How To Tell A Story

I was sent this email recently:


Dear Susan,

I am a 17 year old student and I have just started my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). I found your contact details through the website "" and would really appreciate if you could  spend a small amount of your time to offer me some advice.
...I want to learn the appropriate techniques to effectively tell a story, to make a meaningful piece of writing... I understand that you may be very busy but it would mean a great deal to me if you would be able to give me some response about how to tackle writing a short story... I really feel that communicating with a professional writer will allow me to improve the way that I go about tackling this project.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this email, I hope to hear back from you.

 I wrote 'J' this answer:

Please don’t think I’m brushing you off when I simply say: Get some collections of short stories and read them. It’s the best advice I can give.


All writers learn to write by reading. There is no recipe for a short story. I can’t say, do this, do that and add some of this and you’ll have a good short story.

Read some stories critically. That is, think hard about them as you read. Have a notebook and make some notes.

As you read, bear in mind that nothing in a story ‘just happens.’

In real life, almost everything ‘just happens.’ There’s no plan behind it. I once volunteered at an Adult Literacy Class. The first day I turned up, I went along to the classroom and found the whole class of about ten people standing outside. I joined them and we all stood there for an hour, chatting as we waited for the tutor to arrive. She never did. The class were surprised. It wasn’t like her. After an hour, we gave up and went home.

The next week we learned that the tutor hadn’t simply decided to stay in bed. She’d been on her way to us and she’d been hit by a car. While we were outside the classroom, wondering where she was, she was being put into an ambulance and taken to hospital.


There was no writer pulling the strings behind this. No point was being made, there was no comment on the way we live hidden in the events. No turn of the plot was being set up. No character was being shown in action. No meeting of two characters was being engineered. All of it simply happened, by chance, without purpose. No significant conclusion could be drawn from any of it, nothing is being said, in this chance incident, about Life, the Universe and Everything.

But imagine that this was a story you read. Nothing in a story is there by chance. Especially in a short story, where the writer might only have a thousand words— or 300. Every single word has been chosen rather than another word that could have been used instead. Why write ‘chuckle’ when the word could have been ‘giggled’ or ‘laughed?’ Why write ‘concerned’ when it could have been ‘worried?’

If in a story, a character turned up to a class where the tutor never appeared and was later found to have been knocked down, every single detail would be in the story for a reason. Because, if it had no reason to be there, it would have been cut in the rewriting.

Is the story third-person or first-person narration? Why? The writer made that decision for a reason.

Is the new volunteer the main character and if so, why? What point is being made by the volunteering— something about his/her character?

Who are the pupils waiting outside? What do they talk about? Why are they made to talk about that and not something else? Do they realise the newcomer is a volunteer tutor or do they think s/he is another student? What difference, if any, does their impression make to the story?

Is the whole conversation there just to introduce something that’s going to happen next? Or to give an account of another character before that character appears? If there is no such purpose to the conversation, is it worth including it?


Does the story include an account of the tutor trying to get to her class on time and being hit— or is that left as something that the characters only talk about? Either way, how does it change the story?


As you read, think about how the writer is doing things. How does the writer show you what their characters are like? How do they tell you about the places where the story is happening? How do they write dialogue?


When you like a story, why do you like it? When you dislike a story, why? Put it another way— what kind of writing do you want to copy and what kind do you want to avoid? (All writers are influenced by other writers, positively or negatively.)


In film-writing, they say: ‘Cut to the chase.’ They’re talking about editing— cutting out a piece of film. They mean, ‘Cut out the slow stuff, the long meaningful talks between characters, the philisophising. Cut all that short so we get straight to the stuff people pay to see: the car-chase.’


It doesn’t have to be, literally, a car-chase. It could be the scene in the gladitorial arena, the romantic scene, or the scene where your favourite character is in danger of their life.


In short, cut out the long descriptive pieces and the account of every tiny feeling your characters have and get on with the interesting stuff.

Yet another way of saying it is, ‘Start every scene as far into it as you can and get out of every scene before the end.’ This is good advice, I think, for any kind of writing. (Which doesn't mean you should follow it to the letter, every time.)

You probably have to write your scene or your story at full length first, so you know all about it. But don't consider every word you write to be untouchable. Be prepared to cut any passage. Put every paragraph on trial. What is it doing for the story that it deserves to stay? Is it establishing character or place? Is it showing character? Is it preparing for a turn in the plot? Ideally, it should be doing more than one of these things at once. If it isn't, cut it.


Rewrite is the most important tip I can give you. You don’t write anything once. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you don’t think you can improve it any more. Rewriting includes cutting stuff out. Whole paragraphs, whole chapters, whole characters.


Read through your finished story and ask: What can I cut from the beginning? How far into it can I start?


