Five Concepts for Becoming a Better Storyteller

Stacked coins on a wooden surface

Improving your work is a process fraught with conflicting feedback and emotional resistance. However, understanding some important principles can help you put the problems you encounter into perspective. Here’s five concepts that are useful for accepting feedback and making your stories better.

1. The Author Is Dead

This strangely named principle comes from a 1967 essay by Roland Barthes titled The Death of the Author. While the original essay was more complex, these days the principle boils down to the idea that a writer’s intent for a piece doesn’t matter when evaluating or interpreting it. The author’s opinion on what the work means is no more valid than the opinion of a reader.

Storytellers need to embrace this principle for completely practical reasons. Once thousands of people are consuming your story, you can’t tell all of them how to interpret what you’ve created. If 75% of your customers think your main character is a terrible person, it won’t matter whether that character has a heart of gold they didn’t notice. You can try to explain why you wrote that character the way you did, but it’s unlikely to change how your work is perceived.

Since we can’t tell audiences what to think, The Author Is Dead puts the onus on us to communicate effectively. We’re responsible for crafting a work that evokes the response we want from readers. Any messages we want to convey must be clear without adding outside commentary. Conveying the messages we intend is very difficult, but we’ll never get there if we don’t accept that the story must speak for itself.

2. Comprehension Scarcity

Storytellers often think of stories as limitless. But our ability to tell stories is inherently limited on the receiving end. No one can read a million words per second or recount every word in every story. Any audience member can only comprehend and remember so many ideas in a given time frame or word count.

So when you put ideas in your story, you are spending a limited resource. Let’s pretend that resource is a pile of 36 pennies sitting on your writing desk. Each penny represents a small amount of your audience’s attention, comprehension, and memory. Everything you put in your story has to be paid from this pool of pennies.

  • You’ve created a unique underwater setting. It adds a lot of novelty to your story, but you’ll have to introduce a lot of ideas for the audience to understand how it works. It costs 12 pennies.
  • You’ve got a complex plot with several big reveals and some time-travel loops you have to explain. It costs another 12 pennies.
  • You have 12 pennies left for characters. You want to introduce 12 characters, but then each character only gets 1 penny. The audience will barely keep them straight.
  • You take the complicated time loops out of your plot, now it only costs eight pennies. Then you choose just four important characters. Each character gets four pennies, enough for your audience to get to know and love them.

Of course, stories don’t have a penny budget that we can objectively count. But the cost of spending over budget is readily apparent: a story that’s slow, confusing, or both. Spend too many pennies, and every penny depreciates in value.

That’s why a good storyteller is a penny-pincher. They know a side quest will take pennies away from the main plot and that a side character will take pennies away from the main character. Any story element that isn’t strengthening the whole work is detracting from the whole work. While it can be hard to let go of things we’ve put into our stories, having this perspective helps us realize it’s necessary.

3. Center Your Darlings

A common refrain in fiction writing is “kill your darlings.” This is generally said to encourage writers to remove things from their story that shouldn’t be there, but that they don’t want to let go of. And the biggest reason to remove favorites is comprehension scarcity. Darlings are often siloed away from everything else in the story. Because they aren’t serving the work as a whole, they become a big waste of pennies.

That’s why a centered darling is a safe darling. The better you are at making your favorite things central to your story, the less of those things will have to go. Do you love theorizing about warp-engine technology? Don’t just give your audience lectures on the subject; make your plot about warp engines. Do you love that rambunctious half-dragon character? Make them your main character.

This not only saves you from heartache later, but it gets your passion working for you instead of against you. Everyone does a better job when they care about what they’re doing.

Of course, this is one of those situations where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s better to identify your darlings early and craft your story around them than to move them into the center later. But even when you’re revising, it’s worth knowing that cutting those extraneous story elements isn’t the only option – just the easiest one.

4. Real-World Fallacy

The term “narrative fallacy” is used to describe how people make up inaccurate and overly simplistic narratives to explain real-world situations. Conversely, “real-world fallacy” can be used when people treat situations in a fictional narrative as though they are happening in the real world. Let me give you a couple examples.

“It’s not sexist that women can’t be werewolves in the story. The reason there aren’t women werewolves is because the gene for lycanthropy is on the Y chromosome.”

