Monday, September 23, 2019

Three Critical Storytelling Elements

By Andrea Merrell

We’ve heard it before … story trumps plot. True or false? Arguments prevail on both sides of the issue.

There are many formulaic elements of fiction: plot, conflict, character development, POV, dialogue … the list goes on. But what about the storytelling itself. Where does it factor in?
The truth is if the storytelling is poor, the manuscript will ultimately wind up in the editorial graveyard.

According to Phillip Martin, “It might be best to say that  story is essential and elemental, while plot is constructed and can be somewhat artificial. Both are good and enjoyable when done well. But story is closer to the heart—closer to why we value stories and storytellers.”

In a recent blog post, Martin gives us three key elements for a good story:

1.  Something curiously odd at the start.
2.  Selective and delightful details to draw out the tale through the middle.
3.  An ending that makes it clear why this story was worth  telling.

Here are Martin’s brief descriptions of each element taken from that blog post: (See details below for more information.)** 

Intriguing Eccentricity
Odd or quirky, it turns out, is naturally interesting. We are intrigued by something peculiar. We want to know more about it.
A story is by definition eccentric; it is about something different from the norm. If you want to get published, something odd should appear in the first pages of a manuscript to catch the attention of an agent or editor. It could be an odd image, a peculiar voice, a curious incident. Unless your story offers a quirky hook, it will quickly be tossed aside.
If you are going to be eccentric, why wait to reveal it? A fisherman doesn’t save his bait ‘til he sees a fish. He baits the hook before he drops a line in the water. 
Delightful Details
Why do people read fiction? In many ways, readers want to experience in a story what they experience in eating delicious food. Joy in eating comes from a craving not for nutrition but for delightful tastes. Eating is not about the outline of a recipe; it’s about the pleasure of tasting what appears on the plate.
The same is true of literary creativity. The details you put on each page of your manuscript are the spices that make the words tingle on the tongue of the mind. The good story is full of distinctive, flavorful details. The problem is that beginning authors often overlook the need to create delightfully rich, savory details in favor of addressing the needs of the plot. In other words, they organize the menu and serve the food but forget to spice it properly. 

One good way to develop details is to use more senses.  Another way to develop rich details is to build a strong sense of place. Too many beginning writers set their story in a place that can only be called generic, with few concrete details, and those provided tend to be stereotypical. Writing rich in specificity is a major element that literary agents or acquisitions editors look for.
The satisfying surprise at the end
Does your ending satisfy the reader with surprises? As writer Carol Bly noted: “An essential difference between experienced and beginning writers is the amount of surprise they give us.”
If you want to achieve both satisfaction and surprise at the end, a good place to start is to identify the main characters’ desires. A good story will reveal something about important human needs: love, understanding, friendship, following a path of rightness in the world.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “[Stories are a] series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.” That “something else,” said Lewis, is the “real theme.” Plot’s purpose, he suggested, is to catch the theme, like a bird in the net, if only for a few moments in the story. “The bird has escaped us. But at least it was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage.”
The Heart of the Story
The three aspects of story I’ve discussed here are not the only ones needed for good fiction. A story needs other things too, including a functional plot. But in my experience, a story will sink or swim based on the appeal of these three elements: intriguing eccentricity to draw us in, delightful details to make us enjoy the middle course of the story, and a satisfying conclusion to wrap it up well.
Consider Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not the plot, it’s his storytelling skill that has made these works so beloved over the ages. He is master of the play of words, the frolic of fancy, the comic interludes, and many other techniques that beguile the heavy gait of plot. As poet Howard Nemerov noted, the clever bard “tells the same stories over and over in so many guises that it takes a long time before you notice.” 

If you do it correctly, you will attract, delight, and amaze your readers. A good story will shed new light on the human condition. So, I recommend that you focus your novel-writing process on story, not on plot. If you do it well, story will be always at the core of your strongest writing. 
Or, as I’ve said elsewhere: story rules, plot drools. 
**For more information on Philip Martin or to read the complete article, visit:

(Photos courtesy of and Stuart Miles.)

Monday, September 9, 2019

Five Questions for Reviewing Your Train of Thought

By Katy Kauffman

With time, I have become a better train conductor. Instead of jumping the rails to explore lush, green forests or majestic mountain peaks, I am better able to keep my train of thought on its intended course. Have you ever thought of yourself—a writer—as a train conductor?
Words are our cars, and chapters are our trains. We may not wear the nostalgic conductor’s hat, but our thinking caps fit snugly in place. That may be the problem. In the broad expanse of ideas and sentences and experiences, we have to chart our course. What points do we need to make? Which ones do we need to leave out? Our necessary writer’s tool (dare I say the word?)—an outline—acts as our track. The track grows as we add illustrations, insights, or examples to make our point. The danger comes when our exuberance for sharing what we know runs off track and into the thicket.

Oh, it may not look like a thicket to us. But our readers will find themselves traveling through briars and underbrush if we decide to jump the track. They may appreciate the extra leg of the journey, tucked safely inside our train. But they will start to wonder why their conductor added a few stops before the destination. We never want to confuse or disappoint our readers. We want them to travel with us again through worlds of truth or imagination.

