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3 Vital Storytelling Principles I Learned from a Dull 50-Word Story by English Learners

The art of storytelling in 50 words

I asked a group of adult learners of English to write a 50-word story about this picture.

Designed with DALL-E

This is what they wrote:

“In a rainyday one lady, she was in hurry, she was mad about the accident, and she feels blame. The groceries bags were damaged because the paper was not strong enough. All of the groceries fall out on the stairs and go everywhere, one of one bottle was broken and the wine spill on the floor. The miserable lady ask to some one help to pick up the groceries.”

This story taught me three important lessons about the art of storytelling. One of these may sound obvious if English is your first language. The other two may not. But all three are crucial for writing a compelling narrative.

I’ll present these lessons and then put the theory into practice to write a more engaging 50-word story about the picture.

Lesson #1: Stakes

I love my learners, but let’s be honest: the story they wrote isn’t an interesting one. 

It isn’t because it doesn’t give us something to care about. It doesn’t present stakes such as questions, problems, or unexpected events that make us go, “I wonder what will happen now.” 

The result? 

Our storytelling brain doesn’t get activated; worse, we can’t empathise with the main character. We might feel slightly sad for the woman but that’s about it. This is a big issue. When readers cannot connect with the main character of the story, they cannot connect with their hearts and minds either. The storyteller has failed. 

So here’s the first lesson: use stakes because a story that doesn’t make the reader care will never be successful. 

“Stakes are the reason an audience wants to hear your next sentence. They are the difference between a story that grabs the audience by the throat and holds on tight and one that an audience can take or leave.” — Matthew Dicks, “Storyworthy”, P.141

Lesson #2: Change

Without some change, your story fails to be a story. 

If I think about some of my favourite movies and TV series, each of the main characters goes through some sort of personal transformation.

*Braveheart: William Wallace is a quiet Scot who wants to live a simple life in the peaceful Scottish countryside, but he turns into a patriotic warrior after the English army kills his wife. 

*Home Alone: Kevin McCallister is a kid who can’t stand his family but realises he loves them after they accidentally leave him home alone during their Christmas vacation.

*Breaking Bad: Walter White is a meek chemistry high school teacher who becomes a ruthless drug dealer after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Can we say the same for the nameless woman in my learners’ story? We can’t. She doesn’t evolve. She doesn’t change her mind, attitude or actions. And that’s why the story isn’t a story but a mere sequence of events. No one is interested in reading a sequence of events.

Quick (and oversimplified) storytelling equation: Story = Characters + Events + Change

“Many stories begin with a moment of unexpected change. And that’s how they continue too. Whether it’s a sixty-word tabloid piece about a TV star’s tiara falling off or a 350,000-word piece such as “Anna Karenina”, every story you’ll ever hear amounts to ‘something changed’.” — Will Storr, “The Science of Storytelling”, P.11

Lesson #3: Form (the obvious one?)

Given the story was written by learners of English, we can’t expect great language skills. They did their best with the language resources they had. 

But, for a moment, forget they’re learners and read the story trying to ignore the language mistakes in the text. It’s hard, isn’t it?

Whether you’re a native English writer or not, every time you make a mistake, you divert your readers’ attention away from the story to the form of the language. You stop the movie your readers are playing in their minds and remind them that they’re reading.

That’s the last thing you would want as a writer.

So, especially if you’re a non-native English writer, don’t get good at grammar, punctuation, and spelling just because you need to pass an English test. Get the language right to give your audience a great reading experience. Your readers will like you more and, in turn, read you more.

“All readers have a limited number of grammatical mistakes that they will forgive, so you should at least aim for grammatical perfection except when you can improve the writing by breaking a rule of grammar.” — Gary Provost, “100 Ways to Improve Your Writing”

A better version 

Let’s put all this into practice. Here’s what I think is a better version of the story. 

Hellen is coming back from the supermarket crying. “I’ll kill myself today.” She’s been thinking this since her kid died. But then she hears a voice. She looks up and sees him. She drops her bags. “Mom, I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.” Hellen died in her bed at 89.

This isn’t the most interesting 50-word story you’ll ever read (check this website for some cool ones), but it’s a better one as it includes stakes, change and error-free sentences.

Do you agree?

Final thought

You can apply these lessons to anything you write. When writing online, for example, raising the stakes as soon as possible is a useful technique that will make your readers want to keep reading.

Include change in your articles too. Ever wondered why most publications want stories about lessons you’ve learned, i.e. how you’ve changed?

And, of course, spellcheck.

Thanks for reading! I hope this will help you tell better stories.

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I help non-native English writers tell better stories. Join my private email list if interested.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.