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 a story illustration–is to take us there. Aristotle called this catharsis, the human 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 a story feels real, the reader/audience will “suspend their disbelief” (their awareness that this isn’t really happening) and take the journey with the protagonist. Why? Because we’re predisposed to go beyond ourselves, to vicariously experience others’ lives. In fact, that’s how we become fully human. Hatred, for example, dissolves when we learn another’s story; it makes them too real to hate (this is the premise underlying my feature film and upcoming novel Healing River). 

So how do we as writers make this happen? In a word: details. I can tell people that my father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 45, and while they may sympathize, feel for me, they generally don’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 bring a story to life. 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, i.e. I relived the experience as I recreated the details.

Any emotion–anger, fear, frustration, joy–can be invoked with evocative imagery. I recount a humorous incident involving my (at the time) toddler daughter Beth in one brief, visceral account entitled Always Look Before You… There’s just enough detail take readers there.

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 Story Power, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Tips for Writers: Trust the Story

  1. My Grandma Leora left enough details in her memoirs that I’m still mining them. I have more tenacity than skill, but those details! The first person just got their copy of “Leora’s Early Years” in the mail and is taking it to have her oil changed, all because of Grandma Leora’s details in the first two books. Amazed and humbled with all of this. Details!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Thotaramani says:

    That’s really nice way of ending Blog.🆒

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Trust the story …is so apt..👍👍👍

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you for the lesson, Mitch. I agree that living it while reading it makes the best story.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. kindfeelings says:

    I like that you point out the difference between people feeling for you and people feeling with you. Sometimes we may want a character to induce empathy or pity.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Discover and Explore says:

      Thank you for your well written article. Very inspirational and insightful. I will add one further perspective that I learned. Make the reader feel like they are riding shotgun with you.

      Much thanks

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Mark Johnson says:

    Beautifully said, Mitch. Thank you. At this stage of life, I feel it’s my responsibility to share the stories and details of my journey … with the hope that others may find solace and hope there. Take care!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Grant at Tame Your Book! says:

    Excellent, Mitch! It’s amazing how bringing details to the audience based on the senses can bring a story to life. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Discover and Explore says:

    Well stated!

    Thank you

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I had a prof once who would often say that if we didn’t transport him into the story, no matter the genre, we may as well be saying, “blah, blah, blah, blah,” and he would use the appropriate hand gestures. I’ve never forgotten the image of him in the front of the class, bored beyond belief, when I feel like someone is just telling me something instead of showing. Nice post!

    Liked by 4 people

  10. murisopsis says:

    Hehe! Yes it is the details!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. A man after this writing teacher’s heart! I am reading a novel right now that is absolutely masterful at giving me the characters’ lived experience, to the point where the main character’s dejected and can’t move from her bed–and I’m too dejected to continue reading. I’m just sitting there staring into space. The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts by DeWitt Henry is the perfect illustrative novel for your post.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. “All good books have one thing in common—they are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Valuable advice. I enjoyed the posts you used as examples.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. As a budding writer, I really appreciate this advice, Mitch xx

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great advice Mitch. Can’t wait to read Healing River. I so enjoy all your stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Michele Lee says:

    Great storytelling advice. Thanks, Mitch.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Ann Coleman says:

    That’s excellent advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Very timely reminder when I am just about to tackle another manuscript draft…need to get the reader in closer to my main character ie to take the journey with her!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. AJ Hauser says:

    Very nice – I appreciate the tips. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. “Don’t just tell us, show us.” My mantra when I taught. I would ask, “what did it feel like? What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it smell like?” etc. You’re right, those are the things that will take us there, make us experience the story WITH the character.

    Liked by 1 person

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