Tell your Story, Minus the Barnacles

Imagine my dismay when I discovered a book with the same title as my official business name. I felt a bit dumb. I felt a bit silly. But most of all, I was curious. What would a book called Storycraft be about?

I ordered the book in early April after finishing Christopher Vogeler’s Writer’s Journey, which is a classic about the hero’s journey story model. My new book arrived shortly before we left on a family vacation, a two-week road trip through Europe. The first time I sat down with Storycraft, I was amazed at having discovered a book so close to my interests.

Jack Hart’s Storycraft describes the craft of writing narrative non-fiction. Narrative non-fiction developed in the 1960s in the United States. Its innovators include Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who are more familiar as novelist today. Their reporting incorporated the tools of storytelling. They relied on a narrative arc in which a main character experiences a series of challenges that lead to a fundamental personal change. Even though they were telling compelling stories, their writing retained the integrity of reporting. No fake news allowed in narrative non-fiction.

Hart breaks the craft down into a series of ten different characteristics and writes a detailed chapter on each. He uses a career of writing and editing experience as a resource for examples and insights. Each chapter stands alone as a lesson that can change the way you write for good.

I took Storycraft on vacation and read late at night in bits and pieces as we travelled through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, and  Austria. In Lähn, Austria, just across the border from Germany and Schloß Neuschwanstein, I finally finished the book. From the beginning to the end, it was useful and engaging material.

When we travel, my children and I write travel journals. Hart’s book complicated my writing process as I read because his advice was so good and after reading it, my writing looked so bad. The more I read, the harder it became to write. The main culprit was Hart’s chapter about Action, specifically his section on Empty Words.

Expletives, Hart explains, are not just swear words that we love to use and then feel a little naughty about. All extra words in the syntax of a sentence are expletives. Essentially, Hart argues for active sentences and interesting verbs minus any words or phrases that don’t do work. Not “I had to go to the store, so I rode my bike” but “I biked to the store.” As he puts it, “Often, expletives simply stick to the sentence like barnacles on a boat.”

StoryCraft changed my writing. After reading it, I wrote slower, considered word choice, and paused more often. I wrote the first draft of this article at 2 o’clock in the morning in Lähn. My children slept in the sofa bed next to the dining table in our little AirBnB apartment in the mountains. One of them breathed loudly, deeply, evenly. I used to write like that, moving forward and following a deep internal rhythm, but my rhythm is gone. With some luck, I’m trading rhythm for quality. Rhythm might return. Quality takes work.

So, it turns out my business, StoryCraft, shares its name with a great book about storytelling, Storycraft by Jack Hart. The question now is, can I live up to it? I do think I’ll try.

Do this:

Listen to yourself the next time you write tell a story. Are you using active words? Can you use more interesting verbs? Did you walk or wander or saunter? Did you research a question or did you google it or look it up? Did you find or discover or realize? Try using more specific action words to improve your storytelling!

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  1. Hi Christine,
    What captivating stories here!
    I’m curious about ‘the expletives’. Does the tip of trimming them apply to oral stories as well? I’d imagine that as extras, they’re the bells and whistles that make the story nicely fluffy, soft and real. Otherwise the story would risk sounding like an ‘action movie’ which is ok, if that’s the motive, but shouldn’t always be the best approach especially in oral stories… what do you think???

    • Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for stopping by and for you question as well!

      I don’t think he’s referring to the details that bring a story to life but rather to the wordiness that encumbers much storytelling and, in his case, writing. What he’s encouraging writers to do is to exclude distracting words and phrases that fail to enhance a story or to contribute relevant details.

      My feeling is that it doesn’t turn a story into an action movie but rescues it from sounding like what I refer to as an school child’s story. “And then we went to the store. It was far. We bought candy. There was a lot of candy. The red candy tasted good.” That kind of storytelling will put an audience to sleep. Another version could sound like this, “We trekked through the city to my favorite candy store. Surrounded by towers of candy in every color and shape, we picked out shiny red cinnamon drops. They tasted like Halloween night.”

      Details are great. Wordiness: not so nice.

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