Thursday, 29 January 2015

Telling Tales: How to become a better storyteller by Lynne Barrett-Lee

Lynne Barrett-Lee’s ten steps to short story writing success

Humans have always told stories. It’s one of the best ways we have of communicating with one another, without the often boring and frequently inconvenient constraints of having to stick to real situations and people. Fiction reminds us that we are not alone. That the truths in our souls are much the same for everyone. That we love, admire, covet, hate and grieve in the same fashion. That we are unique but of like mind, more or less. Fiction allows us to re-write our pasts, understand ourselves better, vanquish our enemies and hope for happier endings. And if it’s not too fanciful a notion, I’ve a theory about why we read and write it; it’s because, outside of religion, our response to fiction is perhaps the closest thing we have to a group consciousness. 

I started my career as an author as a short story writer and have written a huge number of them; for the small press, for creative writing competitions, for pretty much every magazine on the high street, for commissions, and also for myself. What follows is a distillation of what I’ve learned along the way; advice honed over a couple of decades with a lot of trial and error. Hence it’s with a ‘do as I say rather than what I used to do’ caveat that I give you my ten tips for crafting short fiction. Other techniques are, of course, available…

1. Consider what your story is about and what it hopes to achieve. Plan before you start. And always start with the basics. Take your initial idea and then think ‘conflict’ and ‘change’. Without conflict (physical, emotional, moral, whatever) you don’t have story, and if, as a result of it, your character doesn’t undergo change, you won’t have a compelling one either. Note the non-negotiable nature of the relationship between the two. 

2. Plan further. Compile a checklist following the journalist’s credo. You already know why you chose your subject matter; now you need to decide how to turn it into fiction, by asking who, what, when, where, and why. Who is your character? What is your theme? When and where are you setting it? The why is shorthand, if you like, for your story’s raison d’etre. If you don’t yet have one, go back to step one.

3. Consider more Cs. Create compelling characters by giving them a half-decent backstory. You won’t use it, but you need it to understand their motivations. Another C; don’t crowd your story with too many characters. Simplify, always. Curtail the urge to cram too much in generally. Oh, and if you struggle with reining in your bulging imagination, consider become a novelist instead.

4. Arrive late and leave early. (To misquote the playwright David Mamet.) Start in the middle of the action, to grab the reader’s attention, then fill in your backstory discreetly and in small chunks, like vegetables into a fussy child’s bolognaise sauce. At the end, don’t be tempted to elaborate on your punchline, not even a little. Leave the reader to embellish the dot dot dot bit themselves…

5. Let your characters get a word in. Don’t keep muscling in, sounding all bossy and authorial. Let your characters come to life on the page. Dialogue, remember, is a brilliant multi-tasker; to create drama, to display relationships (rather than you having to explain them), to scene set, to heighten tension, to move the plot forward faster, and – see point 4 above – to carry backstory without you having to tell it.

6. Play with style. You have a voice in there. And the only way to find it is to write. Write a lot, and write unselfconsciously. But also test yourself by setting challenges. Try writing in different genres. Try writing a pastiche of favourite author’s style. Try a parody of another you like less. Try writing to order, with a specific readership in mind. You’ll be amazed at how it makes you think about structure and word-choice. You’ll be amazed at how well it makes you focus on what comes most naturally for you.

7. Pay attention to detail. Don’t guess facts or make do. Things I hate: Phonetic dialogue to denote regional accents. Over-egging the pudding, and other icky types of euphemistic sex. Rampant modifiers and adverbs. Big blue skies. Dark brown eyes. Tall dark handsome strangers. Indeed, all collections of lazy, pointless, hitch-a-ride adjectives. Use less. Use more thoughtfully.

8. Develop self-awareness. Decide who it is you are writing for. Some people write for the sheer pleasure of creation, and wholly for themselves. If you’re not one of them it pays to think about your readers. The widest audience will always be achieved by being inclusive rather than exclusive. The most literary might be smaller, but will appreciate the nuances of wordcraft more. Neither is better than the other. Story reigns supreme in both.

9. Don’t edit when your fiction is hot off the press. Edit with a cold eye, by taking your finished masterpiece and hiding it. For as long as possible. Think bolognaise sauce again. When you put the lid on it, it looks like one thing. When you return to it, it will be quite another. An objective editing eye is always best obtained by putting distance between your creative self and what you’ve created.

10. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Start more. Finish more. Send out more stories. Many will come back. Many will never reappear. Most will be unlikely to garner much in the way of glittering prizes. This is normal. You are entering a competitive environment, so it’s not just about talent. It’s about shortening the odds by being more productive than the competition. The phrase ‘writers write’ is not a truism by accident.

So write.

Lynne Barrett-Lee
December 2014

For more advice - Telling Tales: How to Write Sensational Short Stories is available to buy now!
Novel: Plan it. Write it. Sell it is also available for 99p from February 3rd 2015 for a limited time only.


  1. Really interesting and informative. I shall make a note of all the points and try to ensure I follow them in future. I am a naughty girl and a pantser I am afraid...I need to plot and plan more. :)

    1. Thank you, Jane. I think we can all learn something from Lynne's wise words!