Storytelling – A Beginner’s Guide #2: Five Ways To Hack A Story

MikeachimStorytelling, Writing13 Comments

OK – let’s cheat.

In the first part of this series I outlined what storytelling isn’t. So is it time to talk about why we’re so swayed by a good story, and what stories are ultimately for? Well, let’s get to that later — this article is more concerned with your story, the one you’re working on right now.

Perhaps you’re writing blog posts or articles for a magazine. Perhaps you’re a fiction writer, or you’re more concerned with nailing the perfect sales letter. Maybe it’s your own story that’s the issue here, and you want to learn to convey it to others in a gripping way…

The great thing about story-hacking is that it can be used for anything.

Why “hack”? Because while these five techniques may be useful in creating a story from scratch, they’re equally useful in rewiring an existing one so it works better. Editors are expert story-hackers. In fact, the term “editor” feels like a disservice in many cases – it suggests their job is to add or remove words until the whole piece simply “reads better”. What they’re also doing is removing anything that obscures the meaning behind the words. They’re using a sometimes dizzying array of techniques, often instinctively, to help writing get deeper into our minds and our hearts. They help the story break into the heads of strangers. They’re story-hackers.

Here are 5 ways you can hack your own stories.


1. Start With (Half) The End In Mind

Ever skipped to the end of a story because you just burned to know how it turned out?

Ever heard the piece of advice “don’t give away the ending”?

It’s half-wrong.

Your ending – or the point where the story’s tension ramps up to unbearable heights – is an incredibly powerful storytelling tool, and it’d be a damn shame to keep it hidden until the end. Good storytellers rarely do. Take AMC’s Breaking Bad, currently into its final 4 episodes. [spoilers] Why are viewers on the edge of their seats? Because they know part of the ending already: a haggard, haunted-looking Walter White, driving a car with a machine-gun in the trunk, returns to his now abandoned and ransacked house to retrieve a vial of poison. Why? We’ll know in a few weeks – but that’s what is pulling us on. Narrative theory calls this foreshadowing. We know it as delicious frustration.

Tease your readers with enough of the ending to hook them – but not enough that they know how everything will turn out.


2. Put Up Signs

You know where you want your readers to go, because you worked out your ending first, right? (If not, try doing that now.) It’s a destination – and when we’re trying to get somewhere, how do we know we’re on track?


Here’s Radiolab‘s Jad Abumrad on the subject:

My own philosophy on storytelling is that people don’t want to be told how to feel but they do want to be told what to pay attention to. One of the most basic ways to do this when you’re telling a story is to use what’s sometimes called a “pointing arrow,” or signposting. Right before something happens, drop in a little phrase like…”and that’s the moment when everything changed”…or…” and that’s when things got interesting.” Those phrases are like little arrows that tell the listeners: pay attention to what’s about to happen because it’s important.

via Maria Popova’s Explore

You know when you see someone on Facebook posting a frustratingly opaque comment like “This is the worst day EVER” or “I’ve got something to tell you – but I’m not sure I should! :/ :/”. It’s wretchedly annoying attention-seeking, yes (or to use the common vernacular, vaguebooking) – but it’s also signposting. They’re hinting at some kind of revelation you’re unaware of, trying to get you to focus your attention on their personal crisis…

You’re not allowed to do it on Facebook. (Well, of course you are, obviously, but please – don’t). You are allowed to do it in your story. Think about where the reader’s attention might be flagging, or where you really want them to lean in so you can plant some information in their heads that will be vital to their satisfaction later, when all the pieces come together with a snap.

Wherever these moments are, add a little language to draw them closer, to tease and frustrate them and maybe, just maybe, make them hate you – just a little bit. It’s allowed.


3. Think Like A Director

When you’re reading a fictional story, do you imagine a famous actor as the protagonist? When we play a story inside our heads, we use the conventions of the most popular story medium at our disposal today – the box in the corner of the room. (Or the screen of our laptops. Or any of the other clever ways TV shows and films reach our eyeballs). This is how modern audiences think. And if you want their brains to give your story a helping-hand, that’s how you’ll write.

Imagine the English landscape rendered in miniature under your fingertips. Trail a hand north along the country’s rocky spine until the Yorkshire Dales knots chaotically into the Lake District. Now head east. A long, glacier-excavated scoop, and then it browns, bulges, rasping under your fingers like stubble. It’s like England has developed mange, and it’s this faintly cankerous-looking vista that I’ve been fighting my way across, in a storm that’s in its sixth hour.

