Tips for Active Storytelling

Whether you are writing fiction, a memoir, or relating a story of any kind, you must engage the reader actively in the story. This can be accomplished through a combination of writing style adjustments and by adding language to enhance the actions and dialog of the characters in the story. Follow these suggestions to create stories that are more readable and more 'sell-able' books.

One of the best ways to get your readers actively engaged in your story is make the story itself active, instead of a narrative. Using an active style and immersing the reader in the action is far more effective than having a narrator describe what happened. This active style extends to dialog. Don’t assume the reader can always easily follow who is actually talking and how the characters react to each other. Add action into the dialog and you make it come alive for the reader.

Let’s start with the narrative style. Many writers want to relate what happened as though the reader is listening to a narrator tell them what happened, rather than allowing the reader to observe the action directly. For example, “On hearing this, O’Brien was surprised and he drew back a little.” Instead, try, O’Brien flinched, “What did you just say?” This way, the reader feels O’Brien’s reaction directly.

This active approach extends to specific action taken by characters in the story. For example, “The tent was pitched by the campers on a flat area near the top of the mountain.” Instead, try, “The campers pitched the tent on a flat area near the top of the mountain.” This change focuses more directly on the action of the campers, and not simply on the result of their action in the past tense.

Whenever possible, make sure your characters are actually doing the things you describe, and not just starting to do them. For example, “O’Brien started to walk cautiously on the gravel path toward the cottage.” Instead, try, “O’Brien walked cautiously on the gravel path toward the cottage.” The reader can visualize this walking action much more clearly than “started to walk.”

Adding action to dialog can enrich the story and engage the reader more effectively. Simple actions, like a nod, or a sigh, or a nod, or a smell, or a touch, or a sniff in reaction to a smell can make dialog easier to follow and bring it to life. For example, “I see what you mean. I don’t like it but there’s not much we can do, is there?” O’Brien said. Instead, try, “O’Brien sat back in his chair, “I see what you mean.” He let out a long sigh, “I don’t like it but there’s not much we can do, is there?” The dialog is exactly the same, but the addition of actions helps the reader relate better to the character.

One way to help improve dialog and add actions is to imagine yourself in the conversation. Most conversations are highly interactive and spoken in plain English with short sentences that are not necessary grammatically correct. They also include casual language and contracted forms of words, such as “He’d” instead of “He would.” Short sentences, adding action, and reminding the reader who is talking occasionally, will go a long way to improving the dialog and keeping the reader engaged.

Re-read the scene several times, and wait a while before going back to it. If you notice that it seems jumpy in places, it does not flow well, or it seems to leave you feeling a little flat about the experience, you may need to add more words to enhance the action and keep the reader engaged. Have a friend read the dialog aloud. Listening to it will help you relate to it as a real conversation, and your friend will add their valuable insights.