Tips + Tactics

These are some quick ideas to try while you’re working on your story. Use them as inspiration to make the storytelling process a little smoother and more streamlined.

A Sympathetic Eye

When you feel like your story is in pretty good shape, have your Ideal Reader read it. Get their honest reaction. Don’t look for praise. “Gosh, Ted, I think that’s just super!” Ask for constructive, considerate, and thoughtful comments on your work. Good feedback will help you see where your story can be made stronger, simpler, and more engaging.

Story Partners

Work with a Story Partner so you can mutually monitor each another’s progress. It’s easy to lose sight of where you’re headed when you’re buried in notes and references and websites and storyboards. People working on the same types of project are perfect as they will likely share similar time-frames, objectives, and deadlines.

The point of having a Story Partner is to remind each another of where you are in the overall process, and what you have to remember not to forget. Being watchful and supportive of one another, while keeping objectives and deadlines in plain sight: that’s the goal.


If you’re looking for a way to add facets and depth to your story, consider expressing parts of it using L.O.T.S. – Language of the Senses.

Look at the events and subject of your story through the senses of sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. For example:

  • What were the kinds of sounds that your subject(s) might have heard on a daily basis?
  • What was the food like, and what did it taste like?
  • What kinds of things would they have seen on an everyday basis? What problems did they face, and what senses did they use to deal with them?

Get Personal

Get to know the characters in your story. Stories are about people; people have trouble and conflict in their lives; a story is all about struggle. The events and twists of fate of your characters’ lives are what will make us care about them, too.

Put on a Show

Don’t write a lecture or give a speech. Put on a show. Create pictures for your audience. The more strikingly visual your presentation is, the more people will remember it.


Storytelling is all about communication. That means remembering to communicate with everyone: your collaborators, your advisors, your Ideal Reader, and any of the dozens of other people whose help you’ll be seeking. Make certain the other person understands what you’re saying and what you’re asking of them (if anything). Follow up. Thank them. Complete that circle of trust.

Do not assume. Ask for help when you need it. Speak up and be sure that you have been heard. It’s a two-way street.


What’s in a Name?

Try to come up with a title that you think suits your project. Attempting to find a title is a good exercise to capture the heart of what you believe your story is about. Come up with several.

A title can easily change over the course of your construction of the story. Think of one that has meaning for you. A good title can help you maintain focus on your story’s overall narrative arc.

For inspiration, scan through lists of movie titles. People are paid vast amounts of money to come up with titles that convey key aspects of what a movie is about in order to attract an audience. Advertisements, too. Scanning through professionals’ examples can be an excellent exercise in refining your appreciation of what works and what doesn’t. Maybe one of those titles will inspire you to come up with a phrase or combination of words that ties everything together.

Get Visual

For inspiration, sort through photo collections online or in books that reflect the period and the places that you are exploring in your research. Look for images that you feel capture some of the ideas and emotions that are a part of your story. Don’t worry about copyright: these photos are for your personal reference only. See them as a graphic expression of something in your evolving project, and a visual spark-plug for your imagination.

Switch Media

Tell your story in a different way by using a different medium. If you’re writing a story, try telling it only using photographs. If you’re making a video, try describing each scene in words and no pictures. Try telling your story using different tools. This often helps you to discover new ways to communicate with your audience.

Right + Wrong

Don’t be afraid to be wrong or to make mistakes. Everyone does, although many pretend that they don’t. Clinging to what you know for certain, and not allowing yourself to take chances, will get you nowhere. It’s like walking backwards to prove where you have been. Being wrong can be a reward. It can bring you a big step closer to being right. There’s no right and wrong. There’s only new and old.

Professionals know they are starting fresh every time they start a new project, and that there’s a good possibility that they won’t be able to do it this time. Amateurs, on the other hand, persuade themselves that they have to know exactly what they are doing and are always in complete control.

Be a professional. Keep moving forward.

A Professional Technique

A classic technique for getting things moving in a story is to ask a question, and then don’t answer it. At least not right away. In most movies, TV shows, and books as examples, the main character has some problem and doesn’t know how to fix it. The audience gets involved as the story leads us towards that character’s solution or answer. We want to know what happened next.

If the writer starts off not knowing the answer to the problem or the obstacle, such as, “Why did he enlist in the navy? How did the experience change her? Why didn’t they get better warnings or advice?”, then neither will the audience. In their research and creative thinking, the writer works through possible answers, one at a time, exploring and discovering the story every bit as much as the audience will when they read or see it. That’s the way the writer constructs the story: by discovering it themselves, one scene at a time.

Each scene, chapter, or section) should have its own question, with a new question arising for each subsequent one. Something as simple as looking at a photo, and asking, “What’s happening here?” can get you thinking. That’s the same question your audience will have in their minds.

What’s a good question? Ask yourself: “What questions do I have about the subject of my story?” The questions that intrigue you will likely be the same ones that will intrigue your audience, too.


It is always a good idea to create a complete bibliography (full citations) for your work. Whether you use it to retrace your steps to locate material found in the past, or to assist other researchers in discovering sources that they had been unaware of, it is a valuable addition to any non-fiction project. The Citation Machine will make creating professional bibliographic entries a simple matter for you.

The Purdue University Online Writing Lab offers excellent information and advice on how and why to use the APA and the MLA citation formats.

Bibliographies are not for everyone, but they are invaluable for those who need them.

Last Minute Reminders

  • Keep adding to your Ideas folder and continue to revisit them for inspiration.
  • The secret to storytelling lies in making someone else feel some of what you feel.
  • Don’t tell us what your story is. Show us what your story means to you. Make us feel something. That’s the beginning of your story.
  • Tell us why you’re telling us this story. Or better yet, show us. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s an emotional one.
  • It’s essential to keep a clear and simple vision of what your story is about once that’s made itself clear to you. What is the one thing that makes you care most about the story?
  • Every page and every element of your storytelling has to contribute something to the story. If it doesn’t, then out it goes. If it repeats what we already know, out it goes. Simpler and less is always better.
  • Back everything up: documents, photos, audio, video. At some point, you will have computer or hard drive problems. Establish a backup routine. Do it now.
  • A powerful photo is a good way to spark your audience’s imaginations and start them thinking and feeling along the lines of what you think and feel.
  • Story isn’t what happens. Story is what makes things happen.
  • Facts don’t tell the story. You do. Use the facts to make a point, they can’t speak for themselves.
  • Tell us why you’re telling us this story. Or better yet, show us. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s an emotional one.
  • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Be bold. Bold doesn’t mean big and dumb. Bold means clear and strong. The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.
  • The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.
  • Be as simple as you can. Simple does not mean an empty box or a blank page. It means uncomplicated and easy to comprehend. A brilliant designer said:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.


It’s up to you to decide what that means.

  • Getting started on a new project never gets easier. Don’t kid yourself that you’re finding it tough going because you don’t know how, and next time it will be easier. It never gets easier. However, you will discover some dead ends that you can avoid next time. Most importantly, you get used to how difficult doing something original can be.
  • Such difficulties are no different than exercising, shovelling snow, or splitting wood. The more you do it, the less difficult it seems to be.
  • Creative work is like running a marathon. You’re not smiling. (At least not yet.)