WWN4: Keepin' it real

There are weeks when Wednesday arrives with anticipation.

Time to publish a new edition of the Write Way!

There are weeks when the Wednesday deadline creates a sense of impending doom.

Then there are weeks when it gets to 2pm on said Wednesday and I think “Wait, it’s Wednesday?!”

The unstructured writing life has its drawbacks…

Thankfully I logged onto Beehiiv and discovered that in my great wisdom I had already written some 1,300 words of this issue already.

We’re going to dive deep on one aspect of storytelling this week. Specifically, how to make your stories believable, real, how to make people care.

And this applies to all types of stories, not just the persuasion stories. Whether entertainment, empathy, or educational stories - here is where you start to hone them into a weapon.

But first, I should tell you something else.

We’ve had a phenomenally successful launch of the ghostletter seminars to the waitlist, and Wade and I are buzzing to start with them next week.

There is still a chance to join us.


That chance only lasts until Friday midnight eastern time.


Until the last eight slots go.

We’re having technical bother with showing that countdown on the cart, but it is set behind the scenes so if you click the link below and it goes to a “sorry, sold out” message then the last few spots are taken.

With that urgency out the way, if you’re not interested in making money from your writing, skip over the next few paragraphs until you see the big headline that starts our storytelling content.

It’s cool.

We only want the committed to sign up, after all.

But if you are interested in building a side hustle (or a full time business) from writing weekly newsletters that net you a few hundred or thousand bucks a month per client?

Join me in learning from my friend Wade, whose wily ways have built a six-figure, twenty-hour a week business doing just that.

And at the same time, get coaching from me on how to write better and faster.

We’re offering four "ghostletter seminars" on how to do build a newsletter ghostwriting business.

Those seminars are (provisionally) planned as follows:

25th April, 09:30 EDT/EST
Proven newsletter framework and how to generate effortless ideas

2nd May, 09:30 EDT/EST
The retention and referral framework PLUS how to write fast

9th May, 09:30 EDT/EST
Newsletters as the foundation of a writing-as-a-service business and how to edit effectively

16th May, 09:30 EDT/EST 
Two client acquisition strategies PLUS how to build long-term writing habits and avoid burnout

All recorded in case you miss it live or want to save for future reference.

And the price for this beta run?

Two-hundred and fifty American dollars.

…yeah we know. It’s too cheap for something that can earn you multiples of that in your first month if you do it right, but it’s a beta run okay? Next time I promise it will be more expensive.

WWN4: Keepin’ it real

There are two main parts to this here issue.

First, we put on our story SPECs that I teased last week. Those help us prioritise and write our stories, keeping the main things in mind.

Get those right and most all else falls into place.

Then we apply the reality checklist which I’ve adapted from David Garfinkel’s Persuasion Story Code. That helps us drill down on making our stories believable and persuasive.

Which is something that everyone needs, even the entertainment storyteller…

The Story SPECs

The story SPECs are simple, but profound.

You need to write real stakes, real people, real experiences and real change. We’re only going to scratch the surface here, there isn’t time to dive deep on all of these but over the coming months, maybe we’ll come back to it.

Write real stakes.

Ask yourself:

Why should I care what happens? What are the consequences?

You’d not believe the number of stories people churn out which fall flat and they don’t know why… And the simple answer is that if the hero did nothing, nothing would actually change. Nothing would go wrong if they failed.

And there’s no real tension in a story with no real stakes.

Write real people.

By which I mean believable characters.

In fiction that means making them work like real people do. In non-fiction (and fiction too) it means taking the character and making it obvious and visual - believable.

Jim Butcher has a great tactic of taking a few “anchor words” and using at least one in every scene where a character shows up.

It all comes down to asking yourself, how do you communicate who someone is in a few words?

What are the core, essential parts of who they are? The flaws that make them real?

Write real experiences.

I might do a whole lesson on this one day because it's really important. Someone who reads your story (or hears it) should experience the same as when you went through it. Some people call it "showing not telling" but I think that misses a huge part of it.

I’ll not go deeper here because we’re going to cover that in a moment, but good writing is physical, visceral thing.

Write real change.

All stories fundamentally are about change. Or they're boring.

This is the world and then it changed, then the hero changes in response, then the world is changed by the hero.

That's your classic 3 act structure right there.

So ask yourself:

How were things before the change? What changed? How do your characters react to this change? What are the implications of this change?

If you can’t answer those questions, what’s the point of your story?

Now. That’s a whirlwind of things to consider but I want to make this really practical, so let’s dive into our reality checklist…

Reality checklist:

Here’s a checklist I adapted from David’s book, and again, go get a copy of that and follow him on X-Twitter.

You’ll get a ton of examples of different types of what David calls “persuasion stories” or “$tories” and a lot more context on how to make this work.

Anyway, your 5 steps to making your story persuasive:

  • Make it real

  • Make it simple

  • Make it familiar

  • Make it relatable

  • Make it believable

We’re going to take each of these in turn and I’ll give you a couple of tips from my experience to make that work.

And to illustrate it all, I’m going to use an example from real life where I used an empathy story to help my daughter sleep at night and how it shows each of these.

She’s three years old, and at one point had this strange fear of pumpkins.

Over and over again… she’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming because she was afraid there were pumpkins in her room.

