Stephen King has written a book on how to be a great storyteller. So have William Strunk and Steven Pinker. So why should you listen to what I say about becoming a great storyteller?
Because I’m going to show you exactly how I executed their advice — what worked, what I use every day, and examples from my swipe file.
I will take their frameworks and those of copywriting experts and show you how to use them as a writer in the digital age.
Classic Storytelling Frameworks
These are storytelling frameworks from books I’ve personally read and referred to multiple times.
1. Steven Pinker: The Sense of Style
Deemed as the thinking person’s guide to writing, this book is a recent addition (2014) to the archives of great storytelling.
Pinker’s framework: The arc of coherence.
Pinker likens a good story to blossoming tree. Just as a tree has a solid tunk, connected branches, and criss-crossing leaves, so should a good story have a strong underlying theme, logical subsections, and an arc connecting relevant details.
A good story is designed. Each element needs to lead the narrative forward while being coherent, crisp, and well-formed. The topics and characters need to come together logically while paying attention to details and maintaining balance.
One rule I stand by: A good story does two things: shows the reader something in the world, and engages the reader in a conversation.
How I use Pinker’s framework in my writing: Whenever I am working on a draft for a long-form piece, I add my table of contents at the top to see how my ‘tree’ flows. I check to see whether:
- My subheads are in a logical order
- Bullet lists relate to their subheads
- There’s one key element per section.
A writing example I love
“ We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.
We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow.
This excerpt talks about death in an almost-joyful way. The writing starts strong with a controversial statement about death. Then, it explains the unlikelihood of human life and concludes by asking the readers why fear death when it’s a state from which most people have never stirred.
The takeaway: Critical thought is the foundation of good storytelling. You need to know every element of your story to construct a powerful narrative. Pinker’s guide is accessible, actionable, and relevant.
2. Stephen King: On Writing
King’s Framework: Stories consist of three parts: narration, description, and dialogue.
King starts by setting the scene and then introducing the characters. His writing begins with an outcome in mind but he lets the characters take the lead on specific actions.
He recommends a strong outline and a notebook full of ‘character notes’ as a starting point.
Interestingly, Stephen King doesn’t believe in creating plots. Instead, he believes stories, like fossils, are discovered. King also that plots can be constructed by asking simple ‘what if’ questions.
For example, “what if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).
“There’s a difference between a story and a plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy. A plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”
One rule I stand by: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others, read a lot and write a lot.
How I use King’s framework in my writing: I try to break down all of my blogs into narrations, descriptions, and dialogues.
For example, this blog starts with a dialogue I had with myself about why someone would read this blog in the first place. The storytelling frameworks are vivid descriptions and the logical flow of subheadings is the narrative.
A writing example I love
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in.
You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
This excerpt personifies inspiration. King draws out an almost-human character to depict a muse—he smokes cigars and is arrogant. But he has magic. King also has a dialogue with the reader mid narration, asking them if the muse-guy is acting fair. Finally, he ends with a dramatic statement—leaving a lasting impression in the reader’s mind.
The takeaway: Great storytelling combines a liberal setting, defined characters, and a strong idea. You need to feel inspired by your characters to ensure they create winning plots and make good decisions.
3. Garry Provost: 100 ways to improve your writing
Provost’s Storytelling Framework: Pyramid construction.
It starts with the strongest point, followed by the ‘who, what, when, where, and why’ in the first paragraph and adding supporting information after that.
This creates a lego structure of logic: where each piece is needed to understand the next.
One rule I stand by: When you are describing things and places the reader has seen, keep description short by reminding him of the pictures he has on file. When you are describing things and places the reader has not seen, keep description short by using pieces of the pictures he has on file to create new pictures.
How I use Provost’s framework in my writing: I ask myself ‘why’ after every claim I make. This creates a logical framework for my arguments and ideas to rest on.
A writing example I love
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
This excerpt is an exhibit. It defines flow in writing while also showcasing it.
The takeaway: Strong stories have rhythm—both in logic and in words.
Now that we’ve studied some classic storytelling frameworks, let’s also study some digital ones.
Digital Storytelling Frameworks
These are frameworks that lend themselves well to online writing—especially introductions, short blogs, and social media snippets. Use these when you have a limited character length to get your point across.
