Learning To Write Stories

I like to joke that I was writing stories before I knew how to write words.

That usually gets me a “you’re weird” expression or a generally confused look, but it’s actually true. Even back when I was a toddler and hadn’t learned to write (or read) yet, I would make up stories. And since people had read books to me, I knew that stories were supposed to be written down. I wasn’t about to let not being able to write get in my way, so I got my mom to write them down for me.

So, technically, I’ve been writing stories since before I could write.

I think that’s because I grew up surrounded by stories. Disney movies, musicals, stories in books, make-believe games, camp songs, ballads, plays, stories told at bed-time or around the campfire – there were stories everywhere, and I soaked them up like upsalite1 until everything that happened or that was said reminded me of a story I knew or made me think of a new one.

I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t have ideas for stories bouncing around in my head. Granted, I don’t remember a lot of my childhood clearly, and the stories in my head were probably awful back then. But my point is that I’ve always thought in stories, and honing the craft of writing has only accentuated that.

That’s why I have a twinge of worry whenever I see people asking how to learn to write stories, and the answer they get is to “follow this formula,” “learn this,” or “take these kinds of classes.”

Yes, classes are great. I’ve enjoyed my share of them (from Writing & Composition to Novel Writing to Play Writing and more). They can teach you about grammar, literary devices, and how to analyze other stories. More advanced courses can teach you about manuscript format, cover letters to agents, how to do peer review respectfully in a writer’s circle, and how to recognize flaws in your work. They can give you tools to examine your character, setting, and plot – and to improve them. They will teach you useful skills for the craft and career of writing.

But I think what a lot of people are actually trying to ask is how to come up with stories and how to make the stories their own. It’s hard for classes to help with that, especially the first part.

When it comes to that part of writing, the only way I know to learn to write stories is to experience stories (as many as you can). Read them. Listen to them. Watch them. Live them. Like a visual artist trains to think in images, a writer can learn to think in stories.

Learn to see the stories in the world, and they will teach you more about writing stories than any class could.

1Upsalite is possibly the most absorbent material known to man, which makes the corresponding statement a bit hyperbolical.

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