Over 5,000 years ago, in what is now known as Iraq, the first stories were inscribed onto clay tablets in cuneiform script. These ancient tales were a far cry from the modern stories we read today, but they served the same purpose: to entertain, educate, and engage their readers. Writing became a sacred art form as time passed, and storytelling evolved into an intricate and nuanced craft. Not everybody had the privilege of being able to read and write, so those that did became the storytellers of their time. They would go from village to village, entertaining people with stories of love, loss, adventure, comedy, and tragedy.
Formal education requires most everybody to learn to read and write. Whether you’re a lawyer drafting a contract or a student writing an essay, being able to communicate clearly and effectively is essential in today’s world. But just because you can read and write doesn’t mean you know how to tell a good story.
If you’re looking to improve your storytelling skills, there are several different writing styles and narrative techniques you can learn.
Different Forms of Writing
Writing styles and narrative techniques are used by all writers, but some jobs will require you to develop a greater mastery of certain forms. There are four main categories of writing most writers will encounter at some point in their careers:
Expository: This type of writing is mostly used to inform or explain. You engage in expository writing when you write an essay for school or a business report for work. The goal is to communicate information clearly and concisely.
Persuasive: As the name suggests, persuasive writing is all about trying to convince your reader of something. This could be a sales pitch, political speech, or advertisement. The key is to make a logical and emotional appeal that will sway your reader to see things your way.
Descriptive: Descriptive writing is all about painting a picture in your reader’s mind. You can do this through sensory details, figurative language, and other literary devices. When done well, descriptive writing can be evocative and moving.
Narrative: Finally, narrative writing is all about telling a story. This could be a personal essay, a work of fiction, or even a history book. The key to writing a good narrative is to suck your reader in with interesting characters and a compelling plot.
Let’s take a look at popular story formats and see how they fit into these categories:
The novel is the most common form of long-form fiction writing. A novel is typically a story that is at least 50,000 words long. Novels can be written in various genres, from romance to horror to science fiction.
Authors use a mix of narrative techniques and descriptive language to bring their stories to life for readers.
A short story is a work of fiction typically shorter in length than a novel, coming in at around 7,500 words or less. Like novels, short stories use a variety of narrative techniques and genres.
Short story authors generally can’t afford to spend as much time on descriptive world-building or character development as a novelist can. Instead, they must focus on creating a complete story arc that can be resolved in a relatively short amount of space.
Copywriting mainly revolves around persuasive writing. Whether you’re writing an ad, a sales letter, or a landing page, your goal is to get people to take some kind of action, like buying a product, signing up for a service, or clicking through to learn more.
To do this effectively, you need to understand how to craft a compelling message and target it to the right audience. You also need to be able to write in a way that is clear and concise without being too sales-y or promotional.
This format falls under the expository category. Technical writing is all about communicating complex information in a way that is easy to understand. It’s often used in fields like science and medicine, where a lot of specialized knowledge needs to be conveyed to a lay audience.
Technical writing can take many forms, from user manuals to white papers to scientific journal articles. The common thread is that they need strong organization, and jargon free dialogue.
Blogs and articles can take many shapes. They are a melting pot of different genres and formats, meaning there is much room for creativity. That said, most blog writers use a mix of persuasive, descriptive, and expository writing to some extent.
Now that we’ve looked at the different types of writing, let’s look at some narrative techniques that writers can use to bring stories to life. Authors use these tools to create vivid scenes, interesting characters, and compelling plots.
Some standard narrative techniques include:
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shape of a Story”
Kurt Vonnegut was a 20th-century author best known for his novels Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. He was also a master of the short story form and wrote a now-famous essay called “The Shape of a Story.”
Vonnegut lays out what he believes is the most basic structure of a story. He says that all stories, regardless of length or genre, have the same fundamental shape, which a simple graph can represent. The graph goes up and down, like a roller coaster representing the emotional ups and downs of the story.
Vonnegut’s essay is a must-read for any writer looking to improve their craft. He breaks down the different parts of the story arc and explains how they work together to create a successful tale.
Foreshadowing is a technique used to hint at what’s to come later in the story. You can do it with dialogue, description, or even feeling that something isn’t quite right. It can be used to create suspense, tension, or a sense of unease in the reader.
Done well, foreshadowing can make a story more exciting and unpredictable. Done poorly, it can be obvious and heavy-handed. As with all things, moderation is best. A typical example of foreshadowing is when a character says something like, “I have a bad feeling about this,” or when a portentous storm is brewing on the horizon.
Symbolism is a technique in which an object, event, or character represents something else. It can add depth and meaning to a story or to make a point about the human condition. In “The Great Gatsby,“ for example, the green light on Daisy’s dock symbolizes Gatsby’s hope and longing for something that is just out of reach.
Symbolism can be tricky to achieve because it can go over readers’ heads who are not paying attention. Therefore, it’s important to use symbols sparingly and ensure they are well-chosen.
First/Third Person Narratives
Deciding whether to tell a story in the first or third person is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. The first-person point of view means that the story is told by a character in the story, using “I” or “we.”
The third person point of view means that an omniscient narrator tells the story, someone who knows everything about the characters and the events of the story.
The first-person point of view can be very intimate because readers feel like they are inside the character’s head. The third-person point of view can be more objective because readers see the story from a distance. There is no right or wrong answer when choosing which point of view to use. It simply depends on the effect that you want to achieve.
Perhaps the most common figure of speech, a metaphor, is a way of saying one thing is another thing. It’s a comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as.” Metaphors can be used to make a point more clearly or to add color and interest to writing.
A metaphor can be as simple as saying, “the world is a stage.” In this instance, the world is not really a stage. It’s being used to represent the idea that life is a performance. Try “Drowning in a sea of grief.” In this instance, the person is not actually drowning. The metaphor is used to describe the overwhelming feeling of sadness.
A plot twist is a sudden, unexpected event that changes the course of the story. You can use plot twists to add suspense and tension or simply to keep readers on their toes. You can use them in conjunction with foreshadowing to lead up to the twist, or spring it on readers out of nowhere.
Plot twists are often overused or done poorly. It’s essential to make sure your plot twist is believable and serves a purpose. A good plot twist will leave readers flabbergasted, not shaking their heads in confusion.
A great example of a plot twist is found in Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out.“ When the protagonist, Chris, finally learns the truth about what is happening to him, it’s a total shock that changes everything.
A cliffhanger is a plot twist that ends a story on a suspenseful note, leaving readers wanting more. Television shows and serialized novels use cliff hangers to keep their audience coming back.
A good cliffhanger will leave readers with questions that need answers. It’s vital to make sure that the cliffhanger is not too frustrating. If readers are left feeling angry or cheated, they are not likely to come back for more (looking at you, Sopranos).
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