So how do we ensure that they will buy our train ticket and ride with us again? By delivering what we’ve promised. By arriving at our destination at the end of the book and making every stop until we get there as enjoyable, informative, and encouraging as possible.

Here are five questions to ask yourself about every chapter, paragraph, and sentence in your book. These questions also work for shorter rides, such as articles and blog posts. Once you have poured out your heart on paper, put on your conductor’s hat and examine closely your train of thought. Streamline your writing by evaluating the “track.”

  1. Does my train of thought travel from Point A (the beginning of my chapter or article) to Point B (the end of it) in a straight line, or have I meandered off course?
  2. Have I included stories, statistics, or quotes that illustrate my point, or are some not as relevant as others?
  3.  Can I cut out any paragraphs, sentences, or single words, and my message is still clear?
  4.  Have I inserted anything that’s precious to me but unnecessary to my overall point? 
  5. Do I arrive at my destination “on time,” or do I have any delays and detours?

Our goal as writers is to arrive at our destination—the end of our work—leaving our readers feeling as if they have had an adventure worth remembering and taking to heart. Guide them all the way through your message of truth by using the most effective route—don’t let your train of thought jump the track.

What do you do to help yourself stay on track in your writing? Share your tips and ideas with us in the comments below.

(Photos courtesy of


Katy Kauffman is an award-winning author, an editor of Refresh Bible Study Magazine, and a co-founder of Lighthouse Bible Studies. Her first compilation, Breaking the Chains: Strategies for Overcoming Spiritual Bondage, won a 2018 Selah finalist award. Her next compilation, Heart Renovation: A Construction Guide to Godly Character, was a 2019 Selah finalist and Director’s Choice finalist. Katy’s writing can be found at,,, two blogs on writing, in online magazines, and on devotional blogs. She loves spending time with family and friends, making jewelry, and hunting for the best donuts. Connect with her at her blog, The Scrapbooked Bible Study, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Whatcha Gonna Do When the Well Runs Dry, Honey?

By Yolanda Smith

Whatcha Gonna Do when the Well Runs Dry, Honey?

I’ll admit it—this blog post was due, and I had nuthin’. Sometimes my well of ideas runs dry. My lack of material is not due to stupidity. At least, I hope that’s not the case. This problem usually manifests when I’m full of conflicting and competing responsibilities (back-to-school, anyone?), and they take over my brain, siphoning the creativity faster than a gas thief. What’s a writer to do?

Sit on the Bank and Cry, Cry, Cry
Tears are my default when things aren’t going write right. I used to be ashamed of my tears, doing everything within my power to stop the flow. That’s never worked well for me, so my second option was to hide the blubbering as best I could. That remained true for many years, until I realized God gave me tears as a gift, and I stopped holding back. These days a hearty sob is no crying shame. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, tired, or out of sorts, a good bawl cleanses my soul and is the closest thing I have to a reset button.

Yonder Comes a Man with a Sack on His Back
We know the source of all creativity, right? He’s in sight, and He’s headed our way. He’s the living water, ready to slake our thirst if we’re willing to sit at His feet and drink deeply of all He offers. He can fill our wagon, our well, and our water bottles with whatever we need most. Often, we don’t even know what to ask for, but He knows what we need, and He’s got a sack full of supplies. But it’s our job to pay attention—and notice His presence.

Got More Crawdads than He Can Pack
God has a bottomless reservoir of creativity available. There’s no promise as to the measure He will share with us, but we won’t be worse for the asking. He invites us to remember every good and perfect gift comes from Him.

You Get a Line, I’ll Get a Pole, Honey
Wouldn’t it be odd if, while pulling out a good folk song or ballad and whistling a jaunty tune, we actually get a line? And one line leads to another line, and a nibble turns to a catch. Soon, we’re fishing in the deep waters of creativity once again. Or writing a full blog post. Wow!

We’ll Go Down to the Crawdad Hole
Make sure to invite others along the journey with you. Sometimes when the well is dry the best way to prime the pump is share what you already know with someone who is a little behind you on the road. Everything feels ho-hum until we begin recounting what we’ve learned along the way, and it refuels our passion to keep learning and trying.

Honey, Baby, Mine
At the center of why we write is the gift of words, and the gift of an audience. We are called to serve people with and through the words we share, giving away our ideas and experiences as a way to love our audience well.

What do you do when you run out of ideas? Where do you turn for inspiration? We’d love for you to share your best ideas with us in the comments.

(Photos courtesy of, Sira Anamwong, and Aleks Melnik.)


Writer, when the inspiration and ideas run dry, turn to the Source of all creativity. God’s reservoir is bottomless and never runs dry. via @canitbeyolanda (Click to tweet.)

Yolanda Smith enjoys life in the foothills of North Carolina. In a “Yours, Mine & Ours” spin, she and her husband are parents to a combined total of twelve children and grandparents to a growing number of littles. Yolanda serves on her church’s worship team, works as a freelance editor, is a guest speaker at various churches, and writes in the cracks of life. She is currently working on her first novel featuring historical Appalachian fiction. A former member of a legalistic, cultish church, Yolanda is passionate about helping people find freedom in Christ. She is also enthusiastic about reading good books and correcting bad grammar.

You can find Yolanda on the Internet at: