Let Me Tell You a Story [Video]

By Sue Coletta

In the video, I tell you a story. After you watch it, we’ll deconstruct how and why I told the story this way. I’m hoping this will help new writers who submit their first pages for critique. For the seasoned writers, please add tips that I’ve missed.

Pardon my lack of acting skills. LOL Catch ya on the flipside.

Did you notice all the things I didn’t say? Learning what not to write is just as important as learning what to put on the page.

The first line tells the audience “someone I buried thirty years ago visited” but I’m vague. The audience doesn’t need to know more than that yet. Tease the reader into finding out on their own.

Our characters experience a slow build of emotion. In the video, I breeze over sharing my emotions because it’s visual. With the written word, we need to describe what the character is feeling, thinking, internal body cues, what she smells, etc., to paint that same vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Which, in my opinion, is why books are more visceral than movies. The reader experiences the story right along with the characters.

Let’s tear apart the transcript to see the inner workings of the scene.

Please note: For some reason I told the story in present tense. Let’s blame the humidity. 🙂 In writing, however, we should remain in past tense, with a few exceptions that’ve been discussed on TKZ before. I corrected the tense in the transcript below.

Blue brackets show the structure, green shows Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs). Notice the rhythm.

Ready? Here we go …

Someone I’d buried over thirty years ago visited me last night. [HOOK] Hooks the reader right away and plants story questions in their mind. A good opening line forces the reader to continue. It also hints at the story to come and defines the genre.

The next paragraph introduces the main character without bogging down the writing with backstory. At the same time, we’re giving the reader a reason to empathize with, or relate to, our hero.

I was sitting at my desk, reading my manuscript, reading the story through one last time, second-guessing every move I made from the opening scene to the end, when static from the TV drew my attention. <-- First hint of trouble. [GOAL] [MOTIVATION IS 2ND PART AND TWO LINES BELOW]

It was off. Yet, it popped, crackled, hummed. <-- We’ve begun to build suspense. I should add, in writing it’s best to substitute a generic word like “it” with the item we want the reader to visualize. [CONFLICT]

We’d just bought the television last December. <-- One line of backstory to show why this situation is unusual. Don’t tell me it’s goin’ already. <-- Inner dialogue helps the reader relate to our hero. [REACTION]

When silence enveloped the room, I shrugged it off as one of life’s mysteries and got back to work. <-- Adds to characterization and sets up the following inner dialogue, so the reader doesn’t get confused. [1ST HALF IS MOTIVATION, 2ND IS REACTION]

Gee, I really love the storyline, the way it ebbs and flows. But is that the right word? Is this the right reaction for the scene? I don’t know …

Pop. Crackle. Hum. <-- There’s the conflict again — the antagonist force isn’t going away. [DISASTER] [MOTIVATION]

My gaze shot to the flat-screen. That’s weird. It’s almost like it’s trying to turn itself on. That can’t be right … can it? <-- Reaction, emotions building. If written, I’d trigger the senses here. [REACTION]

As my jaw slacked, voices in the other room whirled me around. I was alone in the house. <-- Stakes. [MOTIVATION]

Maybe the breeze carried my neighbor’s conversation through the screens. Wouldn’t be the first time. <-- Reaction. Even though emotions are on the rise, our hero still tries to reason the strange happening away. [ABOVE IS ALL REACTION] [REACTION FOR MRU, TOO]

Once again, I focused on my manuscript. <-- Hero tries (and fails) to ignore the conflict. I guess that word works. Yeah, it’s pretty good. Plus, I’m running out of time. <-- Inner dialogue allows the reader inside the hero’s head.

I glimpsed the clock. One hour left to turn it in. <-- Micro-conflict.

I read on.

The voices from the sunroom grew louder and more intense. <-- Antagonist force grows stronger and more visible. Stakes rise. Suspense increases. [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

What the heck’s goin’ on? <-- Reaction. If this was a written scene rather than a visual one, I’d add more emotion and inner turmoil here. [REACTION]

Unable to concentrate, I swiveled out of my desk chair. <-- Our hero is forced to act.

Slow. Cautious. I snuck through the kitchen to the French doors. <--Action, punctuated with sentence fragments to help build suspense. Crackling blurs the voices of talk radio. <-- The hero realizes what’s happening. This also sets up the reveal at the end of this scene. [LAST SENTENCE IS MOTIVATION]

My eyes widen in disbelief. With my head swiveling like a pinwheel on a stick, scoping out the room in all directions, I tiptoed toward the stereo. <-- The hero’s emotions have reached a crescendo. If written, add more visceral details. [DECISION] [REACTION] Sure enough, the switch clicked up one notch to AM. <-- The antagonist force is revealed, but we still don’t know why or what it wants. When we raise more story questions we force the reader to flip the page. [MOTIVATION]

Oh. My. God. She’s come back. <-- Sets up future scenes and, hopefully, makes the reader fear for our hero. [REACTION]

Now, could I have shared a better story? Absolutely. But the reason I chose to use this particular story is because everything I told you in the video is true. This happened to me last week.

