How to Write a Story, not an Essay

I have begun teaching the second wave of classes in my ongoing series. The second wave, which I call “Writers in Action” is an actual critique session, where, in a group setting, I look at student work with a view to how well students are embodying the lessons learned in the free technique classes I teach on Wednesdays. Wednesday’s classes cover, in brief: *How writing your memoir as short stories provides unique challenges. * What is a conflict and why do stories have them? *Where should a story begin? *What’s the difference between a story and an essay? *How do I provide background information, and how much is necessary? It’s all part of learning how to write a story.

What’s the Difference Between a Story and an Essay?

Now that my students have “learned” all that information, it was interesting to note that, for the most part, people are still writing essays, not stories. There’s nothing wrong with essays, but I’m here to teach you how to write a story. Essays are opinion pieces all about your analysis of something. A story is something that happened. The author of a story builds suspense and keeps the reader turning pages because readers are dying to know what happens next. Essays are about your thoughts, opinions, emotions, analysis, and feelings. In stories, readers get to form their own opinions of the events. In essays, you tell readers how they’re supposed to feel. Readers enjoy stories because they like reading about events and forming their own opinions and analyses.

Don’t Fall into the Continuous-Past-Tense Trap

All my students have had exciting events in their lives, but I find that most of them tell the stories as if they’re less exciting than they are. For instance, when learning how to write a story, use of the continuous past tense is common. That’s where you write “Joe was jumping” instead of “Joe jumped.” When you use that form of the verb, you make it sound like this event is something that was going on for a long time. It’s more compelling for the reader when you use verbs in the simple present tense, giving the impression this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. For instance “Joe was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge” could be followed by “like he did every Saturday afternoon.” Or you could write “Joe jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge,” followed by “orphaning his only daughter and setting in motion a chain of events that altered the world forever.”

How to Write a Story with the Right Amount of Detail

Another important thing my students dealt with this week involved the inclusion of detail. Including details about the event in the story is important, but you want to include details that further the story’s action, not those that slow down the story’s action. Details that are about unimportant parts of the story are what mystery writers call “red herrings.” They lead the reader down the wrong path. If you’re wondering how to write a story that keeps readers riveted, give a lot of detail about the story’s dramatic action and far less detail about parts of the setting that have nothing to do with the dramatic action. Doing this necessitates you having the ability to identify your story’s dramatic action and conflict, which is something we talk about a lot in class. So, readers, if want to know how to write a story, especially a memoir, and you’re not in this class, why not? Wednesday’s class is free! Contact me through the contact tab on this site and let’s have you join our memoir writing community!

2 thoughts on “How to Write a Story, not an Essay”

  1. Hi Ruby, Valerie Plame hooked me up with you about 6 years ago when I lived in Santa Fe, NM! I still haven’t started my true crime book titled “Operation Scuzzball: The Enemy Within”. Still gathering reports and written statements from the departments involved, and I have 3 US Special Agents From FBI, US Customs, and an OHio Liquor Control Agent who gave me a forwards for the book!


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