5 Exercises for Honing Your Story Instincts

How strong are your story instincts? This abstract and sometimes elusive concept rests at the very bottom of a writer’s toolkit. Your story instincts determine how successful your storytelling is, and whether you are able to offer readers the all-important “it” factor. Your story instincts are the foundation onto which you build with all the other tools and techniques you pick up along the way. And your story instincts are also, simultaneously, the preexisting source of all the knowledge you will claim as you grow your skills.

When I was a newbie working on my early (unpublished) novels, I would often take a walk down the mailbox after my daily writing session. Almost always, I was vaguely dissatisfied. I knew whatever scene I had just written wasn’t so bad in itself, and yet I also knew something about the book as a whole wasn’t working. I remember saying to myself at some point during my second novel that I didn’t know what was wrong, but I just knew.

I trusted that instinct then, and I’ve come to trust it more and more over the years. Time, experience, and knowledge have given me the tools to not just feel when something is or isn’t working in a story, but to put a name to what my story instincts are telling me.

This is why I believe a writer’s greatest resource is his or her own gut instinct. This inner knowing is the true source of our inspiration. It is what guides us to the “right” ideas. But it is much more than just that. It is also the well of deep instinctive knowledge, shared by all humans, about what story is and what makes it work.

Even though this sense of story is always there—the lighthouse guiding our talents and abilities—most of us must refine our story instincts and learn their language so we may understand what they are truly telling us.

How Do You Know if You Have Story Instincts?

Your story instincts and your ability to tap into them clearly will define how much “talent” you may have as a writer. So how can you tell if you even have any story instincts?

It is my belief all humans have this instinct. We are born with the common language of story. Indeed, some psychological research, such as presented by Edward F. Pace-Schott, posits our very “dreaming as a story-telling instinct.”

Although some writers come to studies of story theory and technique with the belief that this information has been “invented” by all the writers that have come before us, I think it is truer to recognize that story theory is more of an excavation. It is the catalog of recognized patterns we observe to be true about humankind’s long experience with the shape, flow, and function of story.

As such, you might even consider that however much or little you consciously know about story, you perhaps unconsciously know all there is to know. You have to trust this inner knowing, learn to seek it where it will be found, and train yourself to speak its language.

Booker-Prize winner Ben Okri muses in The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling:

There is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling. Stories are the highest technology of being…. Maybe this story-making quality of being is the principle magic as well as the principle illusion of our lives.

For me, I recognize my story sense as both a deep wisdom and also a visceral, physical experience of inspiration. You may relate to that. You may also feel it as an inner twitchiness when a critique partner gives you advice you don’t agree with it.

Writers and non-writers alike experience it in their passionate responses, both delighted and disappointed, to the stories we read and view that have been written by others.

You no doubt experience it when you’ve labored over a story, put all your effort and talent into it, and then find yourself having to admit it doesn’t quite work.

And you feel it when you know, you just know, you’ve written the best thing of your life.

5 Tips for Honing Your Story Instincts

Story instincts are tricky. Well-honed, they speak to us clearly and guide us to writing better and better stories. But if we don’t speak this instinctive language fluidly, or if we’re unsure we’re hearing its voice at all, we can easily lead ourselves astray.

We can convince ourselves our desire for a story to be good makes it so, just as we can let the critical voices of inner doubt blind us to our true story wisdom.

And as I mentioned having experienced with my unpublished novels, sometimes you can hear it’s telling you something’s not working and still not have the knowledge to know what’s not working much less how to fix it.

This is why the life’s work of a writer is perhaps most truly that of honing our story instincts.

1. Learn to Listen to Your Gut, Especially When It Tells You Something Is Wrong

When everything is going well, we often take our story instincts for granted. It’s not until a little alarm starts ringing inside that we perk up and listen. In the beginning, especially if we’re yet untrained in translating this inner signal, our initial response may be resistance. After all, we just wrote a story! That’s amazing, and we want to feel amazing about it. We don’t particularly want to pay attention to the inner nudging that wants us to look at our anticlimactic ending or poor antagonist motivation.

In my experience, my gut is never wrong. If inner alarm bells are going off, then they’re signalling a true problem—even if I’m not immediately able or willing to recognize exactly what it is. Only when I release the resistance, get quiet, and focus on what my story instincts are trying to tell me do I realize where my story may be on thin ice.