Take the little story of the woman tutor hit by the car. Don’t start with the main character, months before, trying to decide between volunteer opportunities. Don't waste pages telling us how they made up their minds while going about their usual days.


Don’t even start with the main character catching the bus to the class.


How far in can you go without making things too confusing to your reader? Begin with the main character meeting the others outside the classroom door?


Begin at the point where they decide not to wait any longer but to go home?


How about starting the following week, when they first meet their new tutor and learn why they were stood up by the old one?


Or, if you tell it from the tutor’s point of view, do you start with her getting up that morning? Or with the moment she’s hit by the car? Do you start in the ambulance? Or when she wakes up in hospital?


Every starting point has its plusses and its minuses. Start too far in and you have to explain a lot of 'back-story' before the reader can understand what's going on. Or you miss a scene that would have allowed you to establish your world and characters.


 You have to decide what points you need to establish for your story and which starting point helps you make that point best.


Then you get out of the story or scene before it ends. To do that, you have to decide how it ends. What is the point of the story? What’s the feeling you want to leave us with? You may not know in great detail exactly how you want the story to end, but it's a good idea to start thinking about it.

The point of the story about the woman being knocked down could be that she thought she was all on her own but finds out, when she’s laid up in hospital, that she has more friends than she thought. Aaaah.

Or it could be that, when she tries phoning round to get someone to feed her cat and water her garden, that she finds she doesn’t have any real friends at all. — Get out of the story before you hammer that point to death. Drop a hint and let the readers figure it out for themselves.


Characters. Some people will tell you to start with the characters and follow them wherever they go.


Personally, I think that leads to disaster. Because you can always think up some 'quirky', 'fascinating' character and then think of dozens of scrapes they can get themselves into -- and then another pickle -- and then another one -- If you tag along behind your characters like this, your story unspools and unspools and goes on and on and on until readers give up in despair of the story ever getting anywhere. Of it ever having any point.

My advice would be: Start with the story you want to tell, and then build the characters who will best allow you to tell that story. What age do they need to be? What personality works best for the tale you have to tell?
         The story must always seem as if it’s being pushed along by the characters. Never have something happen, or turn up, just because it solves a problem for a character. Their struggle to solve the very hard problems you invent for them is the story.
         But as the character pushes the plot, the plot should push back. If you want to write a well-shaped story that will seem to have a point, then your plot and characters go forward in lock-step. Your character is part of your plot, was invented as part of your plot, to help you to tell the story you want to tell.
         So, in my Sterkarm Handshake, I made the hero a 16th Century riever who's been trained since childhood to ride, fight, steal

The Sterkarm Handshake

and kill. I don't particuarly admire his attitudes but, in the story, he has to lead a riever band on raids, so I had to give him the ability to do that.
           It might have been 'quirky' to make him a scholarly type who hates violence and only wants to curl up with a good book -- but such a character would have been useless for telling the story I wanted to tell.
         The heroine is scholarly -- she's a historian so keen that she's agreed to travel into the past and endure all the discomfort of life in a reiver tower, to experience it for herself. She's from the 21st Century and a gentle, peace-loving soul who, as the hero remarks, 'thinks that it's possible to get by without anyone ever being hurt.' (He knows it's impossible.) She spends a lot of the book trying, without success, to prevent people getting hurt.
          But her character is as much dictated by the plot as the hero's. I needed a 21st-Century character who could explain the 16th Century to my readers, and I needed to explain why she's 'living in the past.' I also needed a contrast to the reiver's harsh beliefs.

          I could have given her a leather breast-plate and thigh-boots and sent her out to fight battles at the hero's side, but that wouldn't have fitted the story I wanted to tell. (Although I might have sold more.)

But when you’ve decided what characters your story needs, work on making them as real as you can.


One final thing— your ending has to be worth the effort the reader has put into getting there.
          The writer William Goldberg said, “Endings are a bitch.” He meant, they’re the hardest part of any story, book or script to write. Too true. They have to be an ending you couldn’t completely see coming, and yet to be the perfectly right way to end. And they have to be ‘big enough.’ Not big in the sense of loud explosions or the stage being knee-deep in bodies, but emotionally big enough.


A story that tails off into some timid little predictable ending is going to disappoint your reader.


But it’s should be said that it's hard, really hard, to write an ending like that. There are a great many good books that have slightly disappointing endings. So don’t be too angry with yourself if you can’t come up with the perfect ending. Endings really are bitches.


 All this is why I can't give you a set of instructions on how to write your story. The choices depend too much on your style as a writer, and what kind of story you're writing in this instance. Whatever your plans for it, you have a lot of difficult, thoughtful choices to make.


Writing fiction well is a craft and an art. It never gets easier because as you master one part of it, you become aware of several other skills you need to learn or improve. I wish you luck and courage.


Susan Price.