5 exercises to improve your storytelling skills

Writers can always benefit from new sources of inspiration. Old photos, names on headstones, even simple people-watching can ignite a narrative. Here is some literary kindling.

Football players practice ballet. Pianists repeat small sections of music until it’s perfect.

In “Outliers,” it’s called “putting in your 10,000 hours.” In “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle names it “deep practice,” small exercises that are both challenging and repetitive.

The goal: to get better, quicker.

As Coyle writes in “The Talent Code”:

Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.

What about writers? How do we pursue deep practice?

Tired of the same advice to “read more” and “write more,” I’ve been experimenting with my own challenging and repetitive exercises to improve my storytelling.

Here are the five techniques I use:

1. Observe people.

Every Sunday, my husband and I sit at a little outdoor cafe in Düsseldorf’s Altstadt. It’s perfectly positioned on a busy cobblestone street. We order coffee, tie our dog under the table and watch.

Every week, without fail, someone fascinating catches our eye.

Take the scruffy, middle-aged man with long hair, black jeans and a heavy metal T-shirt. He had band stickers plastered all over the beat-up guitar case in his hand.

“That’s Günter,” my husband said.

“Oh, definitely. That’s absolutely his name,” I replied.

“Where do you think he’s going?”

“He just got back from Chicago. He had an audition.”

“For a jazz band.”

“But he lied to his bandmates and said an aunt died,” I said. “He was embarrassed. He’s been harboring a secret desire to become a jazz guitarist, but because this is Germany and he looks like that, he fell into heavy metal.”

“How’d the audition go?”

“He didn’t get in. They didn’t think he looked jazzy enough. He doesn’t know how to improvise, and he kept screeching into the microphone.”

On and on it goes.

Our ritual is part improv, part eavesdropping. It helps to have a friend during this exercise. Always say yes, and always ask follow-up questions. This encourages you to work with plot twists you might not have considered otherwise—and it’s a ton of fun.

2. Buy old postcards and photographs.

Who doesn’t love reading stranger’s letters, imagining stories untold?

Flea markets, antique stores and even eBay are perfect for snagging piles of old notes. Old postcards often sell for pennies each.

It works just as well with photographs. Heck, you don’t even have to buy them. Just search for “antique photographs” on eBay. Don’t read the description though—the story should exist only in your head.

Turn off all distractions, and stare at the image or letter. What immediately comes to mind? Write it down.

Consider these questions, or just let your mind wander:

  • Where was the person sitting when they wrote this note?
  • What’s their relationship to the person they’re writing to?
  • Where was this photo taken? Why were these people there?
  • What do the facial expressions in the photograph say?

3. Browse graveyards and phone books.

I stumbled across an old graveyard in West Hampstead a few months ago while visiting a friend in London.

Something about the graveyard’s energy inspired me. It was old, but not spooky, as though I had stepped back in time and discovered an unexplored place.

The graveyard was empty, and the neighborhood was quiet. I spent hours walking through the stones, jotting down interesting names:

  • Basil Champneys
  • The Llewelyn Davies Family
  • August John Dare

My two favorites weren’t even names, but phrases etched on tombstones:

  • In affectionate memory of the soldier’s daughters
  • Hampstead’s Pearly King and Queen

I mean, come on: Hampstead’s Pearly King and Queen? That’s a book title right there. Who were they? Why aren’t their given names on display? How could I tell their story?

You can do this with a phone book too, but I’m a fan of physically touching and experiencing objects that inspire a story. The energy is different from when I’m at a computer, scrolling through the virtual white pages.

4. Stop reading, and listen.

Most of us practice writing by writing, but remember those football players practicing ballet? The two activities might seem like opposites, but ballet helps the players with balance, flexibility and precision in a way that football drills don’t.

The same goes for writing. My storytelling skills improve by listening to stories, not just reading and writing them.

You can do this with audiobooks, short films or podcasts. My favorites are podcasts featuring short stories, such as The Moth and Risk. Listening to these, like reading short stories, distills the basic storytelling structure to digestible bites.

I’ve even submitted stories to these podcasts. The act of voicing my story showed gaps in my technique and gave me things to work on. The next time I submitted, I got a callback. Baby steps.

5. Use writing prompts.

I’d never tried writing prompts before joining a local English-language writers group. I was terrified that first day when the group leader gave us 20 minutes and an outlandish fiction prompt. I’d never written fiction, never mind doing it for 20 minutes.

The result? Some of the best writing I’d ever done—and it keeps getting better every time I go. Something about the timer makes me stop thinking and instead trust the images that pop into my mind.

Turns out I’m not half bad at fiction, and some of the prompts have turned into short stories.

I especially enjoy the group aspect, because it gives me accountability and a jolt of inspiration. It’s fascinating to hear the different stories people come up with using the same prompt.

Sometimes I’ll use Writer’s Digest prompts, which feature other people’s responses in the comments.

Whether you write novels or branded blog posts or hard-hitting articles, storytelling is the essence of our work. We should practice it daily, opening up our minds for more, better, tighter stories.

Try a few of these exercises. If you have favorite storytelling exercises of your own, please share them in the comments section.

Marian Schembari is a writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner based in Germany. A version of this article originally appeared on The Write Life.

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