However, it is important to distinguish the voice of your deep story wisdom from that of a malicious inner critic. It is possible your inner critic has turned on you because you’ve resisted it so much and so often, refusing to heed its inborn sagacity. But it’s also possible that that voice is a different voice altogether, one arising from low self-esteem and other personal issues. You need the voice of your story instincts; you do not need the voice of a malicious inner critic. It is vital to, first, learn to distinguish between them, and then to do the proper work to bring both to health.

2. Get Specific About What You Like or Don’t Like in Others’ Stories

Once you’ve learned to tune in to your inner story sense, you must learn to interpret what it’s telling you. A vague sense of unease about your just-finished manuscript will not help you fix it. You’re likely to start tweaking just because you don’t know what else to do, and you may well end up changing things that shouldn’t be changed and that, indeed, are the best parts of the story.

This is where learning from other writers becomes important. Your story instincts are just as active in reading or watching someone else’s stories as they are in writing your own. Get into the habit of consciously specifying what it is you like or dislike about a book, movie, or show. Then go deeper and learn to examine what the author did to create this effect and make it work.

This is where story theory originates. Over time, writers have paid attention to what has worked to create the canon of great and popular literature. We have examined the patterns that show up time and again and identified the techniques that allow us to recreate the same effect—or perhaps even innovate better techniques in search of that same ultimate goal of a satisfying story experience.

3. Use Story Theory and Technique to Help Name Your Instincts

So much of our collective story wisdom has already been codified for us in the writings and instruction of our many fellow writers. When I started reading books about “how to be a writer,” flashbulbs just started exploding in my head. It was like I’d been given training wheels to help me learn how to balance the unwieldy bicycle of my own burgeoning story sense.

It’s true that not all advice is good advice (and some is just plain subjective). But you can use the teachings of other writers not only to help you put language to what your story instincts are telling you, but also to practice your instincts. When you read something in a book or blog about writing that gives you that zing of understanding or maybe even that exact same feeling of excitement you get from a great moment in a story, you know your instincts are talking to you. They’re saying, “Yes! I knew that already! That’s what I’ve been telling you all along!”

4. Make Your Story Sense Actionable by Asking It the Right Questions

If you’re a non-writer, you don’t require your story instincts to be actionable. When you experience something you like—or don’t like—in someone else’s story, it’s not even particularly important that you figure out what it is. All you need to know is whether you want more of the same or not. But as a writer, you must get specific.

Vague directives aren’t much use. Like me with my early stories, knowing something is wrong with a story is a first step, but until you know what is wrong, you won’t know to fix it. This means you must train yourself to converse with your story instincts in specific language. Ask it questions. Use logic to work your way past your feelings of unease or dissatisfaction (and definitely past any malicious self-criticism or self-doubt).

>>Read “Writing as the Art of Thinking Clearly: 6 Steps”

5. Trust Your Story Sense

Your story sense is good. I don’t doubt that for a second. Your ability to communicate with it and understand it can always improve. But the foundational understanding and instinct is there. Trust that.

The very fact that you are drawn to stories more strongly than the average person—that you are so fascinated by them that you wish to create them—signals you already hear your story instincts more clearly than you might think. Trust that too.

Your gut instinct is your greatest tool as a writer. Identify it, listen to it, hone it, respect it—and it will help you write amazing stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you trust your story instincts? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Usvaldo de Leon says

    “it is important to distinguish the voice of your deep story wisdom from that of a malicious inner critic.”

    This is all too true. Learning that difference is an important skill, for story and for sanity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In my experience, the “good” voice is always calm and neutral even when delivering criticism. The malicious voice is emotional and petty.

      • Colleen Janik says

        Sometimes my malicious voice sounds like one of my siblings and I become that trembling, fearful child again.

      • My wonderful writing coach helped me understand this and this post just reinforces it.
        I found that my instincts are always telling me something even if it takes a few days.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Indeed, Julia–just because we don’t always immediately know what a niggle means doesn’t mean it’s not telling us something important.

