3 Essential Tips for Writing Compelling Stories

One morning not too long ago I walked into our kitchen at about 6:30 and was startled by what I saw.

There stood my nine-year-old son in his pajamas, hunched over a piece of paper with a pencil in his hand. His nose was less than five inches from what he was drawing, and his tongue protruded slightly above his bottom lip. The kid was in deep concentration, but I couldn’t help myself.

“What y’up to, buddy?” I asked groggily. “Looks important.”

“I’m drawing the Battle of Endor,” he replied, not looking up.

“Did you just make that up, or is that a thing?” I asked.

He leaned in closer. “It’s the one with the Ewoks.”

“Ohhhhh,” I said, “that one.”

Courtesy of Unsplash

Now, if I just did my job as a writer, you stuck with me from the beginning of this piece until now. From here I could reflect on the compulsive creativity of children, what a father can learn from his son, or why the Battle of Endor truly is that important!

But if my story didn’t hold your attention, I don’t get to tell you about any of those things because you’re already gone.

That’s what makes good stories so important. If they’re engaging, we earn the right to be heard. If not, readers will wander off to whatever else does grab their attention.

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In this post I want to share what I consider three essential elements of irresistibly engaging stories. Whether you’re writing a memoir or self-help or inspirational nonfiction, these elements will help you hold your reader’s attention.

Tip 1: Make Them Filmable

The most engaging writing is concrete writing, and perhaps the best way to grasp the definition of concrete writing is to think of it as synonymous with filmable writing. If someone tells a story well, you can see it in your imagination. Sometimes you can feel and taste and smell it too.

I recently attended a conference and took in a talk by great writer and thinker Ian Morgan Cron. He told a story about when his mom discouraged him from writing a book on the enneagram (a personality-typing system). He added the detail that his mom was 89 years old and had smoked a pack of Pall Malls every day for decades.

Ian so deftly brought us into their phone conversation that I could see them talking and even hear his mom’s raspy voice.

While the audience’s attention may have drifted at other times during the conference, they were completely engaged by Ian’s story about his mom.

Why? Because his story was filmable. When you tell stories, strive for this quality.

Tip 2: Don’t Overdo Your Descriptions

To make a story come to life in the reader’s imagination, you might think you need to describe every little detail. The problem with too much description is it drags the pace.

Remember that films show you a bunch of details all at once in just a fraction of a second because of how much our eyes can process. When writing, the trick is to give enough detail that the reader can fill in the gaps herself. If you take the time to go into every possible detail, your prose will slow way down and readers will check out.

Give enough detail for them to see the scene; then keep things moving.

Tip 3: Spread Them Out

If prose can be likened to a meal, stories are like the seasoning. When they’re underused, the writing is bland and boring. When overused the effect is overwhelming, like when you taste so much salt you can’t taste the full flavor of the food.

But if you get the balance right, stories will bring your words to life and create an enthralling, page-turning experience.

As you fashion your prose, strive for a good balance—enough stories to keep things moving but not so much that we can’t hear the points you’re making.

Need some help getting intentional about your writing process? I created a worksheet titled ‘My Writing Process’ that helps you design a writing process that is customized specifically for you and what you’re writing. To download it, click here.

Question: Which of these tips do you find the most useful for your own writing right now? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shannon Geurin

    Hi Chad! I recently subscribed to your blog through the advice of Christa Hutchins. I’ve been perusing around and you’ve been so helpful. Glad to connect with you!

    • Chad R. Allen

      Welcome, Shannon! Glad to connect with you too!

  • Tracie Heskett

    I probably need to work on all 3, but your presentation of the first tip will be the easiest to remember and try to put into practice.

    • Chad R. Allen

      That one is definitely worth prioritizing. Thanks for letting me know!

  • Your son sounds like a awesome kid!

    I always say “Jesus used stories to teach a point and if it was good enough for him…. well, I should probably apply it to my writing.”

    • Chad R. Allen

      Well said, Chuck!

  • Thank you very much for such a good lesson with such a great example to start out. We experienced the lesson before you even explained it. It really is an effective way to improve one’s writing.

    • Chad R. Allen

      I agree, Paul, and thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Cheryl Knapp

    Thank you for the teaching and the reminders. I will attest to the fact that when I began to learn these tips from you and utilize them, it dramatically helped the outcome of my book. The tips helped me discover my “writing voice.” The best reminder for me is to use the concrete/filmable voice. Thanks, Chad!

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thanks, Cheryl, for taking the time to share!

  • Jane Kavuma- Kayonga

    Thanks. This is extremely helpful. No 2 is my greatest weakness. I struggle with it but slowly but surely I am learning to balance it. I agree that overdescription can turn off the reader’ s attention and active involvement.Thank you. Jane

    • Chad R. Allen

      Jane, terrific! It’s an art that rewards practice!