How to Assess Your Story’s Strengths
Hi, there! Welcome back to the #StorytellingShift series where I walk fellow writers through the process of learning how to become storytellers. If you're not sure what going from a writer to a storyteller means, hop on over to my first post in the series where I introduce the key to unlocking endless storytelling inspiration as well as the main premise behind the great #StorytellingShift.
One of the key focuses in Swiss Army Storytelling is emphasizing your story's strengths. I've always believed that really great storytellers just know how to tap into their strengths well enough to sort of write around their weaknesses, and that's certainly true for any writer on the journey to becoming a storyteller.
Because writing in different mediums is tricky. Not because of the actual technical skills you need to learn like formatting a screenplay or juggling various story endings in a video game, but because of the new ways, you have to start thinking when you write in each new medium.
Of course, that type of thinking is what inspires your inner storyteller to think in innovative ways and what takes you from a regular ol' writer to a full-on Swiss Army Storyteller. But the journey of getting there and figuring out what your new strengths are in each medium is not an easy one, especially if you are in the habit of only writing one way in one medium.
That's why one of the first things I suggest all budding storytellers do is assess their own stories for its strengths. In doing this, you'll learn not only about yourself as a storyteller, but the storytelling medium you're writing in as a whole, something that is essential in your #storytellingshift.
What are Storytelling Strengths?
When it comes to storytelling, there are two types of strengths – your own personal strengths and the medium you're writing in's strengths. Oftentimes these two are the same things, but many writers and storytellers will mistake what they like doing what they're best at.
For instance, I used to think dialogue was my weakest area as a writer. I convinced myself that as a prose writer I was better off with wordy descriptions and tried my best to keep my characters from talking. (The horror!) This, in turn, kept me from screenwriting from a long time because I had the misconception that screenwriting was just about dialogue and as a result that likely kept me from even considering the possibility of trying out playwriting or video game writing!
But one day a friend read my story and said the dialogue was the best part. And suddenly I took my story and looked at it again, and I realized I had misunderstood my story's strengths. The dialogue was the story, it was what made it special and unique. Even if dialogue wasn't my writing strength – I'd like to think we're neutral towards one another – I understood then that the story was rooted in dialogue and in that way, I needed to enhance that feature, not bury it away.
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Because of this blind spot we storytellers often give ourselves, when evaluating the different strengths in your own story, I want you to try your hardest to look at the story at hand, not the person who penned it. Each story you write is going to have different areas that stand out. If that area is a particular storytelling strength of yours, then this might reoccur over and over, but never rule out the possibilities that your self-prescribed storytelling weakness might be your strength in another story.
Different Strengths in Stories
Before you read any further, take a moment to think of a story you wrote that you are particularly fond of. As you examine the different strengths to storytelling, consider whether this story you wrote has any of these traits.
It is very likely it won't have all of them, and that's alright. Instead, look for one or two defining strengths in your work that you believe make it unique. This will help you focus on your authenticity as a writer just as much as the actual story in addition to helping you realize that having strengths in one area – such as character – means that when you try to write your first screenplay, that strength in character transfers over to the new medium!
Strong characters can sometimes surprise us. By strong here I do not mean tough or physically strong, but having a character who really sticks in the audience's mind. This is a character that people talk about like they're real, someone so strikingly human that it's hard to believe there is anything fictional about them at all. However, there are also characters who are distinctly strange and unhuman that fascinate and hold us just as much.
All stories might have strong characters, but it is the ones that we talk about, whether we admire them or scorn them, that demonstrate a story's strengths.
This doesn't have to be the leading character of your story, and often it's not. Sure, Harry Potter wouldn't be Harry Potter without him, but there are plenty of other heroes imitating the same qualities so that replacing Harry would be moderately easy.
Replacing Snape on the other hand, well, it just couldn't be done! Snape is what makes the series so fantastic and he is so great because he is so human, so conflicted, so driven by contradictions. Sure, Harry emulates some of those traits as well, and part of what makes Snape so wonderful is that we can't pin down exactly the thing that makes him better than other complex characters, but overall, Rowling's strength here lies in her characters. It just so happens though that her strengths in storytelling are not constricted to one area like the rest of us.
Having a strong plot does not always mean having a well-paced plot. A solid plot is the type of plot that makes people cringe, shout, cry, laugh and so forth. It is what we get frustrated at and what we cheer for and best of all it's what can keep a story interesting.
Even if your story has a slower plot, the plot alone could very well be its strength. Think about stories like Animal Farm, where the characters' names are forgotten but the message and the story stand out in our minds forever. Think about folktales with their seemingly flat characters existing in a fable that is passed down from generation to generation.
If your story has a strong plot, the characters fall behind it. You can still have wonderful characters, but they pale in comparison to the story you're telling. Their replaceability is part of what makes the plot so great – it could be anyone in their shoes – and a testament to the strengths of your plot.
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A powerful setting can transport any reader, viewer, or gamer to a world they'll never wish to leave. Though a great setting alone cannot carry an entire story – or maybe it can, I love to be challenged – an unforgettable world can take a mediocre plot and a small cast of characters and give their world culture and life.
As humans, we are always interested in our settings. Giving life to that setting in the form of a story, making it unique and vivid, gives consumers of your story a new place to experience a culture and world unlike their own, especially if that setting or world is well thought out or fresh and exciting, if it feels like it's as alive as the character themselves.
Take Gabriel García Márquez's world in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When reflecting back on the book, many people can only recall moments of the plot and flashes of the characters. But everyone remembers Macondo and how that small village enchanted us. Without that city, the story wouldn't be the same. That small village is what makes the story so unique and is why other stories with similar themes or ideas don't stand out as much.