One night I pointed to the toy bunny she cuddles every night. And I told her that bunnies eat pumpkins, so any pumpkin would run a mile as soon as it saw the bunny.

She's never had another pumpkin nightmare since then.

So let’s use that as an example to breakdown our five step checklist, and remember…

I deliberately picked these because they apply to all forms of storytelling.

So although I’m talking here about an empathy story, these are crucial for fiction and entertainment storytelling as well.

Make it real

There are two parts to making something feel real. It must be tangible, and it must be specific.

Tangibility is more than “show don’t tell”. That’s level 0. It’s table stakes, entry level stuff.

Human beings are not just eyes on a plate. Which is a visual I could do without... But the point is we’re more than visual beings. Sight is a crucial one of the senses, but it’s only ONE of the senses.

We taste.

We smell.

We feel.

We hear.

And yes, we see.

If you want to persuade with your story, you need to make it tangible. Make the reader feel it with as many senses as possible.

When you’re writing about an apple, never not write about the idea of an apple. But neither do you want to just write about the sight of that shiny red apple on the table.

Instead, you need to write about the explosion of sweetness, the satisfying crunch, the juice filling your mouth. The tangible sensory details.

Author N. D. Wilson has a great phrase: Write to the body, not to the head. Involve the whole body with your story. Think about what your reader feels when they get up in the morning, when they have the problem you’re solving.

Write to that.

In our pumpkin-bunny story it’s easy. My daughter’s holding the bunny. She can feel it in her hands. Which is why I talked about the bunny protecting her, and not just me protecting her. That was layered in as well, but she needed something tangible to face the fear.

And as for specificity?

That is just tangibility brought down to simple, concrete details.

Do your research, if you’re selling something to help with arthritis, interview an arthritic and get concrete sensory details about their condition.

Avoid the vague “your joints hurt”. Be as specific as you can.

Again, that's built into the bunny story because the bunny is there, it’s that specific bunny. Its going to eat the pumpkins because that’s what bunnies do, not just vaguely beat them etc.

But it’s not just making it real, you also want to make it simple.

Make it simple

We talked in the earlier issues of the Write Way about the difference between empathy and entertainment stories being about complexity.

The issue with the hero’s journey arc for an empathy story is that it’s far too complicated. There’s too much going on. Most films and books have emotional baggage, backstory woven in, subtext and so on. None of that fits in our empathy storytelling.

But even in entertainment storytelling, you want to make the core as simple as it can be. So take the core concept of your story and boil it down to nothing but what you need. A good way to do this is to challenge yourself to cut 10% of the word count (or more, if you’re a waffler).

In our example, I didn’t layer in anything. There was no bunny backstory about how pumpkins had killed her father and she was out for revenge.

Bunnies eat pumpkins. Pumpkins scared of bunny. Simple.

Make it familiar

Avoid jargon. Avoid fancy words. Avoid overcomplicating it.

Which is what I’m going to do right now by moving on swiftly from this point, because it’s fairly obvious that your empathy stories especially need to use simple language and straightforward prose.

It should feel like a friend talking to them.

I don’t really need to explain how the pumpkin story fits this one…

Make it relatable

There’s a temptation on social media to project a highlights reel.

Same in sales pages and so on. Everything works perfect all the time and you never make mistakes. But that’s unrelatable.

Whenever you’re crafting a story for persuasion, see if you can weave in flaws and failings. All human beings have them, and it makes it far more relatable. Plus, of course, use details about your idea audience member, your customer avatar. Relate it to them, where they are.

Talk to a three year old about bunnies, not about how it’s impossible for there to be pumpkins in her room because pumpkins can’t walk.

And in entertainment stories, scatter those relatable flaws in so that people can connect with your characters.

Make it believable

Again, there are two aspects to this. It must be true and it must feel true.

This is the internet so allow me to state the obvious:

Lying is bad.

Story-lying is even worse. Because if you tell a great story, that slips past those watchful dragons we mentioned a few weeks ago, and it turns out it was a lie?

People will set their dragons on you.

Hell hath no fury like a person deceived.

But even without that long term consequence, untrue stories also ring hollow and are far less effective.

Of course the trick is to take the true stories and make it feel true.

All those little details you wove in to make it specific? They have to be true. Those tangible descriptions have to echo true with the real world, not just be pulled out your backside.

You need to research your customers’ emotional reactions to find the language they use to describe it and echo it back to them. You have to make the characters in your story feel real. Make them work like real people and communicate the core of them in a few words.

Above all, you have to avoid making ludicrous claims that put people’s backs up like saying all their problems will be over if they build an audience or whatever the product you’re selling does.

E.g. I’m not going to tell you that joining the ghostletter seminars will make you a millionaire, it probably won’t. Will it give you the foundation you need to build a a nice side income or even replace your job if you’re willing to work at it? Probably.

In our empathy example, bunnies really do eat pumpkins. At least, I think they do, they eat most vegetables anyway. And she really was safe.

But the trick was making her feel safe by telling a story that felt true.

Taking the truth and making it feel like the truth in a world of lies?

That’s what storytelling is for.

And until next time may your pipe inspire many stories,

James Carran, Craftsman Writer

P.s. The ghostletter seminars close for new entries this Friday midnight Eastern time. Check out the schedule here.

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