My Favorite Writing Advice: Trust The Story

Writing Advice Trust The Story

Favorite writing advice:

“Trust the story.”

Who said the writing advice trust the story:

Patricia Ann McNair, creative writing professor


The story knows what it wants to be. You just need to get out of the way ~ with your thoughts on what it should be or what you want it to be, trying to make it sound a certain way, wanting it to convey a certain message or have a certain moral ~ so it can tell itself. If you don’t trust the story, you won’t let it be what it wants, which is to get messy & go off on tangents & look like a hodge-podge of ideas until, gloriously, it comes together as a novel in the end. You have to be willing to let your writing grow naturally, even if that ends up being pages and chapters or even half a novel that you later end up cutting out. You have to do that, otherwise you break the story’s magic.

How the writing advice trust the story changed my writing:

I got out of the way and stopped trying to control or funnel or impose my agenda. I stopped giving bits of my opinion or forcing traits on my characters or being frustrated that the story wasn’t fitting into the frame I had made for it. Instead, I started letting the story do what it wanted.

I also decided that the best stories are the ones where the writer drops the characters into a situation & lets them figure it out, where it isn’t planned, where shocking things happen that the writer doesn’t see coming because that means the readers won’t see it coming either. That’s what happened with my novel, SMALL AS A MUSTARD SEED.

I was writing about the main characters ~ sisters: Ann Marie, the older one, and Jolene, the younger ~ for about 4 months, both of them as adult women. The story wasn’t really going anywhere and then one morning at about 2 a.m., I was in my little attic writing room when Ann Marie showed up as a 10-year-old in a barn, scared out of her mind, her father with a gun to his head & threatening to pull the trigger. That scene came out of nowhere & I let it play out. In that moment, I trusted the story and let the characters do whatever they were going to do while I just wrote it down. It ended up being the first chapter of the book. Once I got that idea, once I got out of the way and let the story tell itself, the rest of the novel simply came along with it.

You can read that opening scene, the one that I trusted to do what it wanted, right here.

The funny thing is that once I started trusting the story, once I just wrote down everything as it came, I also started trusting myself to tell it.

Do you trust the story when you write? Please feel free to share your thoughts & experiences in the comment box below.

29 thoughts on “My Favorite Writing Advice: Trust The Story”

  1. Hi Shelli Waving hello! Someone asked me what inspired me to write the last story I published and I haven’t a clue. When I started writing it, I don’t know where the story came from, I hadn’t a clue what was going to happen, in fact I had a hard time trying to figure out how it would end. Even now, looking back, it was like I wasn’t even there. The story took on a life of it’s own and I was just there to type it all up. 🙂

    1. Hi Karen! *waves wildly* Aren’t those the best stories, though? Well, at least for me. My favorite writing times are always when I completely lose track of time and just get lost in the story. Cheers, darlin.

  2. Hi Shelli,

    This is great advice, as always.
    It again reminds me of Stephen King’s advice in, On Writing. I’ve found that the formula; create a situation, drop your characters into it and let them solve their problems in their own way makes for a truly organic process.
    While I do start with a general plot idea, I never know at the beginning exactly how it will end. I’ve heard Dean Koontz describe his writing in similar fashion.
    Thank you again for a spot on post!

    1. Hi Rich! *waves* Thanks for the fab compliment. King’s book is fantastic. It’s always fun for me to watch my characters figure things out. I can always tell, too, in my own writing when it’s organic, like you say, or when I’m forcing it along. 🙂

  3. This is wonderful advice.

    A similar experience happened to me on Saturday actually as I was finishing up JuNoWriMo. I was doing a word sprint in which I write for 20 minutes. Out of where two characters popped into my head, neither of which I planned on making it into this story. But the relationship that unfolded between these two and the main character is really wonderful.

    Thank you for this wonderful advice!

    1. Hi Ashley! *waves* Thanks so much for the fab compliment. Made me smile. 🙂 So did those two characters showing up for you; surprises like that, at least to me, are one of the best parts of writing.

  4. What great advice, Shelli. I am sharing this with my critique partner. We very recently had a conversation about how self-doubt can ruin a story. Thank you!

    1. Hi Adriana! *waves wildly* That’s so true that self-doubt can ruin a story; it can also stop you in your tracks (which, of course, will also ruin a story). Thanks for the fab compliment. 🙂

  5. Thank you for the wonderful advice and tips you always manage to provide here, Shelli. This was certainly no exception. ‘Getting out of the story’s way’ has been one of my greatest lessons, also. Over-thinking the process can be a real buzz kill. Great piece!

    1. Hi Deeone! It’s so lovely to see you. I know it’s been a while. *waves* Thanks for the fab compliment. Yes, I still have to remind myself to get out of the way; at least nowadays I recognize that I’m in the way. 😀

  6. Every writer in the world would benefit from learning this lesson. I tend to be a ‘plotter.’ Sometimes I’ll try a story out for a chapter or two, just to see if it has potential, but then I do an outline, or at least make notes about where I’d like it to go.

