Storytelling is important to us humans. You could argue that every life is a collection of short stories and/or series of novels that tie to a longer narrative. Telling stories is how we connect to each other and make sense of the world around us.
That’s why telling a good story is an important skill for any aspiring author to develop, even if your book is about a process, a mindset, or a lifestyle. In other words, even if you’re not writing a novel, a historical piece, a biography, or a memoir, you should take the time to learn how to write engaging stories in your book.
There are three main reasons:
1. Attract a Wider Audience
Some people can take in long chunks of purely informational writing, and some may even enjoy it. Yet writing straight-up advice in a way that even those people will want to read is a hard skill to hone. Plus, more people enjoy stories, either fiction or non-fiction.
A few months ago, I had a client who struggled to grasp this. We’ll call him Client A. Client A wanted to write a lifestyle self-help book, an approach to living successfully. He himself had been influenced by philosophers and pastors, so as we started the writing process, he thought he wanted the book to read like a philosophical treatise.
Problem: that style did not align with his goals. As any good ghostwriter would do, before we started the writing process, I sat with him to establish what his goals for the book were, including who his ideal reader avatars were. He wanted his book to reach a wide range of people. I had to point out that while a few treatise-style books are popular, such as The Four Agreements, the vast majority of books that gain a wide readership, even for non-narrative books, include anecdotes to demonstrate their ideas.
Using stories to illustrate your point will feel more natural to most audiences. Ancient teachers like Plato and Jesus used stories to teach, and today everyone from public speakers and financial gurus to small businesses use stories about mistakes they’ve learned from, clients they’ve helped, and so forth to reach their audiences.
Client A finally picked another of his favorite authors for the type of style and flow he wanted in his book, an author who uses a mix of expository and narrative styles.
2. Stories Help Engage Your Reader
Be More Relatable
Stories can help humanize your topic and you as an author. If a reader can see a piece of herself or someone she knows in a story, she can more easily identify with the concept you’re explaining. It gives her a “peg” to hang her hat on, so to speak. “I’ve done that,” she’ll think or “I remember when so-and-so had something similar happen.”
Show not Tell: A Story is Worth a Thousand Explanations
At the same time, you want readers to understand how concepts you’re detailing can apply in practical life.
Say you’re writing to encourage your audience to be more active throughout the day. If you simply tell your reader to do it, she may think, “But I have a desk job. There are only so many trips to the bathroom I need to make in a day, and I don’t want to bug my coworkers by walking over and chatting them up. What do you want me to do? Fidget?”
In this scenario, listing suggestions to get around those objections might be helpful. After all, the concept of moving around throughout the day seems pretty straightforward.
Remember, though, you’re the author. Practical implementation of your ideas will seem straightforward to you because you’ve thought about it a lot. For many readers, though, it may be new territory. You need to show what you’re talking about, and the best way to do that is often by using a story.
Even for something as simple as the above example, what if the author included a story about a friend who is wheelchair-bound who found a way to be active during her workday? That kind of story not only gives your readers concrete implementation strategies; it shows them that it is possible to think outside the box when taking your advice, even in the face of significant obstacles.
(Speaking of obstacles and objections to what you’re teaching in your book, a great way to build trust and empathy with your readers is to think through how readers might say, “Yeah, but . . .” to your message. That way you can address it in your book! Buuuuuut, I’ll save a deeper dive into why and how to do that for another post.)
Using anecdotes the way I just described to show instead of just telling not only makes you more relatable to your audience, but it helps them trust you more. And building trust is the third reason honing storytelling skills is important for the budding author.
3. Help Your Audience Trust You
Most people who come to me wanting to write a book genuinely want to help people, so talking too much about themselves feels a little wrong.
Going back to Client A, he told me after a couple of months of writing and revising that at first, he had not wanted to tell any of his own story because he didn’t want people to focus on him. He didn’t want the attention. He simply wanted to share his experience to help others. However, he told me, now he realized that people needed to get to know him if they were going to be able to trust him.
But remember, this article is not just about telling stories; it’s about storytelling skills. Let me show you what I mean.
Your Readers Need to See You or Whomever You’re Writing About Bleed
Client B asked me to assess a draft manuscript she’d completed on her own. As I began my first read-through, I quickly noticed something: she had learned the points I’ve just made about telling stories in her leadership book, but she hadn’t figured out how to tell stories and tie them to principles she was explaining. Many of his stories went like this:
“I was in this terrible situation. I couldn’t figure out why this would happen to me. Then, I decided to focus on (XYZ), and I got over it. You should too. Just change your viewpoint.”
I could tell that many things Client B had gone through were jaw-dropping crazy, but in her manuscript, she recited them with as much emotion as a police report. Her writing came across as smug and, frankly, a little out of touch. Not someone you could trust to understand YOU and YOUR situation, and therefore, not someone whose advice you would find valuable.
Yet when talking to Client B, I could tell she is a caring, compassionate person. She knows people struggle, and she wants to help them. That wasn’t coming through in the manuscript though. So what was she missing?
Show not Tell: More Than WHAT—HOW and WHY, Too
The term “storytelling” is a bit misleading then. It doesn’t mean to just tell what happened. Your reader needs to feel the pain of the person you’re using to illustrate your point, whether that’s you or someone else. In order to trust that you can help her, your reader needs to know that, like her, you’ve bled. You’ve questioned. You got to where you are one hard, slogging, step at a time. She needs to see not just that you made mistakes, but how and where you went wrong.
This will help you seem not only more relatable, but someone she can trust to guide or inform her.
Conclusion: To Be Human Is to Have A Story
I’ve focused in this post on storytelling in self-help and lifestyle books. Similar reasons apply to other non-fiction genres.
Not sure how to make it work? There are plenty of examples out there. There is straight-up fiction like The Shack that William Paul Young wrote to make his take on Christian theology more accessible to the masses. There are business parable books like The Go-Giver and Who Moved My Cheese? and self-help books by the likes of Dave Ramsey and Joel Osteen, who weave true anecdotes into their writing.
Telling a good story is not a skill any author should relegate to fiction. Because to be human is to have a story. That’s why non-fiction and fiction authors alike know that the best way to speak truth is through the framework of a story.
Want to make sure your book is successful? Here are 6 things you’ve got to get right!