In fiction, everything from when it rains to which foods are eaten has been chosen by a person. Nothing is a natural occurrence. If the storyteller chooses to associate magic powers with the Y chromosome or writes every female character so she loves wearing sexy clothing, that doesn’t make the story any less sexist. In-story explanations can’t make up for bad choices about what the story depicts.

“The Star Wars villains don’t need to be competent because real-world villains aren’t always competent.”

What should happen in a story is not the same as what does happen in real life. If copying reality was the end goal of stories, everyone would stick to nonfiction. Fictional villains have to be competent to fulfill their storytelling purpose: raising tension. Real-world villains do not have this requirement.

To save time and energy, we often create much of our narratives without thinking hard about what we’re building. In doing so, we tend to include things because we perceive them to be a part of the real world. But while stories should be believable where possible, what works for the story is still different from what we see when we look out a window. Our audience will expect a story that’s more novel, just, and exciting than their daily lives.

5. Pareto Improvement

Borrowing from economics, a Pareto improvement is a change that gives some people a benefit but doesn’t extract a cost from anyone else. The change may not be a win-win, but it’s at least a win-tie, and that’s still objectively better. The goal of Pareto improvement is getting to Pareto efficiency – the state where you can’t make any more improvements without extracting a cost from someone.

How does this relate to storytelling? It’s a good starting guideline for when something should change in a story. Imagine you’re in a book club of six people, sitting in a circle discussing the latest read. Two of the people in your club say they didn’t like the villain because he does whatever’s plot convenient. The rest respond by explaining why they think the villain’s actions are logical. The people who were bothered by the villain’s behavior are outnumbered, so you conclude that there’s no problem with the story’s villain.

But think: could a Pareto improvement be made to this story? Almost certainly. Making the villain’s behavior appear more rational will improve the experience of the two people who were bothered by the perceived inconsistency. Everyone else is unlikely to mind. Judging by your book club, that’s a better reception with one-third of the book’s audience, and it will cost nothing.

Pareto improvement is by no means the last word in what should change. If only one person is bothered by something, it may not be worth revising for them. And sometimes you can’t make one audience group happy without making another group unhappy. But thinking in terms of Pareto improvement can help you see critical feedback as an opportunity instead of as something to explain away.

Mythcreants is a site for storytellers, so when we’re looking at popular works, we take a storyteller-centric approach. More often than not, that means being hard on the stories we all enjoy. We can’t craft stories to the best of our ability if we let ourselves ignore or dismiss a story’s problems.

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  1. Cay Reet

    Interesting read, again.

    But now I want to know what would go with those ‘the gene is on the Y chromosome’ werewolves. What implication does only having males have for the pack? How do they choose mates? Do the physical traits of the woman who gives birth to him influence the strength of the werewolf (so, perhaps, they’re looking for physically strong women above average height)? So much which you could get out of such an idea… Although most authors who would make such a choice just can’t imagine female werewolves or think ‘women with body hair are icky.’

    • Mike

      I suppose it could be pulled off with sufficient scientific knowledge. Say, the author is a biologist who is very interested in explaining the genetics of magic. Of course, the plot would have to be centered around that, and there would need to be other magic powers with wacky genetic behavior. Even the most well-intentioned author would probably still be under scrutiny for this particular trend with werewolves, though.

      On the other hand, that’s about the only time when knowledge of actual genetics is important in writing a story. Many magic systems are handwaved as “genetics” and, if it’s not that relevant to the plot, no one really bats an eye.

    • SunlessNick

      Werewolves in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series are only hereditary down the male line – anyone can be bitten and turned, but only a handful of people survive it – the result being that it’s very rare for werewolves to attempt to turn anyone they care about. And the only known female werewolf is the subject of widespread rumour.

      The series also has another couple of magical species, sorcerers and witches, who are respectively male and female hereditary.

      • Cay Reet

        Thank you for the info.

        I wonder, however, how those heriditary systems react to trans people. Born male, but yearning to be female – or the other way around. In a world with magic (and with sorcerers and witches, there would be magic) would allow for a sex change, even without science. That could mean a female werewolf or a male witch.

  2. Bubbles

    For #4, I don’t think the first example of werewolves would always be sexist if it were in a story – and I’m female! Before I go farther, I would like to explain that I think there are two types of “realism” which I believe people on this website, and elsewhere, conflate too often. I’ll explain these and call them “first sense” and “second sense” for short.

