Storytelling 101

April 27th was National Tell a Story Day. But what makes a compelling story? Whether you're telling an anecdote on your blog or writing a novel, here are seven tips for keeping your readers hooked.

Show, Don't Tell. Every aspiring writer has heard this advice at some point, but it bears repeating: show your readers a scene, don't tell them a secondhand report. According to Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl, "Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader's mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe."

Be Specific. Great stories include enough detail to make them come alive for the readers. Rather than having a character who lives in an old house, put him in a decaying antebellum mansion. Instead of saying that a woman is attractive, describe her dazzling smile or the way heads turn when she walks down the street. Which is more memorable: "Helen was very pretty" or "Helen's face launched a thousand ships"?

Engage the Senses. Humans are primarily visual creatures, and we tend to focus on the way things look when describing them. However, don't neglect the other senses. Sound, touch, taste, and especially smell can evoke a specific scene or memory as clearly as sight. After all, Marcel Proust famously nibbled on a cookie and was transported back to his childhood. (If you want to try this at home, here's a recipe for madeleines, the butter cookies made famous by Proust's In Search of Lost Time.)

Don't Use Two Words Where One Will Do. The problem with weak verbs is that they often require adverbs to prop them up, requiring two words to do the work of one. For example, you could "walk quickly" or you could "trot," "hustle," or "scurry." Be wary of unnecessary repetition, wordy stock phrases like "due to the fact that" or "on the occasion of," and clichés.

Cut Out Adverbs. Adverbs--specifically -ly adverbs--are some of the most maligned words in the English language. But why are they so bad? They make your writing sound weak and wishy-washy. As Stephen King puts it, "With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across."

Be Sparing with Adjectives. William Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, said of adjectives: "Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun." When you rely too much on modifiers like adjectives and adverbs, your writing will come across as uncertain, as if you've heaped on extra words just in case you didn't get it right on the first pass. It's like wielding a shotgun when you should be using a laser.

Proofread. Nothing derails a story faster than a careless typo. When a reader catches a mistake you didn't, it immediately pulls them out of your writing (and often into the comments). Always read your work before posting or publishing--out loud, if possible--and use Grammarly's supercharged automated proofreader to find any remaining goofs.

What's the best piece of storytelling advice you've received? Share it in the comments!