The #1 Essential Skill EVERY Writer Needs to Learn

'We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master' — Ernest Hemingway Click To Tweet

There are many types of writing in the world:

Article writing, novel writing, copywriting, ghostwriting, songwriting, poetry writing, playwriting, handwriting, typewriting, skywriting, love-letter-writing, rewriting…and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

All of these kinds of writing can be (and are!) very, very different from one another. And each kind of writing requires its own set of skills and techniques.

Getting the hang of one form of writing does not automatically mean you know how to write all the other forms.

But there is one absolutely CRITICAL skill that underpins all of these writing types and styles — one that all writers, regardless of their niche, must learn, and learn well:


Why Storytelling?

'Stories create irresistibly compelling word pictures that communicate heart to heart and soul to soul '— Mark Victor HansenClick To Tweet

Stories are incredibly important to all human beings. They don’t just entertain us — they teach us critical life lessons that we can’t learn in any other way:

  • Stories pass through the brain to touch the heart.
  • They allow us to experience things in our imagination before we experience them for real.
  • They give us the ability to step into other people’s shoes, and bring important lessons to life in vivid, unforgettable detail.

For instance:

Telling someone “you should not judge people by their ‘covers’” is not as memorable as hearing Stephen Covey’s story about the time he scolded a father on a public subway because the man was irresponsibly (or so Covey thought) letting his young children run wild.

When Covey pointed out to the man that his children were bothering the other passengers, the man seemed to rouse himself from his reverie and said,

“Oh, I’m sorry, I guess I should do something about that. We just came from the hospital where my wife died a few hours ago. I don’t know how to handle it — I guess they don’t, either.”

Heart, pierced.

How much more effective is that than an admonition to “stop judging people based on appearances!” accompanied by a thunk on the head?

After hearing such a compelling story, I bet you’ll think twice before you judge or publically reprimand a stranger for seemingly inappropriate behavior, huh?

Bruises fade from memory, but powerful stories do not.

Powerful stories linger on for years, lifetimes, and beyond.

Powerful stories literally change the world.

That’s why we study them — through literature, and history.

Historically, we have seen stories change the way people think and behave.

Novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird helped advance the cause of abolitionists and Civil Rights activists in America, because they allowed readers to see into someone else’s world and step into their shoes. They enabled people to relate to one another and feel true compassion and indignation against injustice.

Likewise, one of the most influential books — if not THE most influential book in the world (the Bible) is chock full of stories.

Contrary to many people’s opinion, the Bible is not a book of rules. The Bible is mostly composed of stories.

From the book of Genesis to Jesus’ parables in the New Testament, the Bible uses stories to teach lessons, because you can tell people what to do until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make an ounce of impact.

But if you tell them a story, you can attract their attention, help them see things differently, and learn the lesson thoroughly.

I mean, if the world’s greatest book uses stories to get its point across, you and I had better learn how to do the same, right?

What Makes a Story Powerful?

According to Lisa Cron, teacher and author of Story Genius (affiliate link), stories arise from how the main character interprets events and makes tough decisions to move toward their goal.

A real story is not about the plot (ie, what happens), but how the things in the plot affect the character, and how s/he changes internally.

In other words, stories are character-driven.

Powerful stories are character-driven

“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” — George R.R. MartinClick To Tweet

In fiction, characters are also known as protagonists, heroes, etc., etc. When you’re writing nonfiction (articles, how-to books, advertising copy) the main character is your reader.

And every character has a goal.

Everybody wants something — either they want something they don’t (yet) have, or they want to avoid losing something they treasure. Every story is driven by these parallel concepts.

If you are writing a fictional story, you get to create your characters’ motivations and desires. If you are a nonfiction writer, you have to discover your characters’ (ie readers’) true desires.

Either way, your mission as a storyteller is to figure out what your character’s goal is and to craft your story around that. If you do this well, you will be able to tell a powerful story.

Powerful stories are relationship-focused

“Two are better than one…if either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But woe to him who is alone.” — Ecclesiastes 4:9–12Click To Tweet

Another thing that makes stories powerful is human relationships.

