I used to wonder how Pixar came out with such great movies year after year. Then, I found out a normal Pixar film takes six years to develop, and most of that time is spent on the story.
In this article, you’ll learn ten secrets about how to write a story, and more importantly, how to write a story that’s good.
Everything I Know About How to Write a Story
Since I started The Write Practice over a decade ago, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how to write a good story. I’ve read books and blog posts on writing, taken creative writing courses, asked dozens of other story writers, and, of course, written stories myself.
The following ten steps are a distillation of everything I’ve learned about writing a good story. I hope it makes writing your story a little easier, but more than that, I hope it challenges you to step deeper into your own exploration of how to write a story.
1. Write In One Sitting
Write the first draft of your story in as short a time as possible. If you’re writing a short story, try to write it in one sitting. If you’re writing a novel, try to write it in one season (three months).
Don’t worry too much about detailed plotting or outlining beforehand. You can do that once you know you have a story to tell in the first place.
Also, don't worry about plot holes or getting some details wrong as you write. At this point, you don't even have to have finalized character names.
Your first draft is a discovery process. You are like an archeologist digging an ancient city out of the clay. You might have a few clues about where your city is buried beforehand, but you don’t know what it will look like until it’s unearthed.
All that’s to say, get digging!
2. Develop Your Protagonist
Stories are about protagonists, and if you don’t have a good protagonist, you won’t have a good story.
The essential ingredient for every protagonist is that they must make decisions. As Victor Frankl said, “A human being is a deciding being.” Your protagonist must make a decision to get themselves into whatever mess they get into in your story, and likewise, their character arc must come to a crisis point and they must decide to get themselves out of the mess.
To further develop your protagonist, use other character archetypes like the villain, the protagonist’s opposite, or the fool, a sidekick character that reveals the protagonist’s softer side.
It's a good idea to develop a character profile for every single character. This will help you make more believable characters and keep you from getting character details wrong. Some kind of character sheet is essential for your POV character at the very least.
Note: Character development isn't just for fictional characters! You need to have a well-rounded character if you're writing memoir/personal narratives (you're the perspective character) or certain types of nonfiction as well. Readers fall in love with characters.
3. Create Suspense and Conflict
Conflict is essential to every type of story. Conflict is what drives your characters and what keeps your readers reading. If there is no conflict, your reader will be bored, and there is no story.
There are two basic types of conflict. External conflict is the action of your story, the thing everyone sees on the surface. But don't forget about internal conflict! This is the process of your POV character warring with themselves and is what sets up the crisis point of the story and the character arc.
You also need suspense for a compelling story. Suspense isn't just for thrillers; it's a plus for any type of story.
To create suspense, set up a dramatic question. A dramatic question is something like, “Is he going to make it?” or, “Is she going to get the man of her dreams?” By putting your protagonist’s fate in doubt, you make the reader ask, what happens next?
To do this well, you need to carefully restrict the flow of information to the reader. Nothing destroys drama like over-sharing.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Honestly, the saying “show, don’t tell” is overused. However, when placed next to the step above, it becomes very effective.
When something interesting happens in your story that changes the fate of your character, don’t tell us about it. Show the scene! Your readers have a right to see the best parts of the story play out in front of them. Show the interesting parts of your story and tell the rest.
5. Write Good Dialogue
Good dialogue comes from two things: intimate knowledge of your characters and lots of rewriting.
Each character must have a unique voice, and to make sure your characters all sound different, read each character’s dialogue and ask yourself, “Does this sound like my character?” If your answer is no, then you have some rewriting to do. (Want more character development tips? Click here.)
Also, with your speaker tags, try not to use anything but “he said” and “she said.” Speaker tags like “he exclaimed,” “she announced,” and “he spoke vehemently” are distracting and unnecessary. The occasional “he asked” is fine, though.
6. Write About Death
Think about the last five novels you read. In how many of them did a character die?
Best-selling fiction often involves death. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Charlotte’s Web, The Lord of the Rings, and more all had main characters who died.
Death is the universal theme because every person who lives will one day die. You could say humans versus death is the central conflict of our lives. Tap the power of death in your storytelling.
7. Edit Like a Pro
Most professional writers have an established writing process that often involves writing three drafts or more. The first draft is often called the “vomit draft” or the “shitty first draft.” Don’t share it with anyone! Your first draft is your chance to explore your story and figure out what it’s about.
Editing is often the part of the writing process that causes the most anxiety, but it's necessary. Your second draft isn’t for polishing, although many new writers will try to polish as soon as they can to clean up their embarrassing first draft.
Instead, the second draft is meant for major structural changes (make sure it's a complete story!), for cleaning up any plot holes, or for clarifying the key ideas if you're writing a non-fiction book. This is where you make sure your story is complete, has believable characters (they should have character names now!), and that everything makes sense.
(Need a refresher on the basics of story structure? Click here.)
The third draft is for deep polishing. Now is when everything starts to gel. This is the fun part! But until you write the first two drafts, polishing is probably a waste of your time.
8. Know the Rules, Then Break Them
Good writers know all the rules for the type of story they're writing and follow them. Great writers know all the rules and break them.
However, the best writers don’t break the rules arbitrarily. They break them because their stories require a whole new set of rules.
Respect the rules, but remember that you don’t serve the rules. You serve your stories.
9. Defeat Writer’s Block
The best way to defeat writer's block is to write. If you’re stuck, don’t try to write well. Don’t try to be perfect. Just write.
Sometimes, to write better stories, you have to start by taking the pressure off and just writing.
10. Share Your Work
You write better when you know someone will soon be reading what you’ve written. If you write in the dark, no one will know if you aren’t giving your writing everything you have. But when you share your writing, you face the possibility of failure. This will force you to write the best story you possibly can and to amp up your creative writing skills with each story you write.
(Not quite ready to publish, but are interested in beta readers? Read our definitive guide on beta readers here.)
One of the best ways to write a story and share your writing is to enter a writing contest. The theme will inspire a new creation, the deadlines will keep you accountable, and the prizes will encourage you to submit—and maybe win! We love writing contests here at The Write Practice. Why not enter our next one?
How to Write a GOOD Story
All these tips will help you write a story. The trick to writing a good story? Practice. Practice on a daily basis if you can with a regular writing schedule.
When you finish the story you’re writing, celebrate! Then, start your next one. There’s no shortcut besides this: keep writing. Even using the best book writing software or tools like ProWriting Aid (check out our ProWritingAid Review) won’t help compared to continuing to write.
Click here to download the free book idea worksheet.
Do you have a story to tell?
Take fifteen minutes to start. Write the first draft of a short story in one sitting using the tips above.
Need a prompt to get started? Try this one: She was pretty sure that tree hadn't been there yesterday.
Then, share your story in the practice box below. (Now you're practicing tip #10!) And if you share your practice, be sure to leave feedback on a few practices by other writers, too. Excited to see your story take shape!
Enter your practice here:
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.