When it comes to developing a story, we need to think of the readers first. This means that in order to write a good story (fictional or no), you need to understand how your story’s readers may interpret it.
Interviewing is an easy way to get into your readers’ minds. Here are five tips to help you learn how to interview effectively so that you can write the stories (both real and fictional) that resonate most with readers:
1. Ask different people the same five questions
Start simple! Ask a few different people the same few questions; anything from their favorite color to their biggest regret. The diversity of their answers will shock you, and get you thinking about how often people interpret the very same thing in different ways.
2. Ask five different people to tell the same story
Think of a life event that most people go through: Losing a tooth, owning a pet, even a first kiss.
Ask different people to tell you the story of their personal experience with that milestone. Hearing them tell similar stories differently may strike up some new ideas for your own work.
Have different people tell you the same story Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco
3. Ask people how they would describe a political issue
More complicated than a common life event are the politics surrounding the choices we make. If you’re feeling up for a true challenge, take it upon yourself to ask people why they feel the way they do about an issue in the news.
Ask minimal questions. Just let them talk, and take notes on the transcript later.
How soon do they insert emotion into their opinion? How long do they go on without prompting? This will tell you a lot about what people prioritize in stories, especially if you ask different people about the same issue.
4. Ask people what parts of a story matter most
This tip is reminiscent of psychological experiments where the point isn’t to figure out what people remember, but rather what they think about the things they remember. After all, why remember something that doesn’t matter?
Practice this by asking interview subjects about a commonly known story, such as Little Red Riding Hood. Ask them to recount the story, and then ask what part of the story they consider the most important.
People may give a variety of answers, and you’ll very likely be surprised. Not everyone sees this as a cautionary tale for little girls going into the woods alone.
Some see it as a tale praising Red Riding Hood’s intelligence in befriending the woodsman who later helps her. Others see it as a metaphor for ignoring one’s own judgement (“What big eyes you have!”).
By figuring out what parts of a story people find important or interesting, you’ll have a better idea of what people may be coming to learn from your own writing.
If you understand how your readers think, you can craft a more effective story. Photo by David Kennedy
5. Ask the subject for additional information
This is the ultimate interview tip for getting people to open up. Everyone has a hidden detail about a story that they’re convinced isn’t important. But in truth, it may be the key to understanding everything.
At the very end of the interview, ask the subject, “Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t think to ask?” This format is polite, but also putting forth an invitation. What do they have to contribute to the experiment?
This tip applies to the other interview formats in this list as well. Maybe someone heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood growing up and has a lingering question about how Little Red Riding Hood managed to escape the wolf. That’s insight you can take into writing your next story.
Take it to the next level
Make the very most of your interviews by recording and transcribing them. This frees you up to focus completely on your interviewee, without the interruption and distraction of taking notes as they speak.