Want to Be a Great Writer? Learn How to Tell a Great Story
Writing is writing. At a certain point, whether you’re working on a feature length screenplay, a 500 word blog post about financial industry trends or 20 page instruction manual for a client’s product or service doesn’t matter. Even though those examples couldn’t be more different in terms of the end result, your job is still the same:
You’re just trying to tell a story that people will connect with.
A screenplay might be 120 pages of a man and a woman falling in love. The story of that financial industry blog post is likely some version of “here’s how we got to this point, and here’s what it might mean moving forward.” That instruction manual boils down to “here’s how to take this thing you bought and use it to meaningfully improve your life.”
The promise of that story, whatever it is, was what forced people to sit up and pay attention. Now, it’s up to you to keep that attention for as long as possible.
Therefore, becoming a great writer has less to do with following a laundry list of structure and formatting rules and is more about making sure that story is as strong as it can be. If you’ve got a great story, people will naturally be drawn in by it. If you don’t have a great story, all the formatting best practices in the world won’t be able to save you.
The Spine is All You Have
One of the major qualities that separates a good story from a great one is the strength of the narrative through line that the writer is working with. Many writers refer to this as the spine, meaning that it’s the thing that elevates a piece of work above simply being a collection of words on a page.
The thing that great storytellers understand intimately, however, is that anything that doesn’t hang directly off that spine doesn’t need to be in your story. Even if you’re writing a 20 page white paper on some hyper specific industry-related topic, you still have to remain focused on the larger story at the heart of it all. Anything that doesn’t related to that story is distracting from it, and that’s not a problem that you can afford to deal with.
To get an example of this, consider author/screenwriter William Goldman and his script for the classic film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” For those unfamiliar, it’s the story of two legendary outlaws who run into a bit of trouble in the United States and flee to South America, where they manage to become legends all over again.
In his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman told a story about a scene he wrote early on in his process that he became obsessed with. It featured a very young Butch Cassidy, in jail in Wyoming. The governor of that state made Butch a deal: promise to go straight and you can get out of jail. Butch couldn’t do that, but he did propose a counter offer: “if you let me out of jail, I’ll never rob another bank in Wyoming again.”
The governor accepted the deal and Butch never caused trouble in that state for the rest of his life. It’s a terrific scene that shows a lot about Butch’s character…
… and, of course, it isn’t in the movie.
Because, as stated, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is about two legends who become legends a second time during the final years of their lives. The aforementioned scene – while great – just wasn’t related to the spine of the story that Goldman was telling, so it had to go.
That through line is why “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a great movie, but more importantly – it’s also why Goldman was a great writer. He took that same lesson with him into his fiction novels, into his essays about writing, and into every other piece of work he ever created regardless of genre.
That’s also why, if you want to be a great writer, you need to learn how to tell a great story. Once you’ve got that great narrative spine – the core idea of the piece you’re working on – every other part of your job more or less falls into place automatically.
When you’re deep in the weeds and you feel like that blog post you’re writing for a client might be getting too long, just ask yourself – “does this part hang on the spine of my story? Is it in total service of the reason why people wanted to read this in the first place?”
If no, then pull it out. If yes, then your piece isn’t getting too long at all. It could double in length and people would still find it compelling, because every portion of it is necessary and every last sentence funnels right back into the thesis that got them interested in the first place.
There are other elements of great storytelling, but this is certainly one of the most important. But the key thing to take away from this is that once you know what that spine is, you need to protect it at all costs.
Once you have that, make no mistake about it, you have everything you need.
Stephen L earned his Bachelor of Arts in Film and Video Production at the University Of Toledo College Of Performing Arts in Toledo, Ohio. In addition, he also worked for a big box electronic retailer for three years specializing in high definition audio and video equipment as well as computers and software. He has created almost ten thousand pieces of SEO-driven content for various online clients on topics ranging from the entertainment industry, electronics, computer operating systems and general technology.