Once upon a time I avoided using stories as part of my non-fiction writing.
I felt like stories were too hard to pull off, they didn’t resonate with non-fiction readers, and I just didn’t have the writing chops to tell a story that mattered.
One day, I went to a lecture by the screenwriting guru Robert McKee.
There, he explained, “He who tells the best story wins.”
He told us the very best non-fiction writers use stories as part of their work because they know the art of storytelling helps writers connect with their readers.
I discovered the readers of a well-told story will share the emotions of the characters in a story, and they will recall the key points of this story later far better than any article that’s based solely on reason and logic.
I knew I needed to change my approach to storytelling.
Get this post to go
Why You Should Embrace the Art of Storytelling
If you’ve been avoiding storytelling as part of your writing, reconsider your approach.
Stories are how we make sense of the world, of our past experiences and of what the future holds.
Even if you write non-fiction, incorporating simple stories into your writing will help you communicate your message with your readers and make an impact on them that lasts.
In this post I’ll share with you what I’ve discovered about storytelling.
I’ll explain how storytelling can change your non-fiction writing for the better.
And I’ll explain how I used storytelling examples to launch a coaching service for writers.
Now gather around.
Step 1: Establish Your Central Character
In every great story, a central character or hero goes on a journey or an adventure.
For example in the film Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the primary character.
He is called to adventure by Obi-Wan Kenobi to rescue Princess Leia and defeat an evil empire.
He’s a character we can empathise with.
The author Christopher McDougall uses storytelling in his memoir Born to Run to tell the story of the Tarahumara Tribe in New Mexico, of his personal experiences running and to depict the evolution of this sport.
His target audience is the everyman or woman who has an interest in but not a deep understanding of running.
To tell the story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words day, I could present myself or my reader as the main character.
In this case, I picked myself.
Step 2: Give Your Character a Problem
Now that you’ve chosen the hero or central character of your story, ask this question: “What is he or she struggling with right now?”
In Star Wars, Luke is struggling to escape his home planet after Darth Vadar’s troopers kills his aunt and uncle.
In the book and film the Godfather by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone struggles with his family and the direction of his life after his uncle Don Corleone is shot and his mafia family begins to fall apart.
In the book Born to Run, the author Christopher McDougall, writes at length about his ongoing physical injuries and how he was on the verge of abandoning the sport of running.
If you’re telling a non-fiction story, describe in a few sentences a problem that you have or one that you know your readers have.
While telling the story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words a day, I wrote about my inability to finish a book.
I said that if I didn’t increase my daily word count, I would never have anything to publish.
And a writer who can’t finish and publish his book has a serious problem.
Step 3: Your Character Meets a Guide
Next, the hero or central character of your story must meet someone who listens to and understands their problems.
This guide should empathise rather than sympathise with the central character of your story, and even help them.
In Star Wars, Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi who then explains to Luke how he can escape his ordinary life and go on an adventure to rescue a princess.
In the book Born to Run, McDougall meets a guide – Caballo Blanco – while on a journalism assignment. This guide introduces McDougall to the concept of minimalist or barefoot running.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you can present yourself as a guide that understands your reader’s problems, or you can write about someone who helped you.
It’s easy to present yourself as a guide if you use language familiar to your readers and if you use words like “you” rather than “I”.
For example, I committed to writing 1,000 words a day after Stephen King explained what he does in his book On Writing.
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”
Later, King empathised with the distractions new writers face and argued they (me) should aim for at least 1,000 words a day.
Step 4: The Guide Gives Your Character a Plan
The role of the guide in your story is to help the hero overcome the problem you identified previously.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi helps Luke leave his home planet, find the force and ultimately defeat Darth Vadar.
In the book Born to Run, Caballo Blanco and several other athletes give Christoper McDougall a plan for becoming a better and healthier runner through a new type of training and barefoot running.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you can give your reader a plan for overcoming their problem by acting as a guide and explaining what they need to do next.
Alternatively, you can write about how someone you met helped you overcome this problem and explain that your readers can do the same.
“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
Step 5: The Guide Calls Your Character To Adventure
Every great story has a moment of crisis where the main character must decide: will I or won’t I?
