I have a confession… I’m not a naturally artistic or creative person.
There, I said it!
I am not the traditional type of person you’d think of when you imagine a “writer” or “author.”
Most of the income I’ve generated online has come from blogging, online courses, YouTube, and nonfiction business books that I’ve written.
The #1 thing that drives me is not spontaneous creativity – it’s the desire for power, wealth, and influence .
I’m not good at being creative, but I’m damn good at breaking complex topics down into bite-sized lessons.
I like pulling processes apart, discovering how they work, and communicating it in an easy-to-digest format.
With this article, I’m going to share with you ways that you can write BETTER stories. These are story writing tips for beginners.
You can use these techniques to write fictional novels, short stories, storyboards, screenplays, and even marketing stories that are designed to sell a product.
The craft of storytelling has existed for thousands of years.
You can COPY everything that works when it comes to engaging an audience, keeping their interest, and moving them towards towards a climax.
Personally, I have used the exact same tips to write stories emotionally affect my audience. You can use them to improve your writing, sell more creative work, or get your message across in an emotionally evocative way.
1. Every Story Has Conflict (and Here’s What That Means).
I hate the word “conflict.” It sounds like bullshit literary jargon.
You can sum conflict up like this:
- Your main character has something they want.
- They try to get it or achieve it.
- Things stop them from doing that.
First, your main character must have something they want. Your side characters likely have things they want as well. If your main character does not want something, then there is no story.
Your main character could want multiple things, but there is one overarching desire that they have that guides all of their behavior.
For example, James Bond wants to defeat the arch enemy or villain in the movie.
Simba from the Lion King wants to realize his destiny and become king.
Marlin in Finding Nemo wants to find his son.
Frodo in Lord of the Rings wants to destroy the ring.
The “desires” or “wants” of the main characters can be so obvious that the entire movie is named after them, like “The Lion King” or “Finding Nemo.”
Second, your main character attempts to get, achieve, or fulfill this desire in some way. Usually, this is sort of “kicked off” with the inciting incident or plot turning points. The main character doesn’t necessarily always realize they have this desire in them to begin with.
For example, with Lord of the Rings, Frodo only gets his desire to destroy the ring once it is entrusted to him and he understands the bad things that could happen if he doesn’t.
Up until this point in time, he was just another Hobbit in the shire living out his life. Of course, he always did love hearing about the adventures of Gandalf or Bilbo.
In Finding Nemo, Marlin always had the desire to protect and take care of his son, but he only gained the desire to “find” his son when he got lost and was taken away.
Once that happens, Marlin goes on a quest to try to find his son and get him back.
Third, for some reason your main character does not immediately achieve their objective. There is conflict. They are prevented from achieving it for some reason.
This is a crucial part of storytelling. If Frodo just walked down the path to Mordor and easily destroyed the ring, then there would be no story. There must be forces of opposition.
There are a lot of things that could prevent the main character from achieving their objective. That could include:
- Other characters (with opposing interests)
- Themselves (their nature, beliefs, thoughts)
- Nature, etc.
The main character is continually met with forces of opposition as they are trying to achieve their goal. Over time, this causes the character to GROW.
In the beginning of the Lion King, Simba is not yet ready to be king. He must grow physically and emotionally until he can become strong enough to defeat Scar and accomplish his goal.
At one point, Simba had opposition within himself. He had lost his way and didn’t care about being King. He was just living in the jungle having a good time.
Remember, “hakuna matata.” It means “no worries!”
It was only when he was reminded about things he cared about and what was at stake, that he decided to come back and challenge Scar.
Continual conflict is what makes an audience interested in finding out “what happens next.” It peaks curiosity, and as the audience gets to know the characters, creates emotional investment.
2. The Story Only Matters Because There are “Stakes.”
This is another one of those literary terms that I don’t like.
When something has “stakes” it really means that something is “at stake.”
There are things that will be lost UNLESS the objective is achieved.
There is a clear and obvious downside if the main character fails.
In a classic Superman storyline, if he fails to defeat Lex Luther or whatever other villain, then the world will fall into chaos.
The villain will take over, make things bad for everyone else, ruin good values, and get what he wants (which are bad things).
Throughout a story, the more stakes that there are, the more the audience’s attention will be drawn to find out “what happens next.”
Will Superman defeat the villain, or will he die, lose Lois Lane, fail his mother, and submit the world to the rule of a horrible leader.
As you can see, not only are there things (internally and externally) that seek to prevent the main character from achieving his objective, but there are also downsides should the main character fail.
If a story had zero stakes, then it wouldn’t be worth paying attention to.
Let’s just say that in the Lord of the Rings example, the one ring actually didn’t have any real powers. It was just a “symbol” of previous bad times.
Frodo tries to destroy it, because it’s a symbol, and the Orcs don’t want it destroyed, because it’s a symbol. But, since there’s no real power and nothing really bad can come of it’s existence, you’re left thinking… “well, what’s the point?”
