There is no tried and true formula for writing a "great" story, but we've learned a few things along the way. A great story:
- Has an informative, yet powerful title. The title should give the reader an idea of what the story is about. Creatively vague titles hook that captures the reader from the start. This isn’t the time to paint the visual by diving into lengthy descriptions; hook them quickly. You want readers to care about your story.
- The hook can ask a question.
- This would be a good place to introduce the conflict/tension.
- You want to compel the reader to keep reading.
Example: "I was only 17 when my therapist sat me down and asked me if I even wanted to live.
- Has a beginning that hooks the reader from the start. It’s the one sentence that influences whether the reader keeps reading or clicks away. Yeah, no pressure, but it’s kind of important.
The hook doesn’t have to be the very first sentence, but we’ve found it’s most powerful if it is. It could be a powerful quote, an opening scene, or a provocative statement about your subject. A short paragraph with punchy, descriptive or active (not passive) words work best. Keep it short, use an active voice, and be specific.
Example of a great lede from one of our REV Premium stories:
“Gary Beikirch, former Army medical sergeant and Vietnam veteran, admits two people shaped him into the man he is today.
Losing one drove him to live in a cave — literally. Finding the other brought him out.”
See how it makes you want to keep reading to find out more about these soldiers?
- You want your story to engage the reader and keep them reading, and ideally inspire them to take some action.
- REV is all about pointing to hope, help or purpose. You want your story to do the same.
- Hope: I’m not alone in my story, and now I see things can be different.
- Help: There are resources I can access, people I can talk to, who will help me.
- Purpose: My story is FOR a purpose. It can help someone else. I can give back or pay it forward. Why should someone read my story?
- Makes the reader care. Andrew Stanton, a film maker at Pixar, says this is the greatest storytelling commandment. Stanton's movies are known to be heartstring-tugging to say the least. Watch Andrew’s TED talk, “Clues to a Great Story.” It is fun to watch, and he gives lots of tips on storytelling — and an off-color joke at the beginning, from which we ask you to excuse us.
A Great REV Story:
- Shows instead of tells. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s a slippery concept and can be tricky for writers because we can only use words to paint the picture for readers. But, when mastered, the show-not-tell thing is really awesome. Here’s one of our favorite examples of show, don’t tell:
- In his book, “Midnight Jesus,” author Jamie Blaine gives us a solid example of what it looks like to write in a way that fills in just the right blanks. An example of that jumps out in one of his first stories on pages 16-17.
Forest Hills added a preadolescent unit. On the second day it’s open, a 9-year-old pyromaniac sets fire to the curtains by packing a microwave with aluminum foil and setting the timer to 9:99. Smoke fills the ward; Jackie passes out. We’re short staffed again. An alcoholic Klansman from the rehab wing breaks through the side door and helps me evacuate the kids. Firemen arrive as the drapes smolder. The Klansman stands in the courtyard with a tiny, Black girl in his arms. The preadolescent unit closes the very next day.
Notice all the things Jamie doesn’t say. What’s the real story here? There’s only one sentence about it: “The Klansman stands in the courtyard with a tiny, Black girl in his arms.” But also notice he doesn’t explain what that means; he lets it sit there for you to picture and come to your conclusion. A simple statement, “The Klansman stands in the courtyard with a tiny, Black girl in his arms,” is enough.
- Doesn’t lecture. With a bajillion and one blogs out there and volumes upon volumes of information literally at our fingertips, readers are on information overload. This is not always bad. We’ve learned a lot from fellow human beings because they’ve put their voices out there, but that is not what REV is about. We don’t want to be just another voice in the noise telling people what to do or think. And we also don’t want to tell them what we think they’re doing wrong in their lives. We share stories, and hopefully people connect with those stories in a very human way to find hope, help or purpose. We let the stories be the point, not just a means to the point. As you write, don’t add your own commentary or advice to the story. If it is your own story about a time you learned something important, just tell that story of how you learned it and resist the urge to belabor the point with your wisdom. Let the story speak for itself.
- Doesn’t have clichés or extraneous words. Some wise words from Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Also, the word “that” is often used unnecessarily. Here’s a trick: When you use the word “that,” read the sentence through, and see if it makes sense without the “that.” If it does, leave it out. If it doesn’t, congratulations; you’ve used “that” correctly!
Oh, and about clichés. Avoid them like the plague. (Yes, we know that was a cliché.) But seriously. Clichés don’t help you; they make you look lazy. Be original — think outside the cliché.
- Has details that push the story forward. A good story includes details, but only necessary ones. Don’t include irrelevant details. For example: When writing about a couple’s marriage or divorce, do include how many years they have been/were married. Don’t include the couples’ hair color — unless, of course, it was a reason they married/divorced.
- Includes the honest tension. Every good story has tension; otherwise, it isn’t a story. As an example, Jamie Blaine’s “Midnight Jesus” stories all have some sort of a tension: a pastor who shows up to the psych hospital as an alcoholic, a unique group of patients who disrupt a church service with funny but inappropriate outbursts, a lockdown for a patient who has smuggled in a knife. This tension and conflict are where the main character experiences growth or maturation regardless of how the story ends. When telling the story, don’t be afraid of the tension. In fact, run toward it. The tension is where the story’s rubber meets the road of someone else’s life, right there in the raw and grit of the story.
- Is fresh and creative. Bring your own voice and ideas to the blank page. Keep things fresh; use the relevant language. Don’t be fluffy, but feel free to get creative. See all the angles from which you could tell the story and pick your favorite. Reach out to REV's content team to make sure your angle fits, and bring as many ideas as you want! Don’t get stuck in the who-what-when-where-why- how of journalism.
And there you have it, REV training in a nutshell: Think like a journalist, but write like a creative writer.