3 Keys to Storytelling


Back in 2009, I attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. It was a fabulous, fun experience that truly helped me grow. A few months later, reflecting on that time and the specific lessons I learned there, I wrote this post for my website. I’m re-blogging it here because of Lisa Cron’s post last month about how we writers are often taught how to craft prose, but not story. I tend to agree with her, which is why I found the KRWW so valuable: for once, someone was teaching me about storytelling! And this was one of the many practical insights they offered…

3 Keys to Storytelling

There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re driving. Stay between the lines, watch the speed limit, check your mirrors, signal when turning, DO NOT TEXT… The list goes on and on.

It’s a wonder that anyone can get in a car and go somewhere when we’re supposed to follow so many rules at the same time. But the human brain is an amazing thing, and people drive all the time with no problem.

(Well, some people drive all the time with lots of problems. I honk at those people.)

Anyway, writing is kind of similar. You have to mind your punctuation, spell things correctly, match your nouns and verbs, organize thoughts into sentences, organize sentences into paragraphs… The list goes on and on.

But these are the mechanics of writing, and after a while, they become second nature, just like using your turn signal or obeying a red light. (Yes, those should be second nature!)

What’s harder to remember is how to tell a good story. Probably because there are so many different ways to accomplish that. Now, I’m hardly an expert, but back at the Kenyon Review workshop, I did learn about 3 things that have really improved my storytelling: Object, Conflict, and Ticking Clock.

Object is something threaded throughout a story that the reader can follow. The Object can be an actual thing (like a watch) or a place (like a park) or it can even be a secondary character (like a pet dog). Usually the Object is important to the plot or the themes.

Conflict can come about in a variety of ways. We all know the English teacher definition — Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, etc. — but simply put, Conflict is when a character wants something and can’t get it. An easy way to create Conflict is to add another character into the scene/story. Even better, add TWO characters in.

The Ticking Clock is similar to Conflict in that it adds tension; however, it isn’t a hindrance to the character’s goal. It merely adds urgency.

Here’s an example of what an Object, Conflict, and Ticking Clock can do:

Olivia ran to the lab.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher could poison Isaac with it.

The last sentence is a bit more exciting than the first, no?

Not every scene/story is going to have all 3 elements, but if you ever find yourself stuck, try looking for an Object you can weave throughout the story, or try putting one in. Try inserting another character (or two) to the scene. Try a Ticking Clock. You might be surprised at how quickly things get interesting, and interesting stories are the ones that suck us in, both as writers and as readers.

(Note: Despite my analogy, I do not recommend adding an Object, Conflict, or Ticking Clock to your driving.)

Photo by Linus Bohman


About Kristan Hoffman

Kristan Hoffman was a finalist in our search for an unpublished contributor; a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Awards for her novel The Good Daughters (women’s fiction/multicultural); and the winner of the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” Contest for her web series, Twenty-Somewhere (now available as an ebook).


  1. says

    There are a lot of elements to remember to include and are important to incorporate to keep readers’ engaged. Thanks for bring those particular three to the forefront.

    Now to get my object woven in earlier in the MS…good food for thought.

  2. Gail Johnson says

    I’m pleased to discover that my story has two of these elements. No ticking clock but it doesn’t need one.

  3. Bob Greene says

    Nice reminder and analogy. Those three are certainly important along with others that can enhance a story. Thank you.

  4. says

    Thanks, Kristan. The evolution of that sentence really tied together the three elements. It also suggests a fourth crucial element: consequences. There must be a serious consequence attached to the ticking clock.

  5. Robin Yaklin says

    Thanks! An ah moment in the first graphs that increased the tension, added a theme, and gave better focused to a scene that early on. Sometimes you need someone to say it a different way and then all your experimenting clicks into place.

    • says

      “Sometimes you need someone to say it a different way and then all your experimenting clicks into place.”

      Lol no kidding. That’s why I love WU. Every day we get a fresh reminder from a different contributor to help keep us sharp and juggling all the balls of this job. ;)

  6. Leslie R. says

    This is very useful! I hear about conflict and tension (though not specifically called “ticking clock” – has a nice ring to it) as crucial ingredients all the time, but this is the first I’ve seen object. Thanks for another tool to add to my writing toolkit!

  7. says

    Ahh, this isn’t an approach I’ve seen others write before! It’s always great when people share fresh perspectives, and I really like thinking about these already, especially the object. I’ve got a few stories that definitely involve an object already, and a few more that make me wonder if perhaps the object can be abstract. (For one story in particular, a certain set of memories are very important to driving the plot forward, the themes, etc.)

    A ticking clock is definitely important, especially for enhancing conflict. If X conflict doesn’t get resolved by a certain time, the consequences should be dire. (And you can certainly set up some tragedy by having a conflict get resolved too late!)