5 Exercises for Honing Your Story Instincts
How strong are your story instincts? This abstract and sometimes elusive concept rests at the very bottom of a writer’s toolkit. Your story instincts determine how successful your storytelling is, and whether you are able to offer readers the all-important “it” factor. Your story instincts are the foundation onto which you build with all the other tools and techniques you pick up along the way. And your story instincts are also, simultaneously, the preexisting source of all the knowledge you will claim as you grow your skills.
When I was a newbie working on my early (unpublished) novels, I would often take a walk down the mailbox after my daily writing session. Almost always, I was vaguely dissatisfied. I knewwhatever scene I had just written wasn’t so bad in itself, and yet I also knew something about the book as a whole wasn’t working. I remember saying to myself at some point during my second novel that I didn’t know what was wrong, but I just knew.
I trusted that instinct then, and I’ve come to trust it more and more over the years. Time, experience, and knowledge have given me the tools to not just feel when something is or isn’t working in a story, but to put a name to what my story instincts are telling me.
This is why I believe a writer’s greatest resource is his or her own gut instinct. This inner knowing is the true source of our inspiration. It is what guides us to the “right” ideas. But it is much more than just that. It is also the well of deep instinctive knowledge, shared by all humans, about what story is and what makes it work.
Even though this sense of story is always there—the lighthouse guiding our talents and abilities—most of us must refine our story instincts and learn their language so we may understand what they are truly telling us.
How Do You Know if You Have Story Instincts?
Your story instincts and your ability to tap into them clearly will define how much “talent” you may have as a writer. So how can you tell if you even have any story instincts?
It is my belief all humans have this instinct. We are born with the common language of story. Indeed, some psychological research, such as presented by Edward F. Pace-Schott, posits our very “dreaming as a story-telling instinct.”
Although some writers come to studies of story theory and technique with the belief that this information has been “invented” by all the writers that have come before us, I think it is truer to recognize that story theory is more of an excavation. It is the catalog of recognized patterns we observe to be true about humankind’s long experience with the shape, flow, and function of story.
As such, you might even consider that however much or little you consciously know about story, you perhaps unconsciously know all there is to know. You have to trust this inner knowing, learn to seek it where it will be found, and train yourself to speak its language.
Booker-Prize winner Ben Okri muses in The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling:
There is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling. Stories are the highest technology of being…. Maybe this story-making quality of being is the principle magic as well as the principle illusion of our lives.
For me, I recognize my story sense as both a deep wisdom and also a visceral, physical experience of inspiration. You may relate to that. You may also feel it as an inner twitchiness when a critique partner gives you advice you don’t agree with it.
Writers and non-writers alike experience it in their passionate responses, both delighted and disappointed, to the stories we read and view that have been written by others.
You no doubt experience it when you’ve labored over a story, put all your effort and talent into it, and then find yourself having to admit it doesn’t quite work.
And you feel it when you know, you just know, you’ve written the best thing of your life.
5 Tips for Honing Your Story Instincts
Story instincts are tricky. Well-honed, they speak to us clearly and guide us to writing better and better stories. But if we don’t speak this instinctive language fluidly, or if we’re unsure we’re hearing its voice at all, we can easily lead ourselves astray.
We can convince ourselves our desire for a story to be good makes it so, just as we can let the critical voices of inner doubt blind us to our true story wisdom.
And as I mentioned having experienced with my unpublished novels, sometimes you can hear it’s telling you something’s not working and still not have the knowledge to know what’s not working much less how to fix it.
This is why the life’s work of a writer is perhaps most truly that of honing our story instincts.
1. Learn to Listen to Your Gut, Especially When It Tells You Something Is Wrong
When everything is going well, we often take our story instincts for granted. It’s not until a little alarm starts ringing inside that we perk up and listen. In the beginning, especially if we’re yet untrained in translating this inner signal, our initial response may be resistance. After all, we just wrote a story! That’s amazing, and we want to feel amazing about it. We don’t particularly want to pay attention to the inner nudging that wants us to look at our anticlimactic ending or poor antagonist motivation.
In my experience, my gut is never wrong. If inner alarm bells are going off, then they’re signalling a true problem—even if I’m not immediately able or willing to recognize exactly what it is. Only when I release the resistance, get quiet, and focus on what my story instincts are trying to tell me do I realize where my story may be on thin ice.
However, it is important to distinguish the voice of your deep story wisdom from that of a malicious inner critic. It is possible your inner critic has turned on you because you’ve resisted it so much and so often, refusing to heed its inborn sagacity. But it’s also possible that that voice is a different voice altogether, one arising from low self-esteem and other personal issues. You need the voice of your story instincts; you do not need the voice of a malicious inner critic. It is vital to, first, learn to distinguish between them, and then to do the proper work to bring both to health.
2. Get Specific About What You Like or Don’t Like in Others’ Stories
Once you’ve learned to tune in to your inner story sense, you must learn to interpret what it’s telling you. A vague sense of unease about your just-finished manuscript will not help you fix it. You’re likely to start tweaking just because you don’t know what else to do, and you may well end up changing things that shouldn’t be changed and that, indeed, are the best parts of the story.
This is where learning from other writers becomes important. Your story instincts are just as active in reading or watching someone else’s stories as they are in writing your own. Get into the habit of consciously specifying what it is you like or dislike about a book, movie, or show. Then go deeper and learn to examine what the author did to create this effect and make it work.
This is where story theory originates. Over time, writers have paid attention to what has worked to create the canon of great and popular literature. We have examined the patterns that show up time and again and identified the techniques that allow us to recreate the same effect—or perhaps even innovate better techniques in search of that same ultimate goal of a satisfying story experience.
3. Use Story Theory and Technique to Help Name Your Instincts
So much of our collective story wisdom has already been codified for us in the writings and instruction of our many fellow writers. When I started reading books about “how to be a writer,” flashbulbs just started exploding in my head. It was like I’d been given training wheels to help me learn how to balance the unwieldy bicycle of my own burgeoning story sense.
It’s true that not all advice is good advice (and some is just plain subjective). But you can use the teachings of other writers not only to help you put language to what your story instincts are telling you, but also to practice your instincts. When you read something in a book or blog about writing that gives you that zing of understanding or maybe even that exact same feeling of excitement you get from a great moment in a story, you know your instincts are talking to you. They’re saying, “Yes! I knew that already! That’s what I’ve been telling you all along!”
4. Make Your Story Sense Actionable by Asking It the Right Questions
If you’re a non-writer, you don’t require your story instincts to be actionable. When you experience something you like—or don’t like—in someone else’s story, it’s not even particularly important that you figure out what it is. All you need to know is whether you want more of the same or not. But as a writer, you must get specific.
Vague directives aren’t much use. Like me with my early stories, knowing something is wrong with a story is a first step, but until you know what is wrong, you won’t know to fix it. This means you must train yourself to converse with your story instincts in specific language. Ask it questions. Use logic to work your way past your feelings of unease or dissatisfaction (and definitely past any malicious self-criticism or self-doubt).
5. Trust Your Story Sense
Your story sense is good. I don’t doubt that for a second. Your ability to communicate with it and understand it can always improve. But the foundational understanding and instinct is there. Trust that.
The very fact that you are drawn to stories more strongly than the average person—that you are so fascinated by them that you wish to create them—signals you already hear your story instincts more clearly than you might think. Trust that too.
Your gut instinct is your greatest tool as a writer. Identify it, listen to it, hone it, respect it—and it will help you write amazing stories.