We all love to hear a great story, whether told through the movies, a book, a song or around the water cooler in the office. Your blog, it turns out, is just another medium for spreading stories.
Stories are essential, whether you are trying to convince co-workers of your opinions, or you need to raise venture capital for your idea.
I discovered these techniques while working on my first novel, The Towers of Zeyron, available from Amazon. Hopefully, as you deploy these in your own content marketing, your posts will see higher levels of engagement and popularity.
Lesson 1: Outlining and the Art of Story Design
A good way to beat writer’s block, and to output better stories at the same time, is to become an outliner.
In fiction circles, outliners like J.K. Rowling are contrasted to pantsers like Stephen King, who write everything by the seat of their pants. Outlining, however, allows you to design the cadence of the story and its major inflection points before you begin writing.
Great bloggers, like the people at Hubspot, are already using this technique to beef up their storytelling and blog-writing. You’ll see some similarities in Hubspot’s outlining technique to this sample mystery thriller outline by mystery writer Holly West.
In film and screenwriting, screenwriters use the Three Act Structure, which is a widely-held story-design technique that helps you craft a good story.
What is essential here is that you define the core of your story, and then fit it into a well-designed structure that builds up to your logical conclusion. A well-designed story allows your blog posts to be more convincing, more logical and carry readers’ interest all the way.
Lesson 2: Clearly Depicting the Conflict or Driving Problem
The art of using conflict to propel your writing forward is another lesson to learn from the great storytellers. Conflict is the mismatch between two opposing views, characters or realities.
In a novel context, the opposing goals between hero and villain create the basis for the fights that make up a big part of the story.
Instead of just writing a factual blog post with a title like, “How We Fundraised For Our Company’s Year-End Celebration”, you could capture more interest if you highlighted the critical conflict that makes your story great.
Maybe you were actually short on funds? If so, you could write, “How We Held A 3000-people Event With Absolutely No Money In The Bank”.
Conflict is everywhere around us, and you can learn to use it in your own writing. Take, for example, this blog post by Brian Dean of Backlinko. Here he talks about how someone following his advocated method was able to drive 17,584 unique visitors to a website.
Brian uses the idea of conflict effectively when he depicts the seemingly helpless situation of the person in the case study. Here’s an excerpt from his writing that showcases the central conflict:
In one day.
And he accomplished this despite having:
And zero Twitter followers.
As well as zero marketing budget.
In other words, the lack of connections, no marketing budget and zero followers on Twitter are the main forces that were pulling against the marketer in the case study. If you are a fan of Brian’s blog, you are going to be curious how someone overcame such insurmountable obstacles to be able to accomplish such an impressive result. The conflict, and how it is to be resolved, pulls you in.
Lesson 3: Author Research and Authoritative Voice
Few people are willing to believe information that is only half-baked. Fiction writers know this all too well. That is why they do author research and immerse themselves in the circumstances of their characters. This way, they can then write with authoritative, first-hand experience of what things feel like.
A good example is David Morrell, the author of First Blood and creator of Rambo. Morrell has a reputation for putting himself through gruelling experiences like surviving on mountain-tops and learning to fly planes solo so he can write authoritatively about heroes in such situations.
In the blogosphere, Tim Ferriss stands out for his well-documented experiments where he goes out to learn things first-hand and then writes about what he found out.
For his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim went on a mission to master the fine art of cooking and teach others how to do the same for themselves. He did things like talk to master butchers to find out about the best meat, to learning from the best chefs how they prepare tasty food. This is one reason why his content stands out so much in the blogosphere.
To achieve similar results, go deep with your research and really immerse yourself in the role. Readers can tell when a writer has lived the life they are talking about in a book or a blog post.
Lesson 4: Use the Power of Suspense
Thriller writers employ suspense to arouse curiosity, emotions and heightened interest in the reader.
“An assassin is sneaking through the shadows towards the hero. The hero is distracted, a femme fatale is holding his attention.”
Will the hero jump to his defense before it’s too late? This is a basic story progression that uses suspense. The reader has to read on to discover what happens next. What if you could deploy the same technique in your blog writing?
News sites like UpWorthy and BuzzFeed have used the power of suspense to great effect in their headlines in order to drive traffic to their sites. They were some of the early adopters of suspenseful headlines that revealed part of a problem, but failed to disclose the nature of the solution to would-be readers. The result?
Readers had to click on the stories to find out the entire story for themselves. Here are a couple of suspenseful headlines from today’s edition of UpWorthy:
These headlines mine suspense to make readers click through and find out what happened. Suspense occurs when you set up a tense situation with high stakes that has not yet been resolved in the reader’s mind. Make sure, however, that you do not over-use suspense, or it may become boring to the reader.
