The Difference Between Storytelling And Telling A Story
Take a minute to just stop and imagine your favorite book in the entire world.
If you’re as avid a reader as I am, you probably won’t be able to pick just one favorite book. . . but try to just focus on a favorite book of yours.
Now, imagine the emotion this book made you feel. Maybe anger at points, or overwhelming joy, or even fury.
Focus on that point where you’re reading in the middle of the night, and your favorite character dies, and you have to just drop the book, fall back on your bed, and. Just. Cry.
Good books make you feel. And a good author can make their reader feel whatever they want them to.
Good authors weave agendas and missions into their stories by making their readers feel a certain way. A single book can change your entire perspective on life, and depending on the author, can influence you to make a positive, or negative, change in the world.
You can be a “good author,” you just have to know how to use emotion.
Your words matter. They count. They can change. But you have to know how to take those words and passions and emotions that make up you, and weave them into your writing to influence your readers, and change the world.
But how do you make readers cry and scream and care about your story? How do you write with emotion and connect with your audience on a deeper, more intimate level? How can you use words to influence an entire generation, change a nation’s perspective, and spread light into the darkest recesses of the world?
The key is finding the difference between telling a story and storytelling.
There is a difference, and this article is going to take that difference and show you how to connect with your audience on a level so intimate that they can’t help but react, they can’t help but feel, and they can’t help but change the world.
Contrary To Popular Belief, There Is A Difference Between Storytelling And Telling A Story
In our day and age, with unlimited access to the entire internet, Google, and all manner of search engines, you would think we would have some sort of grasp on the concept of words.
But we don’t—instead, people often end up confusing or misusing words to fit in with their peers, sometimes concluding that two words or phrases mean the same thing. . . when they really don’t.
This is the case with storytelling, and telling a story.
The definition of storytelling is the interactive art of using communication to reveal a story in a way that encourages the imagination. It is the vivid description of ideas and beliefs through stories that evoke emotion.
Storytelling is an art. A skill. Something that must be mastered with much practice and learning and experience. It is a beautiful testimony to lives and loves and, sometimes, maybe even lies.
Storytelling is the craft of weaving a lie, or half-truth, so beautifully and masterfully that everyone accepts it ceases being a blatant lie and becomes a story.
Telling a story, on the other hand, is merely an action. Telling is a verb, a is an article, and story is a noun. Not much art or mastery in that sequence, and it doesn’t take much art or mastery to make that sequence either.
See that’s the key—anyone can tell a story. Anyone off the street can open their mouth, and in some sort of language tell some sort of story. They can take a verb and an article and a noun and throw them together and there you have it: a story.
But storytelling—storytelling requires flair and color and laughter. It’s taking verbs and nouns and articles and adjectives and stirring them together to create emotion and love and joy and hurts and pains. All with just words out of a mouth or square little letters painted on a page.
That is storytelling.
Bleeding your heart’s fire into the strokes of a pen, or the clatters of a keyboard, and then painting a sunset with that pain—that is storytelling.
And as authors, this has to be our goal. Not telling a story, but mastering the art of storytelling.
Emotion Is Crucial To Storytelling
The one key to mastering the art of storytelling can be encapsulated in one quote:
“Our hearts are wild animals,
“That’s why our ribs are cages.”
Ok, so maybe this isn’t technically true—but it sounds very heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and deep. It’s riddled with emotion, even though it is kind of a cliche quote.
But in some aspects, it is very, very true. Our hearts are wild animals. They often run away without us, and sometimes even break. They are strong and persevering, but also fragile and delicate. They are easily snagged by the image of a little girl in a ragged dress sitting in the slums of Africa, or a little homeless boy crying for his mother.
And as authors, it is our job, our duty, to capture people’s hearts with our writing.
It is our mission to paint pictures with our writing that are seared onto our readers’ souls because, when we do that, we can convince a reader of anything.
That’s the scary thing about hearts—they very easily ignore the truth when it’s painful. Psalm 4:23 says to “above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” And that is so, so very scarily true. We can be convinced of a lot when our heart is invested.
But that is also a wonderful, gorgeous, tool in writing because when we ensnare a reader’s heart with our characters and our story, and our storytelling, then we also can convince them of a lot. We can leave them convicted, with a new mission, or maybe even change the very course of their life.
If we can master the art of storytelling, the art of capturing those wild hearts with our words, then what we have to say, our words, will make a drastic impact on the life around us.
