One Question That Will Make You a Better Storyteller

In this era, we have boundless access to stories. At any given moment, almost any podcast, song, film, magazine, book or television plot is a mere click away. It’s entirely possible to debate the merits of this instant gratification, and what impact it has on our actual engagement with media – but that I will leave for another day. Instead, I’d like to give you a tool to leverage your exposure to these stories, and use them to become a stronger, more adept storyteller and writer yourself.

It’s not a difficult question, but can be deceptively challenging to answer. And therein lies its utility. Ready for it? Get your pen out. Because here it comes.

When you see, read or hear something that you like, ask yourself:

Why does this work?

Challenge yourself to identify what about a particular story or song you find compelling, and describe it. (There is also some use to examining where otherwise good stories fall apart or go wrong, but in my opinion, simply listing why something is terrible isn’t quite as helpful to developing new writing skills.) Is it the overall tone that a film or play manages to create? Or do you find yourself deeply engaged in the emotional journey of a fascinating character? Is it the way in which rhythmic language is used in poem? Or the way negative space creates intensity in a photograph?

Really, I’m not kidding when I suggest that this tool can be used with anything you like. And when you start examining your answers, you’ll discover some inspiration for achieving similar success in your own narrative crafting.

I’ll give you an example. I deeply enjoyed the Cohen Brothers’ recent film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In general, I am drawn to stories about the American West that challenge the stereotypical portrayals of Western narratives, and thought the film was dark, whimsical and wonderful. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend hopping onto Netflix and giving it a go.) In particular, I found the final segment – The Mortal Remains – phenomenal. So – why does the story work?

The segment strikes a mysterious and macabre tone, and offers a deep, philosophical examination of human nature, love and death. This all unfolds as the sun slides lower on the horizon as travelers bounce along in a stagecoach toward a shared destination. It’s a simple premise – just a stagecoach ride and a conversation. And yet, it manages to achieve storytelling excellence. There are a great many things that make this portion of the film work, but here are a couple that I noticed immediately.

When the scene opens, the lighting is warm-ish; it appears to be early evening, and the sun is sinking down in the sky. The light transitions from kind, yellowish hues into deep blues and greens, with heavy shadows. This change – while simple and a literal everyday occurence – becomes ominous, and slowly builds the thrum of deep-in-your-gut tension around what’s really unfolding in the stagecoach.

The beginning of “The Mortal Remains” – notice the warm light.
As the scene wears on, the lighting and tone becomes very different.

Now that I’ve identified this simple thing – the way the changing evening light offers an evocative backdrop to an increasingly disturbing conversation – I can consider how that might be useful in a story. Could changing light or the waning of a day help with foreshadowing? Or perhaps a metaphor for a larger theme in a narrative?

Another factor that makes this particular storyline work so well is something that is never, in fact, seen. Two of the characters on board the stagecoach explain that they, under a requirement of their employment, are transporting a dead body. This corpse is never shown, and yet the references to its proximity cast an uneasy pall over the conversation. It’s an interesting example of how things unshown or not present can have immense power. It manages to stir up a huge number of unsettling questions, and thereby contribute to the overall macabre tone without explicit violence or gore.

These two simple elements of the film segment – changing light and a mysterious dead body – contribute hugely to the Gothic energy that infuses the conversation. There are many more details that could be examined here, too! What does it add to have the scene unfold in a moving stagecoach instead of in a static location? Why are the characters dressed the way that they are? How do their accents contribute to the energy of the conversation? Each answer can be a new tool in your writer’s kit.

This is an excellent journaling exercise, or an easy go-to when you’re feeling stuck by writer’s block. Perhaps you’ll start to discover patterns in what you’re drawn to, or inspiration to play with new or different styles and voices in your writing.

Better yet, the next time you sit down to create a rich, compelling scene on the page, think through these tools, and consider how you might use them to make your own work “work” at a higher level!