The fact that the ring can cause real damage and unleash evil is what causes Frodo to care about the quest and embark upon it.
3. Events, Revelations, and Decisions Move Stories Along
Stories are “moved along” by events that occur, revelations of new information, and decisions that must be made.
As the story gets more intense, the pressure goes up and forcing characters to make big decisions. Ultimately, true character is revealed when these decisions are made.
First, let’s talk about events that occur. These events could be things that happen to the main character, events that happen in the world, or reactions to things the characters are doing.
These events prompt characters to make decisions or change attitudes.
When Frodo is unable to find Gandalf in the Prancing Pony and accidentally puts on the ring, which attracts forces of evil, he must make the decision to trust Aragon and follow him to safety.
New information is also always coming to light, which the characters then react to. Withholding information is a major way to maintain curiosity throughout a story.
How boring would it be if we knew ALL ALONG that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father?
Instead, in that moment of revelation, we gain tremendous clarity about past events. Luke must then make the decision whether or not to join his father, who is on the dark side, or to continue with the resistance movement.
This decision reveals his character. If he said “yes” and joined his father, we’d think differently about him. Up until that point in the film, we thought he was one of the good guys.
We’d be confused and secretly wonder if he was going to try to fight the empire from the inside out, or if his sister would pick up the mantel.
All of these events/revelations trace back to what’s at “stake” and the “motivation” of the characters, otherwise they wouldn’t have meaning.
For example, let’s just say Star Wars started with the scene of Luke discovering Darth Vader was his father. You didn’t know any of the backstory.
We’d be left thinking… “Wow, Luke looks really upset. I wonder why?”
We’d then expect the rest of the story to fill in the gaps. That moment wouldn’t have much significant until that happened.
Instead, because we KNOW that:
- Luke is trying to destroy the evil empire and restore good
- If Luke doesn’t do this (as the last jedi), the rebel forces might perish and evil would exist forever unchallenged
- Luke has no father and his adopted parents were killed by storm troopers
When we watch the same scene, we think “oh my gosh!” Luke has been fighting his entire adult life trying to combat evil, and all the while it’s been his father that has been opposing him.
Also, the mysterious backstory starts to make more sense. We now know why his mentor hid many of the facts about his father (who he said Vader murdered).
It’s a realization that his mentor was lying in order to keep him from knowing the terrible truth.
It gives the feeling that the “world is crashing down” around Luke.
Then, Vader offers him to “join him and rule together.”
At that moment in time, everyone is wondering… “What is Luke going to do?”
Using this example, you can easily see how this story structure of events, withholding information, and “reactions,” is what moves stories along and maintains the interest of the audience.
4. WTF is a dynamic character?
By now, you know my hatred for stupid literary terms.
What is a “dynamic” character?
I think the easiest way to grasp this is to go back to the primary motivation of the character.
If they only had ONE motivation, then they would be boring. In addition, if they followed that motivation logically, it would be boring. They’d be just like a robot. They wouldn’t seem real.
A real person has multiple motivations and they have things internally that are working against them, which prevent the achievement of their goals.
For example, James Bond wants to defeat the arch enemy. This is his primary motivation. However, he also loves women. He enjoys seducing them. He even likes the emotional comfort of a woman, like in Casino Royale.
The secondary desire is an opposing trait/motivation to his primary goal. Since he cares about someone else, that person can be used against him.
His female companion ends up being killed or used for a bargaining chip. Emotionally, this sets him back and is a defeat for him.
In the case of Casino Roayle, his female companion actually ended up working for the arch enemy. His defining trait almost led to his demise.
You can show the various “sides” and “inclinations” of your main character by surrounding them with specific side characters that bring out their different sides.
For example, in the movie Scar Face, we see Tony Montana’s good side when the character Jeena is introduced. He adopts a paternal mindset and wants to take care of her. This makes us like him more.
However, it’s his overprotectiveness and need to be “the boss” that causes him to kill his partner (her new husband), leaving her in shambles.
In addition, it’s his negative trait – indulging in coke – which leads to the end of the movie. Jeena is killed by someone looking to kill him.
Of course, Scarface is a tragedy, but it just goes to show that “primary motivations” and “secondary opposing traits” are used in many genres.
In Conclusion – Novels vs. Movies
These are a few powerful tips that you can incorporate into your own stories.
I know that I used a lot of examples from movies, but these tips also apply to novels and books.
The main difference between a book and a movie is that a book can more easily go into the inner world of the various characters. We can learn what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, how they see the world, etc.
I tend to see more examples of artistic books that stray from some of the main tenants of storytelling. However the bestselling books definitely follow the format to some degree.
It’s important to remember that screenwriting also is simply the first draft of a movie. There are a lot of changes when the script gets in the hands of the actors and the director. Also – there are many indie films out there.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I recommend reading Story by Robert Mckee.