Lesson 5: Learn Basic Humor
Humor is another great storytelling tool that every writer needs to be able to deploy. Some blogs and sites like Cracked, The Oatmeal and The Onion have been built up almost entirely on humor. Humor works because everyone likes a good laugh.
A good amount of humor works on the unexpected, and dashing reader expectations based on a setup. Here is a helpful skit from comedian James Gregory talking about gym memberships.
Notice how he uses the element of surprise by taking a different viewpoint to what most gym goers would think about memberships. Begin working some humor into your own writing. Done right, humor can make your pieces less dry.
Lesson 6: Editing Like a Professional
Editing your writing is a skill that the best writers have a real knack for, enabling them to work their stories into the best possible versions.
Children’s author Roald Dahl was a real stickler for editing, sometimes trashing the better part of an entire writing session because, according to him, it did not meet his stringent editorial standard.
Horror master Stephen King, another heavy editor, describes in his essay on writing well how proper editing is the “taking out of the bad parts”. The ability to cut extraneous words ranks very highly on his list of what makes a great writer.
If you want to get good at telling stories, on your blog, or in videos or audio, practice the habit of cutting to the chase. Your stories will engage readers more easily and will be more memorable for it.
Lesson 7: Mastering Dialogue
Dialogue helps you play out people’s thoughts and conversations in front of your audience. Sure, you could always paraphrase, but using dialogue makes your stories more immediate.
In blog format, you can’t use dialogue all that much, but there are cases where it works. When you have an important opinion that someone said, when you are quoting an expert, or relating personal conversations, dialogue would be appropriate.
You’ll want to watch out for dialogue mistakes, like being too formal, or using creative attributions that detract from dialogue. When quoting experts or other figures, you can simply use the “said” attribution, unless there is a good reason for something else.
Being able to write like real people talk is hard to do, but with practice, it can make your pieces sound conversational.
Lesson 8: How to Drive Story with Compelling Characters
Few great stories can stand without strong characters. People care about the characters, the heroes, the protagonists. Great movies have memorable heroes and heroines like Batman, James Bond or Wonder Woman.
If you are writing your blog in the first person, you are naturally the protagonist. Beyond that, you can create a persona around the people in your blog posts.
For instance, UpWorthy does this often with their blog, where they take the position of a man or woman and frame the post as the story of that person’s triumph in a struggle that readers care about.
Here are two stories that do this:
There is an art to finding a character whom your readers can rally behind. This is why these two stories from UpWorthy are so illustrative.
It’s a fair bet to say that most of UpWorthy’s readership will rally behind a garbage man who appreciates and saves books from the trash heap. Same for a great teacher who cares for her students beyond merely doing her job.
To create popular characters for your own stories, find what is unusual or remarkable about the people you write about. The best characters are everyday people, yes, but they have peculiarities to them like motivation, personality, or things as simple as the way they dress, talk or think.
Lesson 9: Show Don’t Tell
Since an early age, writing teachers have drilled into our heads, “Show, don’t tell.”
There’s a good reason why. This advice works, but it’s one of the hardest things to get right in storytelling. For one, “telling” can move things along briskly. However, perhaps the biggest reason why showing is so difficult is that telling feels so natural.
We are used to summarizing things, an entire action sequence, in a few words rather than describing the individual components of a scene. For the reader, “showing” is the superior delivery since it places the reader in the shoes of someone who was there at the scene, and the reader can see “first-hand” as the action unfolds.
Author of the cult classic Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, goes so far as to outlaw what he calls “think-verbs”, which have to do with describing a character’s internal state. So, instead of telling us, for instance,
“John felt hungry and restless”, you instead show that by writing something along the lines of,
“His stomach grumbled loudly and he looked at the clock.”
When you have an important event you want to depict, such as a sports action sequence, an important speech, and others, the ability to show instead of merely telling will stand you in good stead.
Lesson 10: Deliver the Goods
The great thing about writing genre fiction is that you learn to fulfill reader expectations. Each genre brings a culture that sets expectations, for instance, you need some swords and magic if it is a fantasy novel, guns and bodies if it is a noir fiction book, and so forth.
This is why the great films in any particular genre all tend to look similar.
For a blogger, delivering the goods means paying attention to the promises that your blog, and especially, the topics you choose, make to readers. If you are writing a marketing blog, your tone and exposition will need to be different from someone writing a music blog. A story that does not fulfill reader expectations will not be a popular one.
How to make these storytelling tips work for you
With these storytelling tips, you are ready to begin telling engaging stories in your own blog writing. To make these tips work for you, you can begin small, say, by framing stories around a central character or addressing a common conflict in your field. Then you can add more technique as your confidence grows. And if readers like the stories you weave in your blog posts, they are sure to let you know, and will help you spread the stories to their friends.
Have you put any of these storytelling techniques to use in your own blogging? If you have, please leave a comment below relating your experiences.