The most important thing in the world to most people is other people — their friends, their family, their fans, etc. No man is an island. Relationships are our biggest focus.

I once heard an interview given by Orson Scott Card, author of the bestselling science fiction novel Ender’s Game (affiliate link) — a story about a group of kids who train at a military school in outer space in order to save their planet from an antagonistic alien species.

Ender’s Game, interestingly, was not initially meant to be a novel. It was a novella that Card wrote to develop the fictional world in which he wanted to set his REAL novels (the rest of the Ender’s Game series).

However, Ender’s Game did so well that Card eventually developed it into a full-length novel, which sold like hotcakes, and which readers absolutely LOVED.

It took Card a while to figure out what made Ender’s Game so appealing to so many people:

It wasn’t all the cool science-fiction-y elements and the whole underdog-saves-the-world trope.

It was the relationships between the children.

People were irresistably drawn to the drama that inevitably developed between young children taken away from their loving families and thrust into a highly competitive environment to battle each other and a common enemy for the good of humanity.

The complex situation and plot events drove the characters — the children — to form potent friendships, dangerous rivalries, and all kinds of interesting relationships with one another.

Readers came to know and love and relate to the characters, as if they were real, and were more than willing to follow their story throughout the entire series.

So if you want to write a powerful story, think about the relationships between your characters and the people they care about. How does that affect the way you tell your story?

How to Write Powerful Stories

1. Read and analyze the best stories.

“If you ask most smart or successful people where they learned their craft, they will not talk to you about their time in school. It’s always a mentor, a particularly transformative job, or a period of experimentation or trial and error.” — Ryan HolidayClick To Tweet

What makes stories powerful?

We could discuss this all day and never come to a conclusion. Because, remember, stories go BEYOND analysis and logic. They go through the brain and touch the heart.

So what makes certain stories truly speak to people’s hearts is often impossible to explain in words.

Well, what stories do you like and remember best? Why?

Figure out what it is about the characters, relationships, and writing that appealed so deeply to you. Then practice. You can try re-writing the story in your own words, or writing a story very similar to one you admire.

As Pablo Picasso once said,

Good artists copy, great artists steal.Click To Tweet

In other words, when you are first starting out, you copy other people — their ideas, their style, their words.

But as you improve, you learn to go deeper.

You figure out the core of the story, the internal gem that powers the entire work, and you steal it, writing a story using the exact same idea — but in your own words, infusing the story with your own flavors.

So start with copying your favorite authors stories and styles, and pretty soon you will internalize it so well you will start producing stories with your own unique stamp.

Isolate different story elements: character development? Setting? Humor? And practice them alone, then in conjunction with other elements.

2. Force yourself to practice regularly.

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”— Anton CheckhovClick To Tweet

If you find it hard to motivate yourself to write regularly, join a group.

  • NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual novel-writing competition where people around the world pledge to write a novel in 30 days. There are several spin-offs of this concept, including Camp NaNoWriMo (starting in July! If you want to participate, be quick!)
  • Story A Day is another annual competition where participants are challenged to write at least one story per day in the month of May.
  • Become a WINner: Writers Ignited is a program just for Brilliant  Writers who want to change their lives by using psychological strategies (and prizes!) to develop a powerful writing habit that  will help them accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
  • If none of the above are quite what you’re looking for, start your own group. Rally some friends or bloggers and commit to doing a daily email check in or weekly goal update. Writing can be a lonely gig. It helps to have accountability and a sense of community to keep you motivated.

3. Mine ideas from your own life.

“Truth is stranger thanfiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” — Mark TwainClick To Tweet

Life is a treasure trove of stories, from history to every day events. But we often miss great stories that happen right under our noses, because we’re not paying attention.

One of the best ways to pay attention is to keep a journal.

I’ve been a journal-keeper for over a decade, and write down everything from dreams to funny things that happened in high school, and I’m so glad I did. These journal entries are fun to look back on, and they make great stories and story fragments that I often weave through my writings now.

