How to Tell a Story

The art of storytelling is hideously undervalued in our society. We all have at least a few friends who, although they may lead interesting lives and have all kinds of stories to tell, just have no idea how to engage an audience. Both in writing fiction and in relating our experiences to one another, having the skill to draw out the suspense, emphasize the punch lines and make a coherent narrative is increasingly rare in a world where people spend too much time watching TV instead of creating their own stories.

The basic principles to telling any good story are these: deal in specifics, explore ideas, and pacing.

Dealing In Specifics

How many times have you had someone tell a story in which they get on thing with `some other guys’ to go and see a play, somewhere? People are naturally curious. If you can anticipate the things that people will be curious about when telling your story – what play was it, why did you want to see it, which friends came along – then you won’t leave them feeling frustrated and interrupting you. It is important of course to include only the details that people are curious about and not every single detail. Nobody needs to know what your seat number was or how long you waited in line.

Exploring Ideas

Never mind all the intricacies of constructing plots. The important thing to be aware of is that all good plots are composed of interesting ideas. What if there was a criminal who had a photographic memory? What if the fight took place in a room full of statues? What if the bad guy used his wife as a human shield? Whether it’s the driving idea behind the whole story, such as finding a suitcase full of money near a crashed plane, or just a clever idea about how to make a car chase more interesting, by incorporating paint bombs, every scene in the story should involve some novel idea that is then explored in the story. It need not be as overt as my examples – it could be as subtle as taking the assailant’s point of view, or having the conversation be partly in French to obscure key details – but the building blocks of a story are the basic ideas behind it, and the flesh of the story grows from exploring these ideas through the characters and the events.

Pacing

This is definitely an art form. Most people who tell good stories simply have an intuitive feel for how to control the flow of information. You want to dwell on the parts of the story leading up to punch-lines, but you want to deliver action scenes fast. It’s like fishing in a way – you have to keep the fish (the audience) interested in the story by paying out the line just enough to give them something without letting them have the whole reel. You have to know how to really milk a story. Often, this comes with practice; by observing the reactions of many audiences to the same story, you can learn to tweak the story to get better reactions. You find out what to emphasize and what to leave out because it gets in the way.

Finally, there is something to be said for knowing how to end a story. Even a riveting yarn will fizzle if you just leave your audience hanging, or end with a non-sequitur. The ending has to be something short, said with finality, that neatly ties up and caps off everything you said up to that point; it is the punch-line to the entire narrative and not just a single event. As my own punch-line, I’ll tell you a story about how I made breakfast today.

Bad version:

`I had oats for breakfast, but we only had skim milk, which I hate because it doesn’t have all the nice fats and protein in it. I have this weird hang-up where I have to eat fats and protein for breakfast or else I feel like my brain doesn’t work. Luckily we had some cream, so I just mixed it together with the skim milk to make normal milk! I was satisfied with the result.’

Good version:

`I stared vacantly at the pot. Oats and skim milk? The ingredients mingled there like the contents of my brain, in a washing machine. It bugged me that we had only skim milk, which as far as I was concerned was white-colored water, wedged into the fridge door next to the thickened cream like an insult. As the stove heated, an idea warmed in my confused morning-mind. “Evil separators of milk and cream, I undo you” I said, mixing like a mad scientist. Later, eating it, I imagined that I could feel the protein waking me up. Brain food.’

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One thought on “How to Tell a Story

  1. Well I happen to like skim milk, okay? The lack of fats and creaminess makes me feel less ‘blegh’ which is worth the sacrifice of a little deliciousness if you ask me. I admit, I probably shouldn’t have bought such a big carton right before leaving though. My bad.

    – Tom

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