How To Craft a Compelling Story

April 02, 2019 | 6 min read

Whether you’re writing a short story, novel or a sales page for your website, keeping your readers hooked is your main goal. If you fail to hook them, you lose them - and not just in the short term. They’ll remember how underwhelmed they were by your writing - and probably won’t give you a second chance.

To have a positive impact on your readers, you have to impress them with your skill. Compelling content that almost forces them to keep reading will stick in their mind long after they’ve finished reading - and they’ll want to come back for more. That’s the secret to building a loyal audience that will benefit you long into the future.

 Writers - just like you - come to me frustrated because they’re not happy with their writing. It lacks that attention-grabber hook that propels you from writer to storyteller.

It doesn’t mean you’re not a great writer. It doesn’t mean you should quit. It just means you need to develop the skills.

How To Write With Impact

Write with Impact

Writing a compelling story isn’t easy - not even when you’ve been doing it for years. You have to work hard at it, then edit, refine and improve until it’s a polished piece that could almost reach out and grab your readers by their lapels. It’s a skill you develop and practice, not something that’s innate - which is why so many writers get frustrated by the process.

Related: Story vs. Plot

So, what makes a compelling story? What techniques do you have to use to grab your reader’s attention and keep them firmly on those writing hooks? There’s no magic formula for this kind of powerful writing, but there are some key ingredients. What’s more, they work for content marketing, business writing and blog posts just as well as they do for fiction.

Crafting content that’s compelling is a truly transferable skill. Let’s dive into the top

1.Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, so this old cliche is so tired and worn out I really debated about whether to put it in - but despite its overuse, it’s still important. When you’re trying to hook your audience, it’s no good telling them how your character feels. Showthem, with a description that’s loaded with opportunities for your reader to slip into your character’s shoes and immerse themselves in the story.

Related: Show and Tell

Rather than explaining to your readers, you’re giving them the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Once they’re in your character’s shoes, you’ve started the process of making them care - and that means they’re much less likely to abandon the story early on.

2. Shock and Surprise

Startle your readers with something they weren’t expecting. Marketers do this a lot - aiming for the shock factor - but it’s just as important if you’re writing a short story or novel. Make it truly shocking and unexpected and you’ll have your readers right where you need them.

Related: Did you catch our April 1 'product launch'? 

We encounter the unexpected every day - and how we respond is part of our learning process. Injecting something shocking into your writing keeps it real and (most) readers will be intrigued as to how the character handles what’s happened. Is it different from how your reader would respond? Is there something they can learn from this?

The shock factor is a sure fire way to get your readers on the hook - because you’ve grabbed their attention. Now you just have to keep them on the hook.

3. Relatability

Compelling writing is real, gritty, and doesn’t pull any punches. If you want to keep your readers on the hook, they have to be able to relate to what’s happening in your story.

To master relatability, you have to know your audience inside out. What problems do they have? What in their lives causes them the most pain.

If your reader encounters a character they can relate to, who has problems as they do, they’re automatically more engaged. Your readers care about the characters they can relate to. They don’t care about the characters they have nothing in common with. Far too often, the reason why you’re not hooking your audience is because you don’t fully understand them.

4. Raise The Stakes

You’re writing about real situations (or situations that could be happening to your readers) - but that doesn’t mean you have to confine yourself to strict realism. Your readers have put themselves in your character’s shoes, been shocked by something, and can relate to the problem - so now you have to raise the stakes.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? Even if it’s not really likely, you have to raise your readers’ investment in the story you’re telling. You’re playing with their emotions now, and you can’t hold back. (Well, you could, but make it too ‘ordinary’ and your readers will slide right off the hook again.)

When you raise the stakes, you create that edge-of-the-seat anticipation in your reader. You know, that feeling where you can’t put the book (or tablet, e-reader, magazine, whatever) down because you just have to find out what happens next. That’s exactly what you’re aiming for.

5. Mining The Depths

Characters that your readers care about aren’t 2D cardboard cutouts. When you’re creating content - whether fiction or non-fiction - 2D cardboard cutouts aren’t going to get you the results you want. You have to bring your characters to life - so it feels like they’re living, breathing people bursting off the page.

You bring your characters to life by creating layer after layer of details. To do that, you need to know everything about your character’s backstory (even if you’re just creating them for a digital marketing campaign!). I’ve had students tell me that it’s way too much effort for content marketing, and should only be for fiction, but it works for me and the results are worth the effort.

It’s the little details that bring your character to life. Anchor them in real-life events that have enough detail to make it sound like you’re giving eyewitness testimony in the courtroom. Names, places, feelings, sensations, emotions - build the details until you start to feel like you are giving eyewitness testimony.

6. Make It Memorable

Compelling writing leaves a lasting impression on your reader - which makes them remember you. Whether you’re a novelist or a social media marketer, your goal is to ensure that your reader remembers you. Compelling writing inspires loyalty in your readers, building an audience that is already primed to sign up for your mailing list or like your Facebook page.

Making an impression on your readers isn’t easy when there are so many other writers trying to do exactly the same thing. You have to stand out. You have to get your hook so deep into your audience that they won’t be able to forget how your writing made them feel, or how your writing changed their life.

One way to ensure that your readers remember you and remain firmly on your hook is to leave them with a feeling of unfinished business. Don’t resolve all of the conflicts in your story. Leave an unresolved thread that will be like a constant itch at the back of your reader’s mind.

Refining Your Writing

Refine your writing


Don’t expect your first draft to be a masterpiece of compelling writing. While some writers may be ready to publish after the second draft, most writers go through multiple drafts.

I don’t put a number limit on my drafting process - I redraft until I’m happy that I’ve done everything I can. Sometimes it takes five drafts. Other times it takes fifteen. I’m a ruthless editor, too.

Crafting compelling stories isn’t something you can do in an evening, sitting with your laptop on your knee in front of the TV. Cut out all the distractions and immerse yourself in your characters’ world. Distractions and interruptions only dilute the strength of your writing.

Give your writing the dedicated time it deserves, and you’ll master the art of writing with an impact much more quickly.



About the author:

Ariella is an experienced copywriter, editor, and digital marketing consultant. Driven by a passion for writing and content creation she takes pride in producing articles that deliver the latest information in an engaging manner and marketing campaigns that deliver exceptional results. Ariella has a BA (Hons) in English Language and Creative Writing (First), an MA in Theology and Ministry, and is a published author of three novels and a bestselling non-fiction book. A creative at heart, Ariella has 14 years’ industry experience and always aims to keep abreast of current trends and developments. She lives in the UK with her three beagles Zeke, Hope, and Sandy, who always make life interesting.


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May 24, 2024 8 min read

There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read

Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.

We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.

COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.



I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.

So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.


Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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It’s no secret that Taylor Swift is one of the biggest players in music right now. (Maybe one of the biggest ever.) As a lyricist, she’s enthralled audiences worldwide, but did you know she’s also woven a subtle tapestry of literary references throughout her discography?

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