Tell Stories with your Stories

Characters should tell stories to each other, just like an author tells the reader stories about the characters. This may sound obvious to established writers, but it’s not necessarily an intuitive concept for younger ones.

It’s easy to get trapped into slamming down big chunks of exposition to laboriously lay out a character’s motivations or to give them a life before the events of your story or novel. It’s tempting to write awkward flashback scenes to justify current or future actions. It’s easy for dialogue to become, “Let’s go over here,” and “We have to do this or else,” in an attempt to drive a story forward.

It’s also easy to bore readers. Plus, that just isn’t how people talk.

How We Do It

People tell stories when they talk. They talk about themselves and their experiences. Most people don’t live completely in the now, and thank goodness for that. I’ve known a few people that come close and they’re almost impossible to be around. Most of us learn from taking our lumps. Most of us understand consequences and have aspirations for the future. We live our lives with our attention spread along a continuum running from past, through the present, and into many hoped for or dreaded futures.

This fragmented view of our personal timelines colors how we talk, how we interact with others, and how we interpret what we hear and experience. The cool thing is, writers can harness this to do a couple things. First, we get to write more believable and engaging dialogue. Second, and in doing so, we create a rich, remembered life-before-the-drama for our characters.

Here, I’ll embarrass myself by giving a terrible, from the hip example.

Consider this scene:

“I can’t take this anymore,” Poor Employee said. “I’ve had it. As soon as that witch is back from her meeting, I’m quitting.”

Sympathetic Sidekick knew that Employee was overreacting. He also knew that she was making a big mistake and that Employee would have a difficult time finding a better springboard for her career than her job at Challenging Corp. Good lord, but he’d made his own mistakes in the past. Sidekick knew that you were never guaranteed a second shot in their line of business. He couldn’t let Employee ruin her career over a string of bad days with a venomous boss.

“Before you quit, I think you should think things over,” Sidekick said.


“I can’t take this anymore,” Poor Employee said. “I’ve had it. As soon as that witch is back from her meeting, I’m quitting.”

“I know exactly how you feel, Employee,” Sympathetic Sidekick said.

“Yeah, right. I don’t see you getting into screaming matches with your boss,” Employee said.

“Nope,” Sidekick said, “not anymore. Been there, done that, and I’ve got the dead-end job to prove it.”

“What are you talking about?” Employee asked.

“I’m talking about over-reacting to your boss,” Sidekick said. “You know, I wasn’t always here like this, stuck in Accounts Payable.”

“I, um…” Employee hesitated, listening now instead of fuming about Bad Boss. “What happened?” she asked.

“Before you quit, I think you should think things over,” Sidekick said. “If you want to hear a ‘bad boss’ story, let me tell you how I went from VP of Finance over at Awesome Corp to this cubicle.”

“No. Way,” Employee said, “Seriously?”

“Yep,” Sidekick said, “And all because I couldn’t see a good thing until I lost it. It all started one day when…”

Let Them Live

Voila! Mr. Sidekick now has a deep, rich back-story and we have inserted some internal tension into Ms. Employee’s decision to quit.  Now she has reason to consider the consequences of her choice and the reader may have a bit more concern for her to make the right choice. Plus, we get to come up with an awesome ‘take this job and shove it’ story for Sidekick… and that could be fun.

So, let your characters be a little self-absorbed. After all, they’ve lived interesting, full lives. They’ve earned a chance to talk about those lives. We all use our memories, experiences and aspirations as a context for whatever challenges or opportunities come our way. It’s believable for our characters to do the same. And, if you let them do it, they might tell us all an interesting story or two.

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