So that’s the key to storytelling: capturing wild hearts, and giving them hope, life, and love with our words.
How Storytelling Helps You Connect With Your Audience
So, by now, you’re probably wondering how in the world storytelling can possibly do all this.
How can writing with emotion influence your readers so much that they will be convinced of anything, be influenced to believe whatever you want them to believe?
To answer this, I need you to think back to the last time you really, truly felt moved by someone’s words. Maybe it was when you were listening to a talk about poverty, or a story about a Holocaust victim.
No focus on what it was in the speech, movie, or book that moved you—what specifically made you feel a certain way of agreeing with them on a certain subject. Was it the way they talked? Or the real-life stories they shared? Or maybe the pictures?
Whatever it was, I’m guessing it had something to do with your emotions. The story tugged on a hurt from your past. The testimonies played with what you yourself have experienced. The pictures brought memories of anger or hurt or pain from something in your life.
Here’s what I’m getting at—all those books or movies or talks that have connected with you in some way, shape, or form, all dabbled in your emotions. They made you feel a certain way.
And this is exactly how the art of storytelling can help us connect with our audience.
Storytelling invokes an emotion, inflames the heart, fuels the imagination. And when words on a page can make you feel, when writing touches your emotions, you are involved, you are intrigued, and you are connected with both the story, the writing, the author, and the author’s message.
But we have to master this art of storytelling. We have to know how to weave pain and heartache and joy into our writing so that we are able to connect with our audience and influence them. Our words can have such a big impact on the world around us. Our voice can bring change. Our stories can show the world how to hope.
3 Ways You Can Write With More Emotion
There are many ways to answer this question, and like most things, it varies depending on the author and the audience they are trying to reach. But here are four tips to help inject more emotion into your storytelling.
1. Be Specific With Word Choice
This is a technique that many famous, well-known authors implement extremely well. It makes your story come to life, and also vividly connects your audience with your message, theme, and characters.
Have you ever been reading Lord of the Rings and just shuddered as Tolkein describes the orcs, or the Eye watching your every move?
For example, as he describes what was filling the elves with terror, “it came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire, in its left it held a whip of many thongs.”
Or as he describes the voice the hobbits heard after another day of near death. “Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them.”
When Tolkien is describing dark, scary, creepy things, he isn’t describing the beauty of the sunset or how fresh and brisk the calm night air felt on Frodo’s skin—he’s describing the heat of the lava and the thick clouds of smoke amassing to go destroy all the light that is left on the earth. He illuminates the beautiful sweetness of a voice after a weary, bloody day of war and tragedy, pointing outs its youngness and pureness to contrast with that of the hobbits’ blood-stained hands, rather than just describing a pretty voice.
And this applies to you in every scene you write. Are you writing a sad, depressing scene? Don’t describe the beauty of a field of yellow flowers—describe the fading of spring, the fragility of those flowers that will very quickly die. That gives a much more depressing vibe, doesn’t it?
Or if you’re painting the picture of a wedding at sunset, don’t liken the sunset to the color of blood, but rather the color of fresh, new love.
The rhythm and tone in which you paint the picture also influence the emotion you want to convey. Quick, staccato sentences create a dramatic, suspenseful feel, while passionate, flowing descriptions sketch a more romantic mood.
You can take this technique to many different levels by adding in a touch of irony, making a seemingly light description cutting and dark to its core, or laying deep tension under a seemingly jovial party, to name a few. But the one thing you have to remember is that every word you use is important. You can’t just have words as fillers for your story.
Every word, every description, every period or exclamation, all serve to either connect your audience. . . or further distance them from your story.
2. Write About You
The second technique of writing with more emotion is somewhat controversial at first glance. You’re supposed to be writing for your audience, for your readers, why would I say to write about you??
Because you are a human.
And, surprise, so are your readers.
So you, as a human just like your readers, will feel the same emotions as your readers, will react to injustice just like your readers, and will feel the same things as your readers.
So when you write, write about what infuriates you. Write about what makes you angry. Write about what you feel for, and chances are, your audience will also feel that.
And, when you are writing about something that you care about, something that you have experience in, your writing automatically is enhanced and becomes more real. Readers want real, and this can only be achieved by writing about specific emotions and issues that you yourself have dealt with—if you’re writing about something that actually happened to you, you’re never going to make the mistake of not dealing with that issue with genuineness.
Write in a way that recalls your own emotional experiences in your life, and use that to evoke that emotion in readers.