The best stories often come from real life. (Because, after all, one big reason why we are so attracted to stories is because they give us ideas about how to live our real lives)

The 2016 movie Hacksaw Ridge told the true story of Desmond Doss, a medic who refused to carry a gun or kill people, who used a rope to save 75+ men from a 300-foot escarpment under enemy fire during World War II.

He did a lot of other heroic, even miraculous, things — such as giving up his place on a litter to another wounded man in the middle of a battle, then crawling hundreds of feet to safety with a broken arm and leg.

But when Mel Gibson, the director of Hacksaw Ridge was developing Doss’ story, he chose to cut out some of these scenes out of the movie because they were too “unbelievable.”

Real life is stranger than fiction, indeed.

So keep your eyes peeled. Stories are all around you, everywhere you look — if you only look.

4. Keep a Story Swipe File.

“The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.” — UnknownClick To Tweet

If, like me, you use your journal for far more than just keeping stories, and don’t feel like rummaging through hundreds of entries looking for a spark of inspiration, you can create a separate Story Swipe File.

Whenever you hear a great story, or notice a great story element you’d like to save, put it in your Swipe File.

You can label it any way you choose: sad stories/funny stories/bizarre stories. Or fiction/true stories, etc.

Once in a while, take it out and look at what you have. When you’ve compiled a lot of ideas, reading through them all may trigger some connections you wouldn’t have thought of before.

5. Learn (and use!) the X basic plotlines

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9Click To Tweet

Every field has its basic tools and. If you want to learn music, for example, you need to understand basic things like how harmonies work and how to play scales.

If you want to tell compelling stories, you have to learn the basic plotlines that are used in virtually all stories throughout history.

How many basic plotlines are there? That depends, based on who you talk to.

But feel free to start with these seven, by Christopher Booker

  1. Overcoming monsters: Star Wars, David and Goliath
  2. Rags to riches: A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Cinderella
  3. Quests: The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings
  4. Voyage and return: The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels
  5. Rebirth: The Count of Monte Cristo, Ben Hur, Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol
  6. Comedy: Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night
  7. Tragedy: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet

And these are just the BASIC plotlines. There are multiple variations of each.

Certain stories never go out of style. They come back again and again (think about how many versions of Romeo and Juliet-type stories you have read/watched/seen/heard).

So once you’ve learned the 7 basic plotlines, play with them. Try to figure out which plotline (or plotlines) are being used in the stories you encounter everyday until you get good at recognizing and using them.

They will be another powerful tool in your storytelling arsenal.

Stories Transform People

“Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”— Octavia E. ButlerClick To Tweet

Stories change us. That’s why they are so important. They shape our worldviews and influence our perspectives and guide our lives.

What food is to the body, stories are to the mind.

We literally are the stories we read, absorb, and believe.

Therefore, you must be careful what stories you take in, and what stories you tell. You have a powerful tool at your disposal, and as they say: with great powers come great responsibility.

It is a wonderful and awe-full thing to be a writer — especially one who wields the power of storytelling.

So whether you are a business writer, academic writer, fiction writer, or typewriter 😜, learn how to tell stories, and tell them well.

Learn how to tell stories in order to be a better writer, and be a better writer so that you can change yourself — and the world — for good.

Ready to be a Brilliant Writer?

I’ve created The Brilliant Writer Checklist to help you clarify your message, reach more readers, and change the world with your words. Get your free copy here:


3 thoughts on “The #1 Essential Skill EVERY Writer Needs to Learn”

  1. Hi, I recently joined your team and liked your article on Story Telling.
    I was choping to copy it into a file for later reference, but had trouble with that–can you help please?


  2. How many times I have read it I don’t.
    Every time it gives me new fresh ideas.
    The truly evergreen article, it is.
    Thank you for sharing the tremendous post

  3. Hi Dave! I think, depending on what browser you’re using (or app/software like Evernote or Feedly), you should be able to bookmark it, or save the url–that’s what I do with articles I want to save 🙂

Comments are closed.