In the Godfather, Michael must decide will he turn his back on his family and a life of crime?
Or will he leave his old life behind him and avenge the attempted murder of his uncle by killing a corrupt policeman?
In Born to Run, Caballo Blanco asks for Christopher McDougall’s help to organise an ultra marathon in New Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons.
McDougall has never done anything like this before and must decide if he’s a runner and an athlete or if he should hang up his trainers and spend his days on the couch.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you can call your reader to adventure by asking them to pursue something they desire.
This could be:
- Writing 1,000 words a day
- Publishing a book
- Starting a popular blog
In my case, I explained that after I started writing 1,000 words a day I ran out of things to write about and had to consider where I was going.
Step 6: Identify What’s At Stake
Every successful story contains a moment of crisis within which the core value(s) of the story is stake.
In the Godfather, Michael knows his family will be destroyed if he doesn’t act and protect them.
However, he also knows he risks his soul if he murders another man in cold blood to protect his family.
The core values here are family and ethics.
In Born to Run, McDougall’s very life may be at stake as Caballo Blanco wants to organise this race in a remote part of Mexico controlled by murderous drug lords.
However, McDougall also knows if he doesn’t help organise this race he may never find the answers to the questions he has about running about the endurance of the Tarahumara Indian tribe.
The core values here are McDougall’s life and his quest for knowledge.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you can identify what’s at stake through explaining what the reader will gain or lose if they take action.
To write 1,000 words everyday, I had to give up or cut back on other activities like television and social events (what I stand to lose).
If didn’t give these things up and write 1,000 words every, then I would never write a book (what’s at stake).
The core values here are immediate gratification and ambition.
Step 7: Make Your Character Choose (And Then Reveal The Consequences of Their Choice)
Your central character’s decision must have consequences if you want your story to sound compelling.
In Star Wars, Luke must decide if he wants to take his place next to his father and join the Dark Side or if should reject his father.
He chooses the latter and as a consequence, he sacrifices himself by jumping to his death (only be rescued last minute by his friends).
In the Godfather, Michael chooses to protect his family by killing a policeman in cold blood.
As a consequence, he must go into hiding in Italy and eventually return and assume his place as head of a powerful crime family.
In Born To Run, Christopher McDougall embraces barefoot running and organises an ultra-race with his new friend Caballo Blanco.
As a result, a small group of ultra-athletes and the Tarahumara Tribe take part in a gruelling 50 miles race that no one in the wider racing community hears about (at least until McDougall’s book was published).
When I started writing 1,000 words a day, I quickly discovered that I didn’t have an audience for my work and that I would never improve as a writer without an audience.
This new knowledge set me on the path towards blogging.
Tip: Start at the End and Write Backwards
Before you write your story, think about how it ends.
It’s easier to tell a story when you know exactly what happened and how things turned out.
This means doing the following:
- Define your target audience
- Identify what your audience needs
- Picking a problem they have
Many successful non-fiction writers figure out who they are writing for and what they want to say before they put pen to paper i.e. they pitch their idea to an editor before they write it.
Before writing my story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words a day, I identified my target audience as other new writers who wanted to do the same as well as those who were curious about my journey.
I knew some of these writers and bloggers were interested because they’d emailed me and asked how they can write more frequently.
Storytelling: The Most Powerful Weapon at Your Disposal
It’s not as difficult as it sounds to tell a story as part of your non-fiction writing, and it will help you win the hearts and minds of readers.
All it takes is some practice and a little knowledge of what a good story involves.
I used Star Wars, the Godfather and Born To Run as examples because they’re fantastic stories that anyone can relate too.
I included my story to show you that you don’t need to be George Lucas or Mario Puzo to incorporate storytelling into your work.
If you’re still struggling with the art of storytelling, I recommend reading Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.
If your story is genuine and honest, you will make a much greater impact on your readers than anything you can achieve with cold logic and reason.
Image Stephen King remixed via Comicon” by “Pinguino” – “Pinguino’s” flickr account. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Get your 101 writing prompts today
Need help getting started writing? Use these proven writing prompts. I'll also send you practical writing advice and more as part of my newsletter.