Think about the difference between a story that you wrote, that you really, deeply are invested in because it digs into pain that you yourself have experienced through diabetes and have watched other people experience, compared to an essay about how chocolate is bad for your health.
Unless you’re an insane geek on the health value of chocolate and the human body and somehow care about that, the real-life story is going to be better because you are invested in it—you care about it because it’s putting you on the line, it’s talking about you.
And, when you can then take your personal experience and bring your writing to your readers’ level, relating and caring and sympathizing, they are much more likely to relate and care and sympathize with you and your writing.
It’s a relationship that goes both ways—you take the time to understand your audience, and they will take the time to invest in you and your writing, and more often than not, really, truly care about what you have to say.
The best way to get your audience to agree, care about, or listen to your theme and message is not to rise above them and lord it over them and preach, but to meet them where they’re at, pointing them to a Higher Power, a different perspective. And when you use your own personal experience and story to show them that you really, truly get it, they will listen to you.
So write about things that you care about—write for you—and your writing will automatically be infused with more emotion, and your audience will connect because, believe it or not, we really all struggle with the same kind of things, just in different ways. We all struggle with sin.
When you write about how you have fought and wrestled with sin yourself, your writing will reach out of the pages and pull your audience in.
3. Focus On The Little Things
There was a sermon I listened to about five years ago that stressed the importance of missions and really impacted my life. And, other than the general idea, I remember nothing from the sermon except for one quote, that I actually have written on a colorful piece of cardstock and taped to my wall.
“The death of a million is a statistic. The death of a close friend is a tragedy.”
And it’s profound how true that is, and how devastatingly horrible. Our human nature is riddled with sin and grief and pain—just read Romans to get a real heavy look at how evil we humans are. And we are selfish to the core.
This statement just proves that because it’s true.
I was in ugly sobs when my aunt’s little boy was stillborn—yet don’t shed a single tear when I hear about the hundreds of abortions that happen across the world.
I’m guessing you would be devastated if your fiance died, hundreds of miles away fighting a war that you didn’t even really understand. Yet thousands of husbands and fiances and sons have died fighting in the last century, and we have a single day of the year to honor them.
And because of the very deep, sad, truth behind this—this horrific reality of the sin embedded deep in our bones—we have to apply it to our writing. We have to focus on the death of that close friend for it to be a tragedy, rather than the death of a million.
We describe the war-hardened father picking up a tiny, cloth doll from the rubble and ashes of the street, and the solitary tear that cuts down his mud-caked cheek, rather than the hundreds of soldiers saying with their words, not their actions, how much they hate war.
We shine the spotlight on the young woman, childless for years, as a little boy comes toddling into her arms crying “Mommy! Mommy!” and her eyes swell with tears, rather than telling our readers that adoption is a wonderful thing.
What hits the hardest are those little snapshots of humanity that our readers can relate to.
Many of our readers won’t be able to relate to being a soldier and hating war, but they can relate to the sadness of holding a brother’s toys when he’s not there to play with them anymore.
If you want to write with emotion, you have to dig deep into the very roots of our humanity, the things that we all struggle with. Then, then you will have mastered the art of storytelling.
2 Tips to Better Connect With Your Audience
But what if even then, you still don’t connect with your audience? What if you’re writing with such emotion and raw pain, but your readers still just don’t feel it?
The key to fixing this is that storytelling doesn’t just focus on infusing our words with emotion, but also on taking that emotion and crafting it so that it’s relatable and relevant to our audience.
You don’t want to just write with emotion—that does nothing. You have to write in such a way that the emotion you put into your writing actually connects to your audience.
There are three ways to better connect with your audience:
1. Write About A Universal Conflict
The first way to connect your writing with your readers is to take a conflict—something that we’ve all dealt with in some way, like the pain of death or abuse—that your readers will relate to.
Then weave that conflict into your theme and characters and message and world until everything in your story is connected to that conflict that your readers themselves will have struggled with, and thus will be able to relate to.
Address an indignity or injustice, and your readers will feel that.
Or write about something that angers you—what invokes emotion in you will also invoke emotion in your readers.
Take The Greatest Showman, for example. It deals a lot with the conflict of biases towards people that “society” deems as “less than” or “worthless.” Though maybe not in the same way, we have all dealt with this feeling of being unloved or judged by people around us, and as we see the characters rise and conquer, it gives us hope that we too can rise above society’s expectations and rules and boxes.
By taking a universal conflict, The Greatest Showman is relatable to a lot of its audience.
