Tips for Writers: Trust the Story


Experience is the most effective teacher (I learned more Spanish in three days in Barcelona than I did in two years of high school Spanish class). But one of the most interesting things about the human psyche is that we’re wired to learn from other people’s experiences, as well. There’s something divinely intentional about the way we not only sympathize but empathize with others, the way we “take the journey” with them.

Your job as a storyteller–as a fiction writer, or as an essayist or teacher using an illustration–is to take us there. Aristotle called it catharsis, our tendency to process or “purge” our own feelings by identifying with another’s experience. Joseph Campbell called it “the hero’s journey.” But catharsis doesn’t just happen with epic heroes (Odysseus, Frodo, Luke Skywalker), it happens with down-to-earth protagonists, as well (Woody in Toy Story, Pony Boy in The Outsiders). If it feels real, the reader/audience will “suspend their disbelief” (their awareness that this is not really happening) and take the journey with the protagonist. Why? Because we’re predisposed to go beyond ourselves, to vicariously experience others’ lives. That’s how we become fully human. (Hatred dissolves when we learn another’s story; it makes them too real to hate.)

So how do we as writers make this happen? I can say, “My father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 45,” and while you may sympathize with (feel for) me, you probably won’t empathize (feel with) me. Why? Because I’ve only spoken about the event. The old expression “God is in the details” may be truer than we think; it’s the details that make it live. When I wrote about my father’s death in Love. Before it’s too Late, I knew my readers would go there because I went there as I recreated the details.

Any emotion–anger, fear, frustration, joy–can be invoked with a few evocative images. I tell a humorous story about my daughter Beth in one paragraph at the end of How to Add Humor, Part Three. There’s just enough detail to bring the moment to life.

During the late Middle Ages, “morality plays” became popular. These were bare-bones stories with one-dimensional heroes whose sole purpose was to deliver a message. But when the Elizabethans, Shakespeare and company, rediscovered Aristotle, audiences quickly abandoned morality plays in favor of the cathartic experience. They were hungry to take the journey with the hero. And they still are.

So don’t just tell us, show us. Take us there.

Trust the story.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Humor, Story Power, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Tips for Writers: Trust the Story

  1. Roos Ruse says:

    “…to make [them] too real to hate.” Blindingly brilliant, Mitch. I’ll run with that for weeks. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very helpful, Mitch. Good analysis. May I copy the article to my blog with a link bavk to yours?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mitch
    Outstanding blog and it appeals to those of us who try to write but equally to all
    of us as we try to live our lives- by learning through our interactions with others. And I loved the Joseph Campbell connection. Our old friend Helen Keller understood this aspect of life better than most.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very helpful! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. says:

    Brilliant advice❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  6. alexankarr1 says:

    One doesn’t simply accompany Frodo into Mordor, though. Not if one’s got adequate intel beforehand, at least. Instead one tip-toes off with some of the dwarves’ gold…
    Oh, you didn’t mean literally? Oh! Well, well said, very true!

    Someone mentioned Donna Tartt’s A Secret History to me today, and I immediately thought how tiny physical aspects in her descriptions of the protagonist’s experiences – snow, and stealing sandwiches in the cafeteria, and the lights at a college keg party, the silence and birdsong after a murder – absolutely made the book come alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Coleman says:

    Wonderful advice, not only for writing, but for how to be in relationship with other people in general. I particularly liked the part about how sharing our stories helps us know each others in ways that makes “others” far too real to hate. That’s whey we need to stop building all these walls that separate people and learn to truly talk and listen to those we think are so very different from us. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very cool insiders look at story writing! Two things came to mind, when I was reading your article. First, is the process of discovery. Plato argues that the reason hey audiences are engage is because they are discovering truth about the characters as the story progress. I think this fuels that cathartic moment, when you identify with the characters in the play. The second is the old adage: “show don’t tell”…allow your character to show though actions how they really feel.



    Liked by 1 person

  9. Rishabh mishra says:

    A good story to get motivation . I also have just started a blog which is full of some good poems and articles which i think you will like . So plzz follow my blog and give any suggestions if required , it will be very helpful for me !!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is really helpful. I am so glad I found this. Thankyou for sharing such important and worthy tips. 😊❤❤

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post! You’re absolutely right…the details are what brings a story to life, helping us care about what’s happening and experience it as it unfolds. The only challenge is, sometimes it’s hard, as an author, to know when this isn’t happening, which is where I’ve found beta readers to be so helpful. They can help point out which characters they aren’t connecting with, which gives me an indication of where I might be “telling” and not “showing” things enough.

    By the way, you might be interested in the Writers Club. It helps find beta readers for authors and helps build a team of people who can give the author the feedback they need. After all, we can’t always see the forest for the trees we created. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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