As the name suggest, this formula starts with a problem statement. The next section elaborates on the problem till the reader starts feeling agitated. Finally, after infuriating the reader, the writing shares the solution to the problem.
Here’s what this looks like in action:
“An unsubscribe from a loyal newsletter reader can feel like the end of a romantic relationship. First they switch from daily emails to weekly ones, and then they stop opening your emails altogether. You try to bring them back by sending them exclusive offers and valuable content but nothing gives. So even though it makes sense when they finally unsubscribe, you can’t shake that sinking feeling. But there’s a way to make them come back and we’ll share it in this blog.”
Let’s break down this example:
Problem statement: An unsubscribe from a loyal newsletter reader can feel like the end of a romantic relationship.
Agitation-building statement: First they switch from daily emails to weekly ones, and then they stop opening your emails altogether. You try to bring them back by sending them exclusive offers and valuable content but nothing gives. So even though it makes sense when they finally unsubscribe, you can’t shake that sinking feeling.
Solution statement: But there’s a way to make them come back and we’ll share it in this blog.
The PAS formula relies on agitation.
Because agitation is a powerful driver. It activates enzymes that make your brain and body restless. Your brain’s foremost priority is to alleviate the agitation's cause—making the subsequent solution disproportionately desirable.
There’s also a less aggressive version of the PAS formula: the Hegelian Dialectic, also known as the Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis formula.
The thesis introduces the status quo; which can be either observation or a problem statement.
The antithesis introduces a problem with the status quo.
The synthesis introduces a solution to the problem by introducing a new status quo.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
“Asking a prospect to get on a phone call is a big ask. People today prefer predecided asynchronous communication and are vary of requests for ‘quick chats’. But asyc communication often fails to capture tone, emotion, and personality.
Luckily, there’s a way to capture emotion even in an asynchronous setting—recorded video responses.”
Let’s break down this example:
Thesis: Asking a prospect to get on a phone call is a big ask. People today prefer predecided asynchronous communication and are vary of requests for ‘quick chats’.
Antithesis: But asyc communication often fails to capture tone, emotion, and personality.
Synthesis: Luckily, there’s a way to capture emotion even in an asynchronous setting—recorded video responses.
Both the PAS formula and the Hegelian Dialectic are great frameworks for creating short snippets of writing. They allow you to introduce and resolve problems quickly.
This formula banks on aspiration and desirability. It introduces the current status quo, which has a problem. Then it presents a world where the problem doesn’t exist, and everything falls into place. And finally, there’s a bridge that tells the reader how to get from world A to B.
Here’s what this looks like in action:
“Learning how to write persuasively is a time-consuming task that usually takes people over ten years to master. Imagine if you had a playbook that outlined all the hacks that would get there in five. We wanted to help you, so we sat down and wrote it.”
Problem: Learning how to write persuasively is a time-consuming task that usually takes people over 10 years to master.
Solution: Imagine if you had a playbook that outlined all the hacks that would get there in five.
Bridge: We wanted to help you, so we sat down and wrote it.
Essentially, the Problem Solution Bridge framework is a shorter version of Problem Agitate Solution. The former skips the agitate statement to tell a shorter story.
It’s best used for social media posts and captions.
This is storytelling framework better suited to a slightly longer form of writing. You start with a statement to get your reader’s attention. Then, you elaborate it get your reader even more interested. Finally, you build up the narrative to a point of desirability— where you encourage your reader to take action.
Here’s what this looks like in action.
“Last year, the earth recorded the hottest summer in the Sahara dessert at 62 degrees celsius. This temperature is three degrees higher than the second highest temperature, recorded in 2002. And scientists worry that it’s only going to get worse from here. Every two degrees of warmth destroy 35,000 hectares of coastline and taking away 3,000 homes. But there’s a way to prevent this rapid global warming and protect earth’s surface from further deterioration. Only if we act now.”
Let’s break this down:
Attention: Last year, the earth recorded it’s hottest summer in the Sahara dessert—62 degrees celsius.