And when you take a conflict that your audience specifically has dealt with, they will emotionally connect on another level because it has impacted them personally. And when you handle this with sensitivity and care, readers will especially be grateful to you as the author and care about what you have to say to them.
Embrace this conflict, and use it to connect with readers on multiple emotional levels.
2. Make Sure Your Readers Connect With Your Characters
The last key to better connecting with your audience is to craft a cast of characters, especially your protagonist, that your readers can relate to and care about—because unless they care about what happens to your characters, they will never care about anything you have to write about.
When readers don’t sympathize or empathize with your characters, they care nothing about the world those characters are in, the theme their life is impacted by, or the message you’re trying to convey through their eyes. But, when your audience does connect with your characters, the protagonist especially, the world and theme and message will hit them that much harder.
Give your character a painful backstory, that changes their perspective of the world to make them believe in a lie that touches every aspect of their life—and give your characters different lies. These lies make them who they are, and more likely than not, your readers are also going to believe one of those lies. They will care what happens to the character who believes that lie because it impacts them, and whether or not they believe their own lie.
Give your character a wound that results in a flaw and a fear. All people have wounds that make them react in certain ways, do different things, or see the world differently, and when your characters have those wounds and fears and flaws that the audience also has, your audience will relate because they get it.
And finally, give your character something or someone to love, and something or someone to believe in. People in this world always are moving towards something—they always have some sort of goal or purpose and reason for doing what they’re doing, even if it’s not a good reason. You have to give your character a reason behind everything they do, and the audience will connect. Give them dreams and loves and hopes, because that’s what readers have too.
All of these mix together to make your character who they are, and decide why they do the things they do. And they also make up your audience. So use these to make your character relatable.
The second your audience is emotionally invested in your characters is the second your words on a sheet of white paper become screaming, crying, heart-breaking people and lives.
The second your reader falls head over heels for your character is the second that the conflict, your personal experiences, and all the emotion you’ve poured into your story becomes storytelling.
But, now that you have all the steps to transform “telling a story” into storytelling, and know how to write with emotion. . . how do you write emotion??
How You Can Write A Character’s Emotion Better In 4 Simple Steps
Some authors are experts at writing with emotion. They implement conflicts and struggles and personal pain and relatable protagonists to the max, and have effectively mastered storytelling. . . or so they think.
The final key to storytelling is one many writers skip over, forget, or just don’t know how to do entirely, but it makes all the difference when writing with emotion.
And it is writing emotions.
Let me spell that out again for you.
The final key to writing with emotion is writing emotion well.
You have to write the emotions of your characters well, or all the rest of your “writing with emotion” is wasted. But don’t worry—there are only five steps you have to implement to be able to write a character’s emotions. . . with emotion.
1. Be Real
Now, this one might seem a bit obvious, but it is so, so important. There are so many authors out there that implement writing with emotion and have pretty good storytelling tactics, but when they write about their character’s emotions, they totally flunk.
Why? Because the emotion isn’t real—I can’t feel it.
I’m sure you’ve read books like that where the author describes how a character feels after, for example, the death of a friend, but you really just can’t imagine it or feel it. This severely distances readers from the protagonist, while also showing that the author doesn’t care enough to take the time to make their character’s emotions relatable and real.
And the best way you can fix this is by watching the people around you.
Watch how they react to the highs and lows in their life, and then write your character’s emotions like that. When you have a firm grasp on how different people react to different circumstances, when you take the time to know how real people respond to real things, then you will, without thinking, write your character’s emotions like they’re real, which is what readers want.
You have to base your fake, fictional characters’ emotions on the emotions of real-life people if you want those emotions to feel real.
2. Be Concise, But Not Abrupt
This is another pitfall that many authors fall into very easily—they know their characters inside and out, love them with all their hearts, and want to show every little nook and cranny of their spirits and beliefs and souls.
They want to do their characters justice and not skip over their emotions, but there is a very fine line between describing emotions in a beautiful, gracious manner, doing justice to what they’re feeling, and the readers that will feel cheated if you don’t take the time to describe this, and describing emotions so deeply that the readers are bored.
One of the best ways to steer clear of boring your readers with emotional descriptions is to avoid at all costs simply just saying what a character is feeling, but using subtext to your utmost advantage.
Just imagine having to paint a mental picture of an egg. We all know that the egg is white and somewhat oval-shaped, so don’t describe that. Describe the way the light hits off the egg, or the brilliant blue of the cozy gingham blanket it’s nestled in, surrounded by the cradle of a wicker basket. In other words, describe around the egg, not the egg itself.