    The first sense is essentially “does this resemble the details of our world specifically?” Now, fiction definitely does not have to be realistic in this sense; that’s why it’s fiction after all (although in cases such as historical fiction or hard science fiction, you probably do have to make sure it isn’t totally unrealistic in this sense, either).

    The second sense is “given the rules of the universe I’m writing in, does this make logical sense?” I believe fiction does have to be realistic in this way, as otherwise, it would be logically impossible and many people wouldn’t enjoy it. This especially applies to the way characters act, which could be somewhat similar to how we act in the real world even things such as the laws of physics are different because there are constraints on what actions would be workable in a given scenario. That said, it is entirely possible to have realistic (in the second sense) characters who are very different from the audience: aliens who evolved differently, humans from a culture other than the audience’s, even those influenced by their biases or by something that can alter minds. I would also include “are the laws of physics in your universe self-consistent?” although that’s admittedly much more difficult to judge sometimes, including for me, so you may be able to pass on this.

    Now, your example of werewolves would be unrealistic in the first sense, but – here’s the key – not in the second sense. Here’s a little thought experiment to show why it may not be sexist, either. Unfortunately, I’m not able to think of a real-life example of a beneficial genetic trait that is Y-chromosome specific (they may exist, but I haven’t heard of them or found any with a Google search). Here on Mythcreants, it is generally agreed that there can be sexism against men (there was even an article about it). So let’s imagine a species of aliens in which females are generally larger and stronger than males, and there is widespread discrimination against males. One of them decides to write their equivalent of science fiction about a species of aliens called “humans.” (This is extremely unlikely, but it’s still possible – in both the first and second senses I mentioned). The humans have a weird sex-determination system with X and Y chromosomes; females have XX and males have XY. There are many genetic diseases that only males have because of this. Now, a males’ rights group may complain “This is sexist! Males are depicted as inferior to females!” Yet, it’s obviously what goes on in real life!

    In case you’re thinking that me describing aliens in which females are larger and stronger than males is sexist (or unrealistic), there are many animals on Earth in which exactly that happens, and many animals on Earth in which the reverse happens, and cases where the difference is so large that it has definite impacts on daily life. Why would it be sexist to portray something that not only could happen, but does, in your story? Not even as justified, but something that exists and affects the characters.

    As for your second example of villians, I think there’s a third consideration: Will the element serve my purposes? It is likely a good idea to make any villains in your story competent, for the reasons you gave. But that is only if competent villians are at all realistic. Note that if you have many organizations, unless the rules of your world somehow cause them all to be competent, some should probably be incompetent. Also, if you can build tension without competent villians, or you don’t need to build tension or have conflict at all (such as if your project is purely for worldbuilding), feel free to have incompetent organizations if they make sense.

    • crimson square

      About your comment on werewolves and the first and second sense – that’s realism versus believability, I think, and something that Mythcreants pointed out actually directly addresses that; the actual issue goes back to the difference between Doylist and Watsonian – that is, between “from a Real World (outside)” and “from an in-world” perspective. Something that wasn’t addressed clearly in this article, but was sometimes addressed in others, is something additional: Narrative Consequences.

      See, what the Real-World Fallacy is about is that – well, whether there’s an in-world explanation, a Watsonian explanation, doesn’t determine whether something is or is not sexist. The bit that’s important for that is the Doylist explanation – namely, “Why did the author choose to include this?”; the other important bit is “What narrative consequences does this have?”

      I want to spin your thought experiment a bit further to get into narrative consequences: Let’s say an alien writes a story with your premise. And then – the plot of the story includes frequent tragic deaths due to genetic diseases, and (cis) men never do anything important or plot-relevant because they’re obviously too ill to do that, so (cis) women have to do it all. (I mention cis because… well, the premise makes it kind of obvious that trans people have not been thought of.)

      … which has absolutely no resemblance to real life, but is, in fact, pretty much what is liable to happen in these werewolf stories. “Why can’t (cis) girls be werewolves?” “Because [in-world explanation made up by the author]” – “Why does no (cis) girl do anything awesome/plot-relevant (or why do they so much less of these things)?” “Well, it’s not like (cis) girls can have werewolf powers!”, answers the author. But – the girls not having werewolf powers was the author’s choice; the narrative consequence is that they aren’t as involved in the plot – and there’s usually not much of a narrative reason that keeps girls from having werewolf powers, it’s entirely the explanation the author made up themselves.