      • I definitely have a problem judging between what is my inner critic and what is my story sense.I have been subscribed for a few months now and I am finding everything very useful, so thank you Very much

  2. Eric Troyer says

    As you pointed out “(t)ime, experience, and knowledge” are key. That can be frustrating for beginning writers. One thing I’ve learned to do is to continue reading stories I don’t like. I find those types of stories easier to analyze because I’m so often pulled out of the story by something that irritates me. Really good stories pull me along so well that I have a hard time thinking about what make them so good. Usually I have to think about what made them good after I have finished reading.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s *so* valuable to consciously identify what you like or don’t like about a story. Sometimes it’s not immediately evident. But the more conscious we can make those inner “knowings,” the more easily we can translate them to our own storytelling skills.

  3. Peter Moore says

    What a great post. And timely too!

    I’ve had a finished manuscript for a while. I think it’s a good solid story. The critique groups I’m in like the chapters they’ve reviewed (although they always have ‘suggestions’ for me).

    But something bothered me and I couldn’t figure out what. So I edited, and tweaked, and reworked things. Still, it just didn’t sit well somehow. The plot is solid. All the beats are in the right places. The theme, Recovery and Redemption, is consistent with the plot and characters. The characters develop at their own pace throughout the story.

    The climax annoyed me, even though I didn’t recognize it. My protagonist overcame her real conflict, not the lie she had been trying to solve. She moved on to a better life. So far, so good. Then, someone asked how my protagonist was supposed to deal with having both God and the Devil as antagonists. I felt like a two by four hit me upside the head. She’d never resolved her problems with them.

    Here’s the deal, she had the power to confront and overcome both antagonists by the end of the book. I just never gave her the opportunity. So I added a final battle, tied up some loose ends, and voila. Much better.

    I thought.

    You have said that the seeds to a good climax are planted in the opening scenes, or something to that effect. Tada, I suddenly had a couple of new opening scenes with what I think is a great hook.

    I’m now going through the manuscript to support the added elements. I’m much happier with the results so far. There is a sense of completeness.

    The point to this really long comment (sorry) is listening to my instincts and story sense made a difference. Even though it’s taken months to figure it out, it has been worth the wait.

    Thanks for being who you are,

    Peter

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonistic force is really the glue that holds the whole story together. But it’s surprisingly easy to overlook that in plotting a story. It’s still something I’m working on making instinctive.

  4. I’ve always had an instinct for what is right and wrong in my story, but I guess I’ve never really acknowledged it.

    This post really applies to me, since I almost made a huge mistake in my story. I only have three characters with POVs, so I thought that it would be good to add another of one, of the minor characters. I realized that her story didn’t have much to do with the plot, so I decided to delete it. Then I changed my mind again, deciding that since she’s a big part of the climax, it was important for her to be apart of the action.

    Yet something told me that what I was doing was wrong. And I changed my mind once again to delete the extra POV,because there really was only one way to describe it: extra.

    My inner editor tortures me all the time about if my stuff is good enough, but sometimes he’s helpful. I almost ignored the instinct I had.

    Great post! I definitely loved it! And I also really love how you have links to other posts in the content. (I read a ton of them!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you for listening to your instincts. The more you learn about writing, the more easily you’ll be able to recognize *why* your gut instinct is telling you something is working (or not working).

  5. Colleen Janik says

    Choosing great classics to read can be so helpful. I’m currently reading Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” and I’m learning seeing valuable examples of foreshadowing. The book is brilliantly written and now that I’m reading it for the second time in my life, I’m reading as a student.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I have learned so much from purposefully reading the classics over the years.

      • Colleen, you beat me to that comment! I couldn’t agree more. The classics are, I think, some of the best teachers. And I love to read them.

        • I’m in the middle of reading `Jamacia Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier. I was just thinking about how important it is to read classics. I think if writers don’t, there’s the danger that some skills could get forgotten. I was thinking about… I suppose I’d have to call it Literary Fantasy. Books like `Johnathan Strange and Dr. Norrell’ and `The Name of the Wind.’ They both read like the authors have spent a lot of time studying older works, and it gives their books an added weight that I really appreciate.

  6. So, how can you figure out how to fix your story if you know it’s not working as it is, but you haven’t the foggiest notion of why?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes you just have to put it aside for a while until you either gain the objectivity or the knowledge to move forward. But often you can work through the problems logically. Start by identifying the problems that are niggling at you, then get really clear about what the issue is and how it might be fixed.

