12 Steps to Writing a Great Story

By Susan M Lewis MEd.

Only you can tell your story. It is a piece of you that you bring to life through the words you express. Here are some steps to help you along the way:

1.   Write with abandon (Just write) 

Don’t stop to edit. Let the ideas and the story flow. If you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write, I’m clueless, there is nothing in my head, I’m sitting here and nothing is coming to me…” Keep it up until a thought takes you in a different direction. Since our thoughts are always in motion, this should allow some inspiration to work its way through.

2.   Get to know your characters

Who are they? Would you have lunch with them? If so, where would you go? What do you think they would eat? How would they dress? Would they have loud boisterous voices or soft whispery ones? Would they dominate the conversation? Would they stand out in a crowd? Who are their friends, family? The more real you make your characters, the more real they will seem to your reader. In order for your story to progress you need characters that your reader will care about, and getting to know them is your reader’s perfect opportunity to develop a relationship with them.

3.   Walk around in the world you are creating 

How real is it? If you are changing some facets of reality, do they fit? Do you need to do research to understand something in order to make your world come to life for the reader? Can you adequately describe the images in your mind so that your reader will see them, too? Is there some physical inspiration you can draw upon to help you with your writing, like a photo or drawing that is exactly what you had in mind? Use things around you to draw upon when you write. Sometimes a writer needs to step from behind the words to gain a new or clearer perspective.

        4. Show don't tell

Let your readers see it for themselves. It is oh so boring to have someone “tell” you something that happened, and much more fun to “see” it for yourself. For example, when you change the words from “she slipped on the ice” to read “her foot skidded across the frozen sidewalk, catching her off guard, and she splashed her hot chocolate down her quivering legs” the situation becomes much more real and comical.

5.   Break the rules

 Think outside the grammar box. This is your world. While certain rules need to be followed (punctuation, sentence formation, normal speech patterns) don’t let them stand in your way. If your character consistently says a word wrong, or has a dialect, use it. Don’t worry about ending sentences with a preposition or starting sentences with the word “and”.

6.   Use dialogue to advance your story 

Let your characters do some of the heavy work. Long strands of storyline can be boring, and life, in general, never goes on too long without the input or thoughts of someone else. Your reader is entering your world and following your path, allow your characters to lend their voices to light the way and keep your readers company.

7.   Keep it simple

Don’t overwhelm your reader. Too many of anything can be distracting. Too many characters to keep track of or too many twists in the road can cause your reader to spend time rereading and losing interest. Pump up the volume in spots, but don’t run ahead of your reader.

8.   “Kill your darlings” 

...says Stephen King. I once read that every story needs “death”. I thought that was morbid until I realized that death can be portrayed in many different ways. Since your story is about some change or evolution in your main character, there needs to be something that “dies” or is eliminated. It can be mental, a thought or understanding that changes dramatically causing your main character to take a different stance, or physical, a different environment caused by the removal of a person or situation causing your main character to take a different route. Change happens, embrace it.

9.   Allow your story to breathe 

Reread and edit only after you have given yourself time to clear your mind of your recent musings.

10.   Know your audience 

...if you haven’t met them already. After you have written your story, you may decide to address a different audience. If not, make sure that the material you have been writing is engaging and relevant for the audience you are writing for.

11.    Don’t become friends with your first draft 

Let it go. Think of your early words as practicing to tell your story. Like anything in life, to do it well we need to do it often while finding ways to improve.

The best method is to keep versions of your story as you rewrite. Sometimes a line or phrase works so well you want to write around it, but find it goes nowhere. That phrase, however, may find a home later on in your story. And by all means don’t use an eraser or the backspace key to edit. There is a flow of creativity that caused you to write the words in the first place, allow that creativity to sit on your page and encourage you to keep the momentum.

12.   Share

Let your words out. The first sharing should be with yourself. Read your words out loud and pay attention to what you have written. Are there words that you thought about but missed putting them down on paper? Do they make sense as you hear your voice saying them? How is your dialogue? Do people really speak that way?

After you feel comfortable enough with your story, share it with someone you trust. If they have too many questions, perhaps you need to change parts of your story to make it clearer in spots. Remember, you are telling your story, they are reading your story, it needs to translate to another person in order for it to be shared. But never take critiques as doctrine. The final say is still yours, just be prepared to accept the outcome depending on your audience (read this as teacher, editor, etc.).