Interest: This temperature is three degrees higher than the second highest temperature, recorded in 2002. And scientists worry that it’s only going to get worse from here. Every two degrees of warmth destroy 35,000 hectares of coastline and taking away 3,000 homes
Desire: But there’s a way to prevent this rapid global warming and protect earth’s surface from further deterioration.
Action: Only if we act now.
Now that we’ve understood the strategies that make short form content compelling, let’s look at five indispensable storytelling elements.
Essential Storytelling Elements
No matter what you want to achieve from a storytelling exercise, you must follow five cardinal rules. Without these, your stories won’t hook your readers. With these, you have a better chance at conversions, conversations, and even long term relationships.
Rule 1: Know your audience
Every idea needs to be tailored for your audience(s). So even if you’re using a story to sell something as simple as a pen, you’d tell it differently to different people.
When talking to an audience of 65 year olds, you’d highlight how easy the pen it is to use, how it has an evergreen design or even how it’s impossible to lose the cap because it sticks magnetically to the side of the pen.
However, when talking to a millennial audience, you’d want to talk about it’s minimal design and neutral colors.
Why different versions for different audiences? Because if you can show your listeners that you understand their principles, values, or pain points, they are more likely to trust you. You create a common point of reference which makes communication easier.
Rule 2: Add personality
With AI engines becoming more powerful each day, it’s going to become challenging to stand out as a storyteller. Luckily, there is one thing AI writers can’t mimic (yet) — personality.
For example, I began this blog with a personal opinion—why you should read my take on becoming a digital storyteller. It’s a question I had been wondering about for a month. I kept asking myself, “legendary authors, poets, and philosophers have written about how to write—why would someone want to read my version?”
The answer finally came to me on a walk: because I built a career on telling stories to an audience who is otherwise obsessed with software, gadgets, and product updates. So if I can make them listen, I must know a thing or two about storytelling in the digital world.”
The truth is, people want to feel like a part of something bigger. And when they are exposed to personal accounts they can relate to—through blogs, ted talks, or instagram reels—they feel like they belong.
Rule 3: Start with the end in mind
First write out the end goal of your story and then piece together a middle and a beginning. This will give you more clarity on what you’re building towards. As a result, your stories will be directional, intentional, and engaging.
For example, I wrote an e-guide on how to design an email footer last week. Before I wrote a single section, I thought about what I wanted the reader to walk away with. It was this: ‘I want the reader to be able to independently design an email footer after reading this guide.”
Then I pieced together the middle sections by asking myself “what would the reader need to execute the design. My answers? design inspiration, essential elements of a footer, what should not go in the footer, and how often you should update your footer.
Where did I get these answers?
This brings us to our fourth rule.
Rule 4: Talk to people
The dialogue you construct in your head has only one voice—yours. If your experiences are your only source of inspiration, your stories run the risk of sounding monotonous, repetitive, and dull. But there’s an easy way around this—eavesdrop (but not in a creepy way).
A number of famous writers used to have early jobs that allowed them to talk to strangers, listen to conversations, and interact with people from different nationalities and beliefs. J.D. Salinger was an entertainment director on a luxury cruise ship, Margret Atwood was a barista, John Stienbeck was a tour guide.
A huge proportion of successful writers attribute their success to the stories they picked up during their ‘day jobs’. Luckily, it’s a hack you can copy right away.
Other people’s stories give you access to new perspectives, plots, and people — all important components of a great story.
Rule 5: Be clear and concise
We all have that friend who can talk for hours without making a single interesting point. They seem to be telling a story but they keep going off on tangents, bringing in irrelevant characters, and creating plot points that lead nowhere. And all you want to do is stuff your ears or walk off.
That’s what happens when you sacrifice clarity and conciseness—you confuse and frustrate your readers.
Clarity in storytelling comes from clarity in thinking. When you’ve thought about an idea long enough, you can identify which parts of it are obvious, ambiguous, or uninteresting — and you can eliminate those upfront.
Storytelling for a modern world
Classical storytelling is a foundational element—it helps us understand how arguments are constructed and how characters take shape. Digital storytelling addresses some of the challenges of online media—shorter attention spans, limited word count, and dynamic displays.
When we combine the principles of classical storytelling with strategies of digital storytelling we can construct powerful narratives that inform, entertain, and educate people.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.