I wrote that before Game Of Thrones came along. Now we all think in terms of landscapes rendered in miniature, with the camera swooping and zooming in and out – so if you introduce language suggesting a camera’s eye view, you can tap this existing association in a powerful way. In essence, you can hack the Game Of Thrones intro already in someone else’s head.

The same goes for any number of TV tropes that are familiar to us because we’ve been marinaded in them for years and years. Don’t just write your characters and scenes, direct them – and hack those connections that are already in the reader’s mind.


4. Flood Their Senses

When you’re hopelessly lost in a story, it really feels like you’re genuinely there. Everything feels real. But how, as a writer, can you make everything feel real?

You’d be forgiven for assuming it’s all about how good a writer you are. Great writers make you feel what they’re saying, somehow turning an interesting and entertaining read into a life-changing experience. How do they do that? Nobody knows. It’s magic.


The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life: in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

– “The Neuroscience Of Your Brain On Fiction“, New York Times

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul looked at the findings of a number of neurological studies of people deeply immersed in reading stories, compared with people having the same real-life experiences. (For example, someone reading about how a rose smells, compared with someone sniffing a rose). In each case, specific parts of the brain associated with the senses were triggered. The people reading about roses were successfully fooled, however momentarily, into thinking they were experiencing real roses.

How? By using language associated with the senses.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

Take the word “gently” out of that opening line of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath and a lot of its impact is lost – because it doesn’t make your memory flick back to when you were last standing, face upwards, as gentle rain drifted down, laying on your hair and running over your face and dripping from your eyebrows…

Use sensual language that makes the reader imagine feeling it – and you can perform a little magic of your own.


5. Embrace The Dark Side

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall asks – when was the last time you listened to children’s stories?

No, not the ones adults invent, filled with sunlight, flowers, swings and unicorns. Stories that children invent. Because before we grown-ups get to them and reassure them that the world is more or less safe, children fill it with horror. Stuff like:

This is a story about a jungle. Once upon a time there was a jungle. There were lots of animals, but they weren’t very nice. A little girl came into the story. She was scared. Then a crocodile came in. The end.

Once there was a little dog named Scooby and he got lost in the woods. He didn’t know what to do. Velma couldn’t find him. No one could find him.

These two are actual examples of stories two five year olds told their teacher when asked “Will you tell me a story?” And they’re typical.


It’s possible that children weave these nightmares for themselves because they’re trying to prepare themselves for everything bad that could happen as they grow up. If this is true, this could lay the foundation for an evolutionary role for storytelling – as a kind of inner boot-camp, toughening the mind up against the worst that could go wrong. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in this respect, adults are just like children, only older. We love this kind of darkness and misery. It’s why the dark, twisted stories of Roald Dahl managed to appeal to children and adults alike. It’s seen in our seemingly endless appetite for anti-heroes and police forensics dramas. It’s everywhere.

Let’s talk about Christmas. A time of joy, and goodwill to all, the Yule log crackling merrily on the fire, mince pies hot enough to burn your mouth on, and just a little more brandy please, yes, just a little, thanks.

How does the BBC’s number 1 soap opera celebrate Christmas every single year?

With death.

If you click through to that video, you’ll notice it’s on the official BBC YouTube account. It also has the wording “Archie’s Death – Eastenders – Christmas Highlight – BBC One”. I rest my case.

Every year, like a cockney version of The Hunger Games, Eastenders finishes off at least one cast-member in front of an audience of millions of people. Here’s the one from last Christmas. It works – every year. Is it because the British public enjoys wallowing in misery? Yes it is! But not because it’s British. (Well, that may be a factor. Let’s leave that for another time).

We are all curiously drawn to darkness. And if you want your story to hook like nothing else, take it to places that will unnerve, even scare, the reader – not for cheap thrills, but to get under their skin. If you’re writing to entertain and inspire, don’t assume that painting everything in a rosy light will have the intended effect. If you’re wanting your readers to invest in your story, dig into your vulnerabilities and hunt for things they’ll empathize with – after all, in the words of Emma Coats of Pixar, “you admire a character for trying more than for their successes”. If you’re writing about providing a vital service, tell the customer what could go wrong if you weren’t around to help…

Embrace the dark side. It’ll make your stories better.

NEXT: #3 – Ten Ways To Start A Story

Images: Alexandre Dulaunoy, Heather Paul, Nicolas Raymond, Slocs, Tobias Lindman, and Martin Fisch.

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