    That said, my outlines are always subject to change. I’m well aware of the fact that if I’m doing my job right, the characters can…and do…take over anywhere they feel like it.

    One of the scenes that I’ve gotten the most compliments on was one of the last scenes I added to a book. It was completely unplanned, something I’d never thought out prior to the moment I wrote it. But it made me cry, and has touched a number of people. THOSE are my favorite kinds of scenes, because I was just the secretary typing out what the characters dictated. 🙂

    1. Hi Kristy! I love this: “my outlines are always subject to change.” I’ve heard advice given that writers should stick to an outline and I always think, What’s the fun in that? Nothing surprising can happen, at least IMO, if you’re sticking hard to an outline. Amen to this: “I was just the secretary typing out what the characters dictated.” Cheers, darlin.

  7. Pranjal Borthakur

    Best part of your lines is the heading itself.. I do agree never trust a story cos a story is feeling of a Free Flying mind of a author..Lines of an author itself is never in control of his or her as a Flying kite in open sky. Sharing its happiness, sorrow,lovely imagination, beauty of beautiest which a common person,like me, can never understand except the author him or herself.. But one thing those who never trust a story could also lose the beauty of ‘Knowledge of Sky’ of author which he/she wants to share..Regards Madam

    1. Hi Pranjal! *waves* Well, the post was more about trusting the story to tell itself as you’re writing it. I’m sorry if I misunderstood your comment. I do love the comparison of writing a story to flying a kite in the open sky. That’s a lovely image & very true. 🙂

      1. Pranjal Borthakur

        you are absolutely true madam..its my habit to connect with parallel sky with the actual sky… Cos every one sees the beauty what they see, but forget to admire the parallel part which have real beauty in it..sorry madam if I offended or made nuisanse comment.. You are a Great author accept my Respect..

  8. I thought I had learned that lesson and learned it well when it came to writing. Turns out, I am adept at letting short stories take on a life of their own, but writing my first novel has proved more difficult. I think at first I was so afraid of letting my characters take on a true life of their own, but now that I have, the draft is flowing so much better. So even though we sometimes know the path our writing needs to take, the transfer of that concept from short stories to novel took me awhile to take to heart. It’s been like learning how to write all over again.

    1. Hi Jeri! *waves* I never thought about that before, but you know, when I write short stories (almost all of them goofy stories for my kids), I let the story do whatever it wants without even thinking about it. I think that’s because I don’t look at it like “serious a.k.a novel” writing. You are very right, though; whenever I let the characters take over, my drafts always flow better, too. Cheers!

  9. Pingback: My Favorite Writing Advice ~ Trust The Story (Reblogged) | welcome to my place

  10. Hi, Shelli,

    and thanks for crediting me with this good advice. I know that I am not the first person to ever say it or believe it, but I am glad that it has helped you along the way. And it is always good to be reminded of this (again and again.) By the way, it is clear that you have some very fine readers and colleagues who follow your blog and share ideas. Lucky you. Lucky them.



    1. Hi Patty! *waves wildly* It’s lovely to see you here on my blog. You are the first person I remember saying it & I think it’s the advice that’s helped me the most out of everything I’ve heard over the years. Thanks for the fab compliment; I do feel lucky & blessed. Congrats on your fabulous book! Cheers to you. 🙂

  11. Terrific, thought-provoking post! We hear so much that we should outline, plan the story arc, but that doesn’t work for everyone. With my crime/thriller, I was halfway finished before I discovered whodunit. Basically, he revealed himself. I have to give my stories the freedom to go where they want, in order to keep the creative juices flowing. Besides, it’s a lot more fun. ;-}

    1. Hi Nikki! *waves* I love this line: “I was halfway finished before I discovered whodunit.” I think that’s so awesome, when you as the author get completely surprised. I’m completely with you, too, that it’s a lot more fun that way. 🙂

  12. Hi Shelli,
    I sure needed your post today. I have been forgetting all this great advice lately. Wondering why the story I’ve been working on lately is sounding stilted, I think I’ve been trying to make it what I want it to be and not letting the characters come to a life of their own.
    Thanks for reminding me of this.

    1. Hi Dorothy! *waves* I’m so glad this post was there when you needed it. I’ve always noticed that in my own writing also, the stilted parts usually come from me forcing it along. Cheers, darlin.

  13. Great post, and your first chapter sucked me in! Terrifying situation. I agree with letting the story take you where it will. Every time I try plotting, it seems a little stilted and forced. But when I get my characters and then start wondering about different problems and scenarios and let them make choices, I am always intrigued and consumed with finding out the end (and I think that is key to loving what you write–where you as the author are just as “into” the novel as future readers)

    1. Hi Charissa! *waves wildly* Thanks so much for the fab compliment. I love this: “I am always intrigued and consumed with finding out the end.” That, IMO, is the best part of writing. Cheers!

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