Quick SEO tip: When including video in your post add [Video] to your title. The bracketed word tells bots to crawl the post. Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. give video the highest priority. I’ll share more SEO tips with you soon or you can learn more here!

TKZ family, please share your favorite writing advice, writing quote, or something that resonated with you that will help new writers on their journey.



Read the opening scene of CLEAVED, and you’ll see the same storytelling structure in action.





This entry was posted in #writerslife, #writetip and tagged , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

12 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You a Story [Video]

  1. This was super helpful, thank you. I already knew the Cleaved opening was one of my favorites, so now I’m going to go study it in detail.

    Isn’t it freaky when bizarre things happen in real life? A couple of years ago my husband, who never has nightmares, and I had a shared dream. We laughed it off as a one-in-a-million coincidence. Then last week it happened again when we shared a natural disaster nightmare with a sci-fi twist. Boy, we were FREAKED OUT!

    • Wow, Priscilla! Experiencing a shared dream would lead me down a rabbit hole of research.

      When this happened last week, I was totally freaked out. So much so I began writing a complete story in my head, the way we writers tend to do. 🙂

  2. Decisions, decisions…

    Love this, Sue, because you explain, almost line by line why you, the writer, made each technique decision you did.

    • Thank you, Kris. I’m much more comfortable behind a keyboard than in front of a camera (that’s an understatement; I despise being filmed), but I figured a different medium might help those who need it.

  3. I don’t believe in coincidences. There’s always a reason. Did you hear that if you have a smart tv, hackers can see you even if your tv is off? I hope it’s a rumor. For your stereo, maybe a past loved one is letting you know they’re here, watching over you. I like to think that.

    Now, why can’t ‘how to’ books be as clear as you just did. Explaining a detail walk-through with each sentence. A lot of the books don’t have any examples, or if they do it’s a useless one-sentence example or a whole scene that tells you, here’s my example, figure it out yourself what I meant. So uncool and a waste of money buying those books. Not to completely stop sales of those books, there are books with the authors own original tips and an easy reach for reference.

    Wait, I’m watching the news and they’re talking about Alexa turning on electrical products in your home. Do you have Alexa? Could she be your ghost?

    • Just because a device is internet connected, it can’t necessarily watch or listen to you. The device still has to have a microphone to pick up sound and a camera to take images. So it depends on the capabilities of the device. Personally, I have duct tape over the cameras and microphones on all my laptops.

      I have heard that if you have wi-fi in your house, someone from outside can monitor the wi-fi field and detect variations in it as you move around inside your house.

      • I do the same thing on my devices, K.S., sticky note over camera, microphone disabled. If you password-protect your network, it’s much harder to hack your wifi. Never log into “free wifi” spots, or a hacker can get into your computer, including all the devices it syncs with. Even I could do it, not that I would. 😉 It’s safer to use your phone as a hotspot if you’re away from home. ‘Course, hackers can also hack cell towers.

    • Believe me, Violet, I tried to reason it away, but the stereo is a gazillion-year-old boom box that we take to the beach. I do have a smart TV, but no camera, thank God (I heard the same thing; frightening!). I think my mother visited to snap me out of self-doubt-mode. It worked, too!

      Thank you for the kind words. I’m so glad you found the deconstruction. helpful.

  4. Great job, Sue! You can tell ghost stories around my campfire anytime.

    This line-by-line analysis really breaks down how to arrange timing and pacing to achieve the maximum effect. Reminds me of the excellent movie deconstructions Larry Brooks used to do on Storyfix.com. I’ll be referring people to this post.

  5. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your post, Sue. I read it this morning and didn’t have a chance to reply. You asked for everyone to share a favorite writing quote. I have so much stuff I could share that it’s hard to choose, but I’ll pick one for today:

    “Now, what is it which makes a scene interesting? If you see a man coming through a doorway, it means nothing. If you see him coming through a window–that is at once interesting.” — Billy Wilder

    In so many manuscripts, writers begin with a ho-hum kind of scene. They probably aim to show a character in his ordinary world. However, even in a character’s ordinary world, there are surely moments that are more interesting than others.

    Loved seeing you on camera!

    • Love the Wilder quote, Joanne! It’s so true, too.

      Here’s another great one: “A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.” ~ Brian Klems

      I love this quote from Brian Klems. The act of violence isn’t suspenseful. The snapping of twigs as our character stumbles through the darkened forest, knowing the killer could attack at any moment is suspenseful. Or the squeaky floorboard on the second floor when the character is home alone. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. A knock at the one door the character never uses. Tires screeching around the corner, the headlights appearing in the rear view mirror seconds later.

      Thank you! Truth be told, I’d rather have my fingernails ripped out one by one than appear on video, but I’m trying to get comfortable with it. This year, video marketing is on the rise. If we don’t adjust, we’ll drown. As writers, we get shoved out of our comfort zone all the time, don’t we? But that doesn’t make it any easier. 🙂

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