John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, Leo Tolstoy, Seth Godin, and Earnest Hemingway. Are there unique qualities of these superb storytellers that make them different? And if there are, can you learn them?
In this post, I will show you 12 qualities and challenge you to look at yourself as a storyteller, and show you how you can grow – as a person and as a writer.
12 qualities of a storyteller that will make you stand out from the crowd
Let’s start with a quote by Robert McKee from “Story”:
Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal and emotional experience […] Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.
Stories are not a way to escape reality, they are our way to make sense of reality, bring order to chaos and purpose to anarchy. This is what we do – help people make sense of existence and try to figure it out ourselves by using a universal vehicle: STORIES.
In this same book, Robert McKee names 12 traits that make up a great storyteller.
1. The love of the dramatic
- You cannot be boring
- make changes, evoke drama, let something exciting happen to feel that you’re alive
- this is how I am: bored by status quo, I often need drama in life, that’s why I love stories
- love life and its adventures
TIPP: If you fear changes in life, just DO it. What is bravery? Not having no fear but acting despite the fear. So is there any change in your life you’re afraid of? Embrace it now!
2. The love of truth
- You’re a truth seeker
- Never be content with an evasive answer to life’s questions
- Always be on a quest of pondering, analyzing and searching for the true essence of things
- Don’t be afraid of the truth about yourself nor your craft –> grow personally and in story writing
TIPP: Ask someone you trust – a friend or a family member – for three character traits they think you could improve. This is a tough one, but their honesty will bring you closer to the truth and help you grow.
3. The love of humanity
- If you’re an introvert – which most writers are – you might not always feel comfortable around people
- Love humanity, the deep struggles of the soul and the complexity that makes us human
- You need to have the willingness to “crawl inside their skin and see the world through their eyes”, as McKee puts it.
- You cannot be judgmental.
- Make an effort to understand the viewpoint of others, even of those which are contrary to yours. Or otherwise, your characters will all sound and act like – you. Instead, give a glimpse into the complexity of life.
TIPP: Try to listen more often than talking. Ask questions and try to understand people’s motives.
4. The love of sensation
There is no room for superficiality. You cannot write a story packed with action, sex and drugs that will leave an impression if sensation is not on your plate as well.
With every physical thing, you need to ask for the meaning behind it. What does it mean if she crosses her hands? What is the emotion behind that frown?
As a storyteller, you need to love both the physical and the emotional.
TIPP: If you feel or lack emotions, you should start a diary. A very short one, but try to write down every day what particular things made you feel. Because very often it’s not that you don’t FEEL things but you just don’t realize what exactly you feel and need to learn to differentiate that.
5. The love of dreaming
Storytellers need to have the courage to be dreamers. And it takes courage to dream. If you dream, you need to be willing to let go of the judgemental voice inside of you, the nay-sayer and the control-freak.
You need to enjoy “taking leisurely rides on your imagination just to see where it leads”.
And it’s scary to let your imagination take over, but it’s the only way – letting go and dreaming – to come up with those stories that will fascinate your audience.
TIPP: Make it a habit to dream. Sit down with friends and spouses and just give yourself the freedom to dream a little.
Try freewriting, which might be really scary for people who try to consciously control their writing at all times. Here’s a great exercise from the Creative Penn Podcast and a great book by Orna Ross.
6. The love of humour
EVERY story needs humour. Even the most dramatic and dark one. Humour is what will make your readers fall in love with both the story and the characters.
It’s “the saving grace that restores the balance of life”, as McKee puts it, and it will make your story into something unforgettable. No matter how interesting and intelligent a person, we are always drawn to those who have an amazing sense of humour.
TIPP: Take Steve Martin’s Masterclass on comedy!
7. The love of language
You don’t just need a good story. You need a good story well TOLD. And this is where language comes into play. To master language and fall in love with it, you need to read abundantly. Read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe as well as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Learn the differences and study the masters to create your own uniques style.
Be ready to work on your language with every story you write and don’t be afraid to look critically at syntax and semantics.
TIPP: Grammar Girl Podcast provides short, friendly tips to improve your story writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.
8. The love of duality
I love this point. McKee explains it as “a feel for life’s hidden contradictions”. No simple black and white, good vs. bad. Life’s more complicated than that, and you love this complexity.
The fact that there is more to life hidden that why meets the eye fascinates you, and you are not quick to judge but eager to explore.
9. The love of perfection
You need perfection to a healthy amount. And especially when you start writing your first book, this will be a trait that will take you to a limit as you will write and rewrite and rewrite in a seemingly never-ending loop. It will get better, believe me. And there is a stage when you’ll need to label your book “good enough” to let it go, as it’ll never be perfect. But you need to love the process of transforming the story into the best it can be by accepting critique and rewriting.
TIPP: Hire an editor. This will transform your writing. Also, make sure you always read books for writers – here’s a library of my favorites. I hired my editor from Reedsy and can only recommend it!
10. The love of uniqueness
We copy and steal for inspiration. But the readers don’t want to listen to the same predictable story over and over again. Don’t be afraid to bring in your own uniqueness. Nobody can write the story you write, so don’t desperately try to be like someone else. Be you.
TIPP: Find your own voice, study creative writing, and storytelling principles. Don’t try to be like someone else!
11. The love of beauty
I feel like ugliness has become the next trend in storytelling. And there is pain and evil in this world, no denying that. But when we come to listen to a story, we want beauty despite this ugliness. Because deep down inside, we love all things beautiful and want to be fascinated and enchanted.
Treasure good writing, hate bad writing, and know the difference. This is so important.
TIPP: Bring into your book something beautiful, something amazing, something that will light up the hearts of your readers.
12. The love of self
I’m a writer. Have you ever said this out loud? Or to someone else? This is one creative struggle with the most – self-doubt. But who is a writer really? We stated all the character trait above. Should you lack some of them, there are ways to improve it. But a writer is someone who – writes. Incessantly. Passionately. Striving to improve the craft and live a life worthy of his calling.
“You must love to write and bear the loneliness.” Robert McKee writes. And if you do, don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer.
TIPP: Say it out loud, on the internet, write in on the wall: “I’m a writer”. When doubt seizes you yet again, don’t allow those thoughts to enter your mind. Read: “The successful author mindset” by Joanna Penn.
“You must love to write and bear the loneliness.” – Robert McKee
Sitting down and writing is a lonely task. You don’t know if anyone will ever like your book, doubts and self-criticism are daunting and overwhelming. But this is not the end of it – because as soon as your story goes out into the world, you will get feedback. Learn to love the process, and call yourself a writer!
Remember: stories are our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.
Is there anything missing in the list? Let me know in the comments below!