      That said, yes, it would perhaps be possible to write a story that does not display sexism despite such a thing – to go back to your thought experiment: If an alien writes the real world, exactly as if, where cis men have an easier time building up muscle and more genetic diseases, and are generally, broadly speaking, in positions of more power – I don’t think their males’ rights’ group would complain.
      If you take the werewolf premise, where the shapeshifting is explicitely connected to the Y chromosome, and explore what this means for female characters – for a cis female person, who would be often physically powerless in this society, and what this means for her – or tell the story of a trans female or a non-binary werewolf, the way this impacts this person and the way the society around her/them reacts (probably not well…) – well, there’s potential there, if potential that… does have to be explored very, very carefully, I’d say.

      But a lot of the time… well, “Girls can’t be Werewolves Because the Shapeshifting Gene Is On The Y Chromosome!” as an authorial explanation should probably be continued with “So I have an excuse for why No Girls Are Allowed in my tree-house – ah, as actual, plot-relevant characters, not just as plot devices.”

      • Cay Reet

        In addition, there could also be werewolves born with a XY chromosome set (meaning they have the shapeshifting genes), but a female body – that happens more often than a lot of people think. So there would, theoretically, be werewolves with a female phenotype. In addition, there’s all the XX….Y types (usually, you’d find XXY or XXXY), who are also physically female (because two or more ‘Xs’ make you physically female) but would, if that werewolf shapeshifting gene was a thing, be potential werewolves.

        The problem with the ‘it’s on the Y chromosome’ explanation is not that the genes couldn’t be on the Y chromosome, but the reason the author chooses for it. As you said, it could be written without sexism. As as I wrote before, that doesn’t mean there can’t be interesting and strong female characters as well, even without the shift. But in most cases, authors use that explanation, because they think women can’t be werewolves. They probalby haven’t heard about Angua from the Discworld series, or Ginger Snaps, or a small number of others. And because they don’t want to include female characters who are more than plot devices and have their own agenda.

        A similar thing happened with the “Underworld” mythology. To put it quick: a guy had, presumably at least, three sons. One became the very first vampire. One became the very first werewolf (although the evolution was later on added to). The third remained human. A group of monster hunters has kept an eye on the line of the third son, because it could potentially bring about an even stronger being (and does in the movies, a werewolf-vampire hybrid). The problem here? The bloodline shown only has the male descendants. There might be hundreds of descendants out there who came out of a female line, but they’re not traced. It doesn’t even make sense in-story, because the vampires have a female elder, so vampire powers aren’t bound to a gender. And even though we don’t immediately see female werewolves, at least the latter prequel “Rise of the Lycans” proves their existence. Which means every female discounted from the line could at some time become or birth that ‘super monster’ descendant.

    • Cay Reet

      The first and foremost thing about every world is that it’s the author’s choice. As soon as you leave reality behind (and that happens the moment you’re not recounting real-life events second by second), whatever happens in the story is your doing as the author. Which also means you make all the choices. You decide who can become a werewolf or a witch or can tame a unicorn. You decide whether you have faeries and what they’re like. You decide whether a character survives the bullet wounds they’ve sustained (to put in a less fantastic choice). It’s not about the realism itself. Of course, you can scientifically excuse ‘all male’ werewolves. You can even do that through ‘magic, what can you do?’ alone. But you have to owe up to why there are no female werewolves in your story. Because the explanation is your doing. And if people say ‘the only reason there are no female werewolves is because the author is sexist,’ then you have to accept that view as well.

      And about the villains: the reason why a villain has to be competent is because the villain is the threat. The hero is only as good as the villain is competent. That is why you make villains competent and not laughing stock. So people respect the heroic actions your hero did.

  3. Tyson Adams

    I think #5 is why writers benefit from being a member of a writers’ group. If you can get an idea of what isn’t landing quite right, you can improve it, even if a lot of people still got it.

  4. Jorden Darrett

    Well this is certainly helpful. I find the point about the author being dead particularly interesting. And sad that it’s true…

  5. Keith Kenny

    Excellent points for storytellers. Being one since asked to scare fellow Cub Scouts around the campfire, I see you’ve captured my evolutionary growth quite well. Thanks, Chris. I always read and benefit from your articles.

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