In high school, my creative writing teacher assigned an activity where each of us students had to go to a different section of the building and record everything we observed. But we weren’t supposed to blandly list people’s movements and conversations. The goal was to describe scenes how we thought a novelist would—and that one small shift in perspective yielded powerful results.
The ability to see the world through the lens of storytelling can supercharge both productivity and creativity. It’s one of the simplest habits to start and one of the most rewarding to learn. You don’t have to spend ten minutes tracking foot traffic in a high school hallway. You just have to adjust your mindset, regardless of the setting. Life presents countless opportunities to exercise this skill, but I’m going to share four specific ones that are already within reach.
1. Read Like a Storyteller
To be a writer, you have to be a reader first. For most of us, this is easy. Because we love the experiences that fiction gives us, we hope to impact others with our own stories. Of course, some people enjoy writing despite disliking reading, so this isn’t true for everyone. But wherever you are on the spectrum, reading is an essential part of studying your craft.
The problem is that writers tend to become so absorbed in a novel that they forget to analyze it. Although you do need outlets for relaxation, reading can serve a dual purpose and also be enriching. Ask yourself questions during a book and after finishing it. Which techniques succeed and which ones fail? What would you change? Do you know the reasons behind the author’s choices? Why is the story entertaining? Take these kind of mental (or physical) notes for every book you consume.
Reading with the intent to grow taught me how to develop distinct voices and personalities for my characters, how to pull off a surprising plot twist and a satisfying ending, and how to recognize fatal mistakes in various categories. When you pay attention to how professional authors construct their stories, your own strengths and weaknesses will crystallize, and you’ll have examples of how to improve.
2. Watch Movies and TV Like a Storyteller
When you curl up to watch a movie or binge the latest season of your favorite show, you’ll be tempted to turn off your brain. But don’t let yourself slip into passivity here either. Movies and TV may not follow exactly the same rules as novels, but all forms of storytelling share similarities. Plot structure and character arcs will still be evident even if individual moments are conveyed differently.
Dissect a movie or TV episode’s storyline until you understand how all the pieces connect. Then consider how the visual aspects could be translated to text, what would need to be altered in the process, and how that might affect the story overall. The distinctions between the two formats can bring to light all sorts of nuances that you might not have noticed otherwise, and you can glean from the areas where film excels. For instance, since you’re never inside characters’ heads and they can only express themselves through talking aloud, a script can be a goldmine of lessons on realistic and compelling dialogue.
3. Look at People Like a Storyteller
Everyone around you, whether loved ones or strangers, can provide insight into authentic characterization. Clothing styles, speech patterns, and mannerisms reveal more about a person than you, or they, might realize, and when you apply this concept to fictional characters, you add another layer of realism.
A memorable description communicates more than a character’s outward appearance—it hints at his personality and life. You can practice this art by brainstorming how you’d portray a friend or family member on paper. Since you’re already familiar with their quirks, describing them will be less difficult than starting from scratch. Commit to writing at least a paragraph and focus on fully fleshing out a particular trait. In other words, don’t settle for something generic like “my brother smiles a lot.” Explain what’s unique about his expression and demeanor. Maybe his grin seems too big for his face, or he scrunches his nose as if he can smell the happiness.
As with books and movies, roll through a series of questions whenever you interact with someone. What conclusions can you draw from external details? How would a poet view a situation differently than a mechanic? When you allow ordinary people to become your inspiration, you’ll prime your imagination to generate ideas fluidly.
4. Explore Your Environment Like a Storyteller
This tip is along the same vein as the previous one. Search your surroundings for mini stories. How many scratches and rips are in the wallpaper at your grandma’s house, and why are those imperfections significant? How does the rain sound when it hits the roof instead of the trees? And which elements most influence the mood? Compare the three descriptions below:
- It was a cold autumn day. The sun was beginning to set. Leaves were on the ground.
- The chill in the air whispered of winter’s approach. As the sun danced at the edge of the horizon, its rays glinted off the trees, surrounding Emily in shimmering yellow, orange, and red. The crunch beneath her feet reminded her of childhood days spent leaping into piles of freshly raked leaves.
- The wind picked up, biting through Emily’s jacket. Darkness crept across the sky as the sun’s final rays inflamed the blood-red row of oaks. She wanted to be fast and silent, but dead leaves crackled loudly with her every step.
The first version is monotonous, stating only the basic facts. The second and third are much more vivid, but the word choices create a stark contrast in tone. Much like characterization, subtlety is important, and you can work on teasing it out whenever you visit the grocery store, walk around the block, or sit at the dinner table in your own home.
Seeing the World as a Storyteller
I’ll openly admit that my notes from those creative writing activities were far from masterpieces. And if you begin jotting down your own daily observations, some of yours probably won’t be either. But the random snatches of dialogue and action that we capture aren’t the final product. Rather, we’re stretching and training our minds, which better equips us for our careers as authors.
Life overflows with intricate details that we have the privilege of highlighting through storytelling. When we make a concerted effort to find and depict those tiny wonders on the page, we’ll be able to harness all the knowledge we’ve gained through continuous practice to enhance our current projects.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.
This is so good, Allison.
I think one of the most fascinating things about all great authors is their understanding of humanity, in all it’s details. How they blow us away with their characters is their knowledge of what it takes, and what it means, to be human.
I find that for myself, I’ve started to look to my friends and family to help me grasp what motivates real people. What makes them glow, what makes them sad, what they notice, and why they notice it.
I love these tips! They’re so helpful and fun–you took some of what I’m already doing and demonstrate how to bring it to the next level.
Thank you for writing this, Allison. 🙂