Storytelling Tips from Author KM Weiland

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen

Telling the story of your nonprofit in a way that is both engaging and truthful can be a daunting task. It can be easy to fall into just conveying the information. To find out how to tell stories in a way that your audience in the same way a page-turner novel might, I interviewed KM Weiland, an author of fiction and a writer of books on, you guessed it, storytelling.

Here are some storytelling tips from the world of fiction writing to help you rope in your audience like an irresistible page-turner.

Why do some stories lag and fail to hook the reader while others, even with mundane subjects, grab us and keep us turning pages?

That’s a small question with a very big answer! For several years now, I’ve been writing a series on my blog called “Most Common Writing Mistakes.” I’m up to Part 38 now, with no end in sight. There are only a handful of ways to do things right in a story, but there are countless ways to get it wrong!

The bottom line in hooking readers is engaging first their interest, then their emotions. A story’s hook is a question, even if it’s not explicitly stated as such. It has to be something that piques the readers’ curiosity. This potential arises first out of a strong premise, but sometimes just out of the simple trickery of juxtaposition in the first line—presenting two facts that don’t seem to go together, such as Ralph Ellison’s “I am an invisible man.”

The intellectual hook grabs readers’ attention and then gives us the space to develop the more powerful emotional hook—the connection between the readers and the characters. We have to design characters and situations that readers will identify with so strongly their own imaginations will become engaged.

How to Use This in Nonprofits:

  • Open your pitch with a question, perhaps challenging the audience to consider the problem you’re solving in a new light. “The problem of poverty in our community has been considered unsolvable, but we have found a way…”
  • Once that is established, introduce characters and highlight your own emotional connection to get the audience emotionally involved as well.

What makes fiction storytelling different from nonfiction storytelling in terms of keeping the reader involved?

The differences, really, are minimal. The big one, of course, is that fiction isn’t based on real events. But as far as technique, the greatest differences are in the narrative style. Non-fiction can get away with a little more “telling.” Novels need to “show” readers everything in real time: action, setting details, character thoughts and emotions, etc. The emotional pull and the structural underpinnings are almost identical in both forms.

How to Use This in Nonprofits:

  • You can get away with simply telling your audience what happened and what you intend to do in addressing your nonprofit’s cause. But don’t forget to develop the setting and characters so that the audience has something to relate to.
  • Think about how your favorite novels and nonfiction stories are structured. Don’t be afraid to borrow some of that narrative language.

A lot of nonprofits are telling true stories that didn’t happen in the way novels are written. How can they still use storytelling techniques while staying true to what actually happened?

The memoir and the novel have a lot in common. Their narrative forms are very similar, and the structural underpinning (based on the classical Three Act structure, which I talk about in my book Structuring Your Novel) needs to be the same. Structuring a memoir is obviously trickier, simply because the author isn’t afforded the same fluidity and ultimate control he has in a purely fictional story. But because so much of structure is about pacing and timing, the big issue is organizing the real-life story’s events into the rhythm and flow of the structural plot points—perhaps putting extra emphasis on one point or another.

How to Use This in Nonprofits:

  • We covered some of the important elements of plot and structure in our post on Brilliant Storytelling, so consider ways to control the pacing and the emphasis of your nonprofit’s story without altering the actual sequence of events. You can do this by simply spending more time talking about certain elements or downplaying others.
  • For example, the climax in a story is one of its key plot points. The climax in the story of your nonprofit’s mission might have been a relatively small event, over quickly, but you could give it the story attention it deserves by building up to it and elaborating on the consequences and reaction.

What is the most important principle/guiding light to keep in mind when crafting stories?

On an artistic level, the biggest one is simply knowing why you’re writing this story and keeping that firmly in mind throughout the process. Don’t get hung up in self-doubt or fears of censorship or ridicule. Write the story you have to write. That’s the only thing that matters at this point.

From a technical perspective, structure is definitely the single greatest consideration. A properly structured story is one that’s primed to full potential and ready to engage readers on both the intellectual and emotional levels.

How to Use This in Nonprofits:

  • Remember what the purpose of your story is: to motivate donors to support your cause by helping them connect to your nonprofit and the people you help.

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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