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Tips for Telling an Engaging Story

by Tom Ashford

Storytelling is hard. It’s not just getting words down onto the page (and doing this is hard enough, particularly when those words are expected to be both good and in the correct order). It’s not even the challenge of coming up with scenarios and scenes so that your character(s) get from Point A to Point B. The truly hard part is somehow making that journey feel natural and entertaining to the reader — weaving a narrative that pulls your reader in and never lets go.

And as with anything difficult, that’s much easier said than done. Many successful authors still release books that fail to capture their readers’ attention, let alone any budding writers just starting out on their indie author journeys. Are there any tricks and techniques we can use to help us struggling storytellers along the way?

Of course there are.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov’s Gun is a somewhat controversial dramatic principle first introduced by Anton Chekhov. He said that writers should, “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

It’s controversial in that Chekhov meant it quite literally. If you introduce something – anything – it needs to have relevance somewhere down the line, otherwise you should delete it from the script. This isn’t always possible, or even ideal – what if you want to introduce a red herring, for example? Hemingway was a famous opponent of the principle, though he did admit that readers will always look for hidden symbolism and significance in any seemingly inconsequential details they come across.

Perhaps it’s best to take Chekhov’s Gun as more of a guide than a strict principle you have to follow perfectly. Make a big deal of something early on in your story and then make sure it pays off for the reader by the end, either by that ‘gun’ making a surprise return or by having the dread of it going off linger for the entire duration of your book.

Be Unpredictable

Even if it means ignoring the first principle, Chekhov’s Gun. Not every story needs some sort of dramatic turn of events or plot twist to surprise its readers, but if your reader can see where the story is going before it even starts then they might not be inclined to keep reading.

On the other hand, if your reader has an idea of where the story might go, i.e. somebody mentions that they have a gun in a bedroom drawer somewhere, then the reader will feel compelled to keep reading to find out when it’s going to go off, and who it’ll be pointed at. The twist that the gun got stolen three days before the story started might just keep readers reading through the rest of the third act, too.

Know Your Genre

This is vitally important regardless of which genre you write in. People tend to stick to genres of books they like because they know what to expect from them – the happy-ever-afters of romance novels, the action and intrigue of a thriller book, the creeping dread of a horror story. If a reader picks up your book and doesn’t get what they’re looking for, they’re not going to keep on reading.

Research famous tropes and cliches of your chosen genre. Which tropes could you include in your story to make your readers feel at home? Just be careful to avoid those cliches – you want your book to feel familiar, not as if it’s simply retreading the same old tired ground.

Keep Moving Forwards

Go back through your chapters and scenes. Does each one of them add something to your storyline? If you took it out or moved it to another part of your story, would the story still make sense? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then keep it. If it’s no, then you need to chuck it in the bin.

If you’re going to keep the attention of your readers, then you need to maintain a sense of pace. Every scene in your story should be actively pushing the story forwards, and in doing so developing your characters. If it doesn’t do both, then you might need to rethink how that chapter works (or if it’s even part of your story at all).

Hope in the Darkness/ Conflict and Resolution

Story is all about conflict – conflict between countries, or organisations, or people, or a person with a problem. Without conflict there is no story. But conflict isn’t quite enough on its own. For there to be any story within that conflict, there needs to be hope that the conflict – whatever that conflict may be – can be brought to an end.

Start with an inciting incident at the beginning, where the status quo is disrupted and the main character is forced to set out – literally or metaphorically – and put an end to the conflict. Make sure that by the end of your book, that conflict is resolved (or partially resolved, if it’s an ongoing series). And then, as per the last point, make sure that each chapter goes some way to resolving that conflict, bit by little bit.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.