In our modern day, the medium you're writing in is as much as a strength as any setting or plot. At first, you may be wondering how that's possible, but with so many different mediums out there, if your story is using the medium well and in an innovative way – a way that ensures it cannot be told in any other medium – your story is using the medium as an advantage.
For instance, one of my favorite plays, The Method Gun, is partially so wonderful because I know it can never be reproduced in any other medium. This is because the ending scene in the show relies on these swinging lights in the theater that the actors must move around. While I cannot do the show any justice with words – another example as to how the story does such a good job standing out in the medium – you can imagine how swinging lights that actors are moving around while they recreate the entire show in a few mintues time (I really, really can't do it justice) is not something that can be replicated in any other form. That in turn means the story is using the medium well, something we talk about a lot in Swiss Army Storytelling and something I believe you should always strive for in every single story you write.
Finding Your Story's Strengths
Before I go on, I want to remind you that this section is titled "finding your story's strengths," not "finding your strengths."
I repeat that because often people confuse those two ideas as being the same, but that's not what the #storytellingshift is about. The #storytellingshift is about learning to listen for the right story and the best way to tell it. But you can't tell the best anything if you're consumed in what makes you comfortable and not what will make your story stronger.
Of course, it's one thing to read about all these strengths and look to famous examples, but it's another thing altogether to try and identify these strengths in a work in progress.
However, identifying these strengths in your work is what will make your story really stand out. At first, this may prove difficult. But if you really devote the time to sit and think through your story, taking the time to imagine the story in different forms, you'll find a new place to develop in your work and enhance your project.
STEP ONE: Read your story out loud.
I know, I know. I hate reading my work out loud too, not because I hate how it sounds but because reading stuff out loud is physically EXHAUSTING, especially if you're reading something like a video game script.
So I'm only going to ask you to do it once.
In reading your story out loud, you'll be forced to take things slow. And that's important to assessing your story's strengths. You'll not only be able to hear your words out loud – something especially important in prose – but in other mediums, the slow pace of reading out loud will give you the time to really visualize how your story will come to life.
STEP TWO: Mark any passages or scenes you loved.
As you read your story out loud, mark any scene, passage, or moment you love, even if it forces you to pause your story – in fact, especially if it does.
What you love in your story speaks to the strengths of that story. You might love to write interactive video game quests, but if you're moved by something a character says or a beat in your story, mark it! This is your story calling you to tell you what's good.
You might be thinking, "But what if other people thing X is my story's strength?"
In response to that, every story is interpreted differently. So, if someone thinks your strengths are elsewhere, let them think that. But if you listen to all the different places other people believe your story is stron, you're going to end up with a mediocre story trying to do too many things.
While you can have a few friends or readers guide you towards your strength, for your first go at it, I recommend noting what speaks to you as the storyteller and what satisfies something within your storytelling core.
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STEP THREE: Cut out those scenes
For every scene or passage, you loved, print it out onto a new sheet of paper or literally cut it out from your manuscript. Now, this doesn't mean omit it from your story, but instead take some time to sit down and analyze why you marked this scene or passage.
Work through each scene, one-by-one, jotting down what you think makes the passage strong. Once you're done, compare all your favorite parts and see if there is a common strength you can tap in to. That doesn't mean omitting strong dialogue simply because you have a great plot, but just looking to see what is the majority strength you are moved by in your work.
Then, line your story up in order and see how it feels with all of these parts you love side-by-side. You will want to keep this nearby for later.
STEP FOUR: Review your story without the strengths.
Now, take the parts of the story you didn't cut out, and look over this part of your story. Look to see if there are any parts you've missed that embody the new strength in your story you've found, but also look to see how the story stands up without these strengths.
Read the story again without including the parts you cut out in step two. If the story seems to be missing that special something, you'll know you've found your strength. If the story still seems to hold up without those special parts you loved, you either are being too hard on yourself when finding the parts you love, or your story is too evenly distributed, meaning you'll need to further develop one or two areas. More than likely one of those areas is the medium you're telling your story in.
STEP FIVE: Brainstorm further
After you've found some strengths in your story, I want you to take the time to reimagine your work with and without the different strengths we talked about earlier. This should be pretty easy as you've separated your story now into the strong parts, and the parts that are missing the strengths (though not necessarily weak).
For the strong pieces of your story, brainstorm how you can enhance what makes your story better and how you can use the strengths even further. For the weaker areas, try to imagine what different strengths – not the one you uncovered in steps two and three – would look like in your story. For instance, if your strength's are in character, imagine the weak version of your story enhanced by the plot.
If you're still having trouble, don't forget to look to the medium you're writing in. Use my Storytelling System ebook to imagine your story as a novel, film, TV show, etc. Even if imagining your story in different mediums doesn't change the medium you've told it in, you'll at least have validated that your medium of choice was the best one for your story – not for you.
Whatever strength your story seems to have – run with it. Do NOT try to have strengths in every area! Sure, you may have a strong story, but in terms of a stand out story, you want one or two areas as the centerpiece. It may seem counterintuitive, but this extreme focus on one or two strengths in your story is what will make it stand out amongst other stories. It's when people spread themselves thin that their work becomes forgettable and loses that special touch that made the story unqiue.
So, focus on what makes your story authentic and powerful. Do not stress about originality, as a creating a truly original story is nearly impossible these days and far less impressive than a story that stands strong using the foundational tools of any great story.
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Did this exercise make you realize you're stuck thinking in one storytelling medium still? Jump back to the post on my favorite tools for inspiration to upgrade your storytelling life.