The key is to walk the fine line between cheating your readers, and your characters, out of a good long cry or an overwhelming sense of elation, while also not boring them or over-describing those emotions.
So when describing an emotion, don’t describe how terribly sad they are or how wonderfully joyful they are. Describe around the emotion—we all know what sadness looks like, but we don’t know how the character is going to eat, how they’ll dance, or why they cry when something happens that should have made them laugh.
Your audience wants the little things, the tiny descriptors that explode a sad event into a tragedy.
For a more in-depth article on subtext, check this out.
3. Vary Your Emotions
Another key to not boring your readers is to not talk about the same emotion over, and over, and over again. There is a difference between respectfully dwelling on a character’s grief, and obsessively describing every single aspect of their grief.
You want to intersperse laughing with the crying, and sobering memories in the midst of joy.
This does not in any way take away from the “impact factor.” I know that you want to be able to punch your reader in the gut or make them scream in frustrated anger, and you can do that even better when you vary those emotions.
Maybe your characters just recently got married and they are so happy and so giddy with love. Do not obsess over that. Have a flashback of the husband’s terrible childhood, and maybe he becomes more reserved, afraid that fate will come to his family just because of him. Or maybe the wife had always dreamed about having her mother around to help her out as a newlywed, but her mom died a few years ago.
You have to give reader’s a wide range of emotions, and not just dwell on one single one.
One extremely important note to add is: do not overuse tragedy.
If you have tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, it’s going to get old, fast. So give your reader’s a break—intersperse the sorrow with moments of joy and life and love that make the disaster that much more heartbreaking. Vary your emotion.
And remember, the more intense the emotion, the greater the impact. A kitten’s death is terrible, the death of the kitten’s gentle, darling owner, is a tragedy.
4. Vary Your Descriptors
The last key to writing emotion more efficiently and effectively is to use all five senses, in multiple different ways, from all different angles, to let your audience see all the nuances of a character’s emotions. It’s like varying the emotion. . . but you’re varying the actual words you use to describe those emotions.
You can’t describe the same emotional reaction, over and over again, and not expect your audience to get bored. So show a character punching the wall, and then bursting into tears and falling into his mother’s arms.
Paint the way he clenches his fists, terrified that his girlfriend’s hand isn’t inside of his. How every time a blonde girl walks into the room, he instantly thinks he can smell her perfume. You get the idea.
It’s far more interesting to see Jasmine’s joy in the marketplace of Agrabah, or as she flies on the magic carpet, rather than to keep watching over and over her sadness and frustration at being trapped in the castle walls.
Another way to do this is to show the different aspects of a character’s emotions around different people. For example, a girl who’s just lost her sister might sob in front of her best friend, or boyfriend, and then when she goes back home around her sad mother and heartbroken father, she tries to put on a smile and act like she has everything together, just to be strong for them.
Both show that her sister’s death wrecked her, but her relationships with people will affect how she shows that emotion.
Show multiple sides of a character’s emotions, in multiple ways, implementing all five senses, interacting with other characters in unique ways, and a character’s emotions will never be boring.
Tying It All Together
I am not a crier. I don’t usually cry in movies or books or. . . really for anything. I’m better at hiding my emotions than showing them to the world.
But, every now and then, there’s that one book, or that one movie, that I cry in. Every. Single. Time. I. Read. It.
Saying I cried because of a book or movie is, for me, the highest compliment I could ever give—that’s how much I value the art of using emotion to connect with your audience and make them feel.
And you can be that writer.
The writer that writes with more emotion, connects with their audience, and on top of all of that writes their character’s emotions in a way that readers can’t help but laugh or cry or maybe, for once in their lives, do something.
That is the power of storytelling.
Showing readers a different world, through different eyes, for a different reason, is the power of storytelling.
Convicting your audience, making them believe and hope and love again, is the power of storytelling.
Your words can be all the difference in someone’s life. Your voice can bring change, show people how to love, teach them, serve them and change their entire perspective.
And as a recap, because I’ve covered a lot of material, we have created a wonderful freebie below for you with all my points neatly and conveniently formatted for you to start changing your words, your story, to be packed with more emotion.
There is so much we can change with just our words. So many lives that can be touched through these pages that we pour our hearts into.
Will you take that step to put a little more effort, a little more life, and a little more you into your writing?