  7. Great post. I have an instinctive feeling this will help me! 😀

  8. All good stuff. it’s definitely important to listen to your inner voices, and that malicious inner critic can be a ringer. It’s important to listen to the one that says “your story has a problem”, and discard the one that says “your story has a problem and its that you are writing it.” One thing I find always helps me is to take a bike ride, pushing myself a little bit physically while thinking about the problem or the feeling of uneasiness. Something about the physical exercise opens up my mind and helps me connect with both my inner critic and creativity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to listen to the one that says “your story has a problem”, and discard the one that says “your story has a problem and its that you are writing it.”

      Bullseye.

  9. Story instincts is something we develop the more we write. It is like a superpower beginning writers need to work on.

  10. “However, it is important to distinguish the voice of your deep story wisdom from that of a malicious inner critic.”

    What’s even worse is when the inner critic isn’t *my* inner critic at all, but my idea of what someone else (someone more sophisticated or more serious than me) might think. And that voice absolutely needs to be shut down — it has nothing to offer my story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s helpful to identify exactly *whose* that voice is. It makes it easier to see its complaints in a more reasonable context.

  11. Like you, I trust my gut almost 100%. That’s why I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I’m having trouble with a scene, or a chapter, or the entire plot line, it’s because my gut is tellng me not to write anything more until I resolve that problem. And it usually comes from thinking that a certain scene or plot thread will work, then starting to write it and realizing all the flaws it has that haven’t revealed themselves until now.

    My solution is to work on another scene, or edit/revise/trim something I know is working so it’s tighter and better and gets me thinking subconsciously about the overall story and why the problem areas don’t work. Eventually, I figure it out and move forward. Is my story better? I hope so, but the reader ultimately decides.

    Chris

  12. Every time I read one of K. M. Weiland’s posts, although now I eagerly await them, I observe several features that are unique: her consistency in providing insights of great accuracy and depth, her modesty that ensures her views are never presented in a “know it alll” fashion, and her thoroughgoing commitment to assisting writers: generosity. Awesome combination

  13. Matt Godbey says

    Great post. Lots of good ideas in there. Thanks.

  14. that’s funny to read your blog – i’m on my fifth novel and i think i’ve got a better grip on this one. the other four novels were just not working right – this blog is a really good reminder for keeping this one on the tracks. Great blog – thank you

  15. Terrina Venditti says

    This podcast came at a perfect time (although this is good any time). Thank you. I was just finishing the last chapters of my first draft. What should be the denouement. I had small red flags here and there. I thought, I can fix this later and continued. In the end I threw away about 60 pages. I used this post to analyze my gut instincts, asked the hard questions, (sort of self coaching) to get to what bothered me and what it was I wanted to convey. I definitely fell down the rabbit hole writing. But it was a good exercise and learning experience. Thanks so much for this post. It wasn’t enough to just have red flags or know somethings were off, I really had to “get specific” and create “actionable” next steps. Thanks.

  16. Tommy Balassa says

    3. Use Story Theory and Technique to Help Name Your Instincts – Will you please name your instincts so that I may have an example. I feel a bit ignorant of this concept of naming instincts, especially when it comes to my gut reactions to whether I am uncertain about or have misgivings about my plot. I’m currently outlining a new story and trying a new method that I love so far. It has allowed me to find holes and inconsistencies when it felt wrong, and has allowed me to flesh out new directions as if I were pantsing. That said, I’m not sure of the naming part of that. How might I use that? Sorry to be so literal, but it’s who I am.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sally, Marty, Genevieve…

      Just kidding. 😉

      There won’t necessarily be a “set” naming convention that all writers share. What I’m pointing toward is more about learning to recognize that when your story instincts are telling you there’s something “off” with your ending, an understanding of, say, solid story structure may help you identify that the problem is an anticlimax.

      Most of us know a good (or bad) story when we see it. But until we learn the theories and techniques, we don’t always know *why* it works (or doesn’t).

  17. The ‘niggle’ we don’t quiet understand is where having a trusted, insightful someone read our work and honestly comment can be very helpful. When someone comments on a part you’re worrying at, it’s often a confirmation and may even pinpoint the difficulty, or a possible solution. We do have to be mature enough to sift even that insightful person’s comments, but if you know how to “trust yourself when all men doubt you, yet make allowance for their doubting too” (Kipling) this sort of input can be a Godsend.

    K.M., thank you for an excellent, highly helpful lesson.

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