Storytelling

Five Ways to Build Your Storytelling Muscles

While receiving direct instruction via books, workshops, or editors is a fine way to learn storytelling, it’s also helpful to build skills on your own. If you’re looking for ways to get in extra practice, try these five activities.

1. Write Shorter Stories

While the fiction market encourages novel writing, focusing on novels can inhibit learning. That’s because they usually take years to write. You’ll probably get better at your craft during that time, but as long as you’re working on the same project, you’ll be constrained by choices you made when you knew less. Instead of spending your energy creating the best story you can, you’ll spend it trying to make all the pieces you designed years ago work properly. That’s slower and often discouraging.

In contrast, writing short stories allows for not only rapid iteration but also a feeling of accomplishment when you finish each story. As your skills improve, you won’t be held back by your previous writing. Instead, you’re free to try out different styles, get rebellious experimentation out of your system, and find your personal rhythm.

Plus, writing more shorter stories will give you additional practice coming up with a throughline, a likable main character, and a turning point. Yes, novels are a little different from short stories and you will have to adapt to novel writing later, but just nailing those fundamental skills makes a huge difference.

2. Analyze the Stories You Read

Writers are told to read a lot. This is fine advice; reading both good books and bad ones exposes you to what does and doesn’t work. It also provides some idea of what other storytellers are doing. However, it’s easy to let reading become a passive process that doesn’t give your storytelling muscles a workout. You might still pick up some skills by osmosis, but you won’t get the most out of your reading.

Instead, apply the storytelling concepts you’ve learned to the stories you consume. Ask yourself what plot arcs are present, how the storyteller is helping you get to know their characters, and how they are drizzling in important information. No storyteller is perfect, so any story you consume is probably doing things wrong, but that can also be a learning opportunity. Noticing where a story is working and where it’s not is incredibly helpful.

Analyze not just books but also any movies or TV shows you watch. I don’t recommend that writers consume only visual media; they also need exposure to narration. However, it’s often easier to spot the plot structure of a big-budget Hollywood story.

3. Get in Touch With Your Feeeeelings

Am I really saying that to be a great storyteller, you have to do some touchy-feely inner journey to discover your own emotions? Yes, yes I am.

You will always be reader zero for your own stories. The more discerning you are, the better your story will be before anyone else reads it. Getting a strong start requires not only applying storytelling principles to your writing but also measuring whether what you’re doing is working. That measurement comes from the gut. But to use your gut effectively, you have to know what success feels like. You should be able to recognize the tension of a well-crafted conflict or the pang of sympathy that makes a character likable.

The tricky thing about human emotions is that they don’t come with explanations attached. Identifying why you’re bored or why you’re excited is immensely challenging. However, it’s also an incredibly productive exercise for developing storytelling skills. Paying attention to how you feel when consuming stories and putting in the effort to pin down why you feel the way you do will help you diagnose problems in your own writing.

4. Take Acting Classes

Actors have something critical in common with storytellers: we both have to step into the shoes of other people to accurately portray them. For writers, learning to embody characters helps us approach characterization from a more genuine place. In particular, it steers us away from comical, one-note villains and other shallow caricatures. Once you get into a character’s mindset, you’ll make their actions more logical and their emotions deeper. Sometimes, how they respond to story events may even surprise you a little, and that’s lots of fun.

Actors are specialists in adopting this kind of mindset, so training as an actor is a great step for those who have trouble connecting with their characters. Of course, there are different methods of acting. Since most of us can’t go to our local theater for in-person classes right now, it’s a great time to test out virtual options and discover what’s most helpful for you.

While learning to embody our characters, we can feel grateful that we don’t have to do it under the pressure of recording cameras or while pretending that a green screen is a beautiful landscape.

5. Read Audience Reactions

People react to stories in a wide variety of ways, but once you get a big enough group, the range of reactions are something that storytellers can account for. For instance, some people hate Star Wars’ Kylo Ren and some people love him, but both of those reactions were entirely predictable. He murdered a popular character onscreen and was also a dark and broody love interest for the protagonist. The new trilogy put itself in a position where it was impossible to please everyone, and that position could have been avoided.

That’s why it’s incredibly useful for a storyteller to have some sense of how people in general react to story events. We can use this to make judgment calls about when a character has gone too far or how unpleasant events might affect readers.

Reading reactions to popular stories can help you understand how people might respond to yours. In particular, hit TV shows being released one per week provide a great opportunity to look at fan reactions for each episode. You can see what people are saying on social media or read entertainment news for the latest buzz. Having a look at a show’s devoted fandom will also allow you to see which characters are loved, which are hated, and where the big sparks are flying between characters. Just keep in mind that these fandoms aren’t the same as a general audience.


If you’re looking for a way to learn faster or you’re not sure if you’re absorbing the lessons you read, spend some time out there finding your own answers. Stories are part of human nature, so we all have the capacity to discover how they work.

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    Surprised you didn’t mention Play/Run an RPG

    I know you’ve mentioned that elsewhere…

    • Sarah

      This is great advice! I was surprised that you mentioned taking an acting class–especially because I’ve recently considered taking a class for fun but couldn’t quite put my finger on why I thought it would help me–and it makes perfect sense. I’ve found myself wanting to go into play writing just because you have an actor there to show all the necessary body language to convey the emotion of a non-POV character without the temptation to describe it move for move.

      • Sarah West

        (Sorry, this was supposed to be a general comment, not a reply.)

    • Chris Winkle

      While interactive and non-interactive storytelling have some overlap, they are also different enough that there’s a large risk of people bringing over storytelling habits from RPG that don’t work in writing. I’m not actually sure telling writers to play RPG is a good idea, and if I mentioned it, I’d have to spend a lot of words on caveats.

    • El Suscriptor Justiciero

      Isn’t that part of Point 4?

  2. Sarah

    How do you know when you’re “ready” to try a longer story?

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m sure that answer is different for different people, but I would say if writing short stories has become routine, you’re largely happy with the stories you’re writing, you’ve done all the wild experimentation you want to, and you feel ready for new challenges, then it’s time to move up in size.

    • Cay Reet

      Sometimes it just happens. When I started my first novel, I thought it would be a novella, like the others I’d written before. Then I realized it needed much more space than that and in the end, it was a full-fledged novel.

  3. Eli

    “While the fiction market encourages novel writing, focusing on novels can inhibit learning. That’s because they usually take years to write. You’ll probably get better at your craft during that time, but as long as you’re working on the same project, you’ll be constrained by choices you made when you knew less. Instead of spending your energy creating the best story you can, you’ll spend it trying to make all the pieces you designed years ago work properly. That’s slower and often discouraging.”

    Well this paragraph has singlehandedly changed how I think about writing. I’m not sure if I should just thank you or have an existential crisis. But on a serious note, thank you.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Yeah, same. I don’t know how I managed to miss this, but I sure am glad for this article.

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