingly or unknowingly. It was definitely a compelling book that made me want to read the next scene and the next. At the same time, the writing never stood out. I’m not saying that the writing was bad, only that it was always overshadowed by the pace of the plot.

  2. It’s a simple thing to do but it works! I never considered incorporating it on the scene or chapter level though. That’s a good way to increase tension.

  3. Les

    I add conflict to my driving all the time… maybe that’s why it’s missing from my writing!

  4. GREAT post–thanks for the info. I’ve heard you speak about some of this before and it’s great to see it all pieced together.
    Driving? Sometimes I’m a nervous wreck around these Ohio drivers! I definitely drive anticipating what everyone is going to do…perhaps should apply this more to writing.

  5. I like first one. Me caveman, read short words.

  6. Well put! (And I had to laugh about the driving analogy.) I find myself want to juggle all three things over the whole book but not doing a good job creating this connection in each chapter. I’ve been needing to go back and make sure each are arced throughout every chapter. It’s a new technique I’m trying. We’ll see if it helps with revisions!

    Great to find your blog, Kristan! :o)

  7. Jon

    Hey, great post! I love the last sentence in that list. Isaac sounds so mysterious–why is he about to be poisoned? And who is this Gallagher? I think this sentence deserves its own short story.

  8. Sonja-
    “I wouldn’t be surprised if the author wasn’t using guidelines like those – knowingly or unknowingly.”

    Yep. I think these are natural elements of storytelling — a lot of “rules” are — and the patterns just get noticed over time and then qualified/quantified. And these 3 keys in particular work both on a micro (scene) or macro (story) scale.

    Me either, but now that I do, I find my stories and scenes much more interesting! Hehehe.

    LOL oh boy, and in an Xterra…

    Omg seriously! It’s not just Ohio, but yes, driving is always an adventure (unfortunately).

    YOU ARE GETTING YOUR PHD IN A SCIENCE FIELD. Don’t give me that baloney! :P

    Aww thanks. :) I hope it does help! Thinking about these 3 things has really worked for me.

    Oh, hehe, not just a short story. The example is pulled from a YA manuscript of mine. Not the one I’m working on right now, but probably the next one in line.

  9. Perfect advice – brief and to the point with the right amount of fun mixed in. :)

  10. Just realized I used too many negations. Should have been “I wouldn’t be surprised if she was using guidelines like those” or “I would be surprised if she wasn’t using guidelines like those.”


  11. Great post! I think my story has all three, except the ticking clock isn’t huge. I have lots of conflicts, my object is a swimming pool and the ticking clock is the championship game. I’m not so sure how loud the ticking is though!

  12. I really like the analogy!


  13. Rachele-
    Hehe, I don’t think the clock has to tick loudly. It sounds like you’ve got a wham-bam combo of elements. But then, I already knew that. ;)


  14. Angie

    I really like this exercise thanks for sharing!

  15. I really like this concept! Lovely analogy.

    I’m going to try using it for my short story contest entry. You know, before I decide I should never try writing fiction again.

  16. These are great tips. Writing a good story is so much harder than it looks to people who don’t write!

  17. Obviously I only write casually, and for myself, but I feel kind of stupid for never thinking of this? HA! Anyway, I’m going to keep this and pull it up when I stop myself mid-sentence with a “what exactly am I writing about??” Awesome tip!

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