#32: How to tell a good story
It’s one day before the year 2021 ends.
I am sitting at my writing desk, looking out the window.
My window overlooks a square, shared by my apartment building and her sister building across the way.
There is a pool in the square and a lemon tree. No one ever uses the pool, even when on warm days.
Today is cold and the sun has set. Outside it is pitch black, even though the time is only 530.
All of the apartments have their lights off, except for one apartment, where two ceiling lights are turned on.
In the apartment is a couch, an ottoman, and a bar with liquor bottles.
Hey! I bet you’re interested to learn what happens next. Maybe something spooky will happen on this eerily dark winter evening inside of the only apartment wit its lights on. Will a character appear? Someone who drinks the liquor, gets drunk, and causes a fight? Maybe you’re wondering if this person will see me looking at them through my window? Will they be creeped out? Will I?
I just attended a storytelling workshop led by Adam Davidson and JP King. Adam is the creator of NPR’s Planet Money. He has also written for The New Yorker and worked on This American Life. JP is a designer, educator, and artist. He teaches at the University of Toronto and the Haliburton School of Art and Design.
Adam and I are working on a project together and I’m also working on my storytelling skills, so when I received an email from him about an online workshop titled “How to Tell Stories at a Cocktail Party”, I was very curious.
As you probably already know, storytelling is a valuable skill, both personally and in business. Our brains are wired for storytelling. That’s why we get so engrossed in movies and novels. We want to follow a character along a hero’s journey. And the best stories are ones that teach us a lesson.
But they don’t teach us a lesson explicitly. The best storytellers set up scenes where things happen, but judgment is not passed explicitly. So the author won’t directly write that a character was good or bad.
Instead, they will create visual representations.
Chekhov, for example, writes stories like this (this is an excerpt from the short story “In the Cart”):
The paved road was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding warmth, but there was still snow in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with joy, offered anything new and interesting to Marya Vasilyevna, who was sitting in the cart.
Chekhov describes the scene as the end of an evil, dark, and long (Russian) winter when spring has begun showing her face in ever the most subtle ways. A happy person would notice this, but not Marya Vasilyevna. She is not happy so she does not pay attention to the subtle beauty around her. As the reader later learns in the story, Marya is a lonely, overworked, and under-appreciated teacher.
Marya would be a different character if Chekhov wrote that Marya was in abundant joy from looking outside the cart and seeing a blue sky and birds singing and couples walking on the street holding hands.
Adam and JP didn’t talk about Chekhov in the workshop, but they did describe the basic elements of a good story.
I want to share these storytelling elements with you so you can practice them in your own life. Please keep in mind that this is just a starting point. As you practice telling stories, you will uncover your own unique style.
I know that many of you already are good storytellers, so if you feel so inclined please share your tips in the comments so we can learn from you. I promise that it will be much appreciated!
Basic storytelling elements
Every story takes place in a particular time and a place
Choose that time and place and describe it.
Describe the setting. Describe how the characters move about their space.
Then ask yourself, what happened next? And then what happened? And then what happened after that?
Your characters want something. What do they want?
Do the 5 Whys exercise
Adam gave an example story about his 10 year old son who was upset when some kids took away his soccer ball.
Why was his son upset?
Because the popular kids took away his soccer ball
And why does this matter?
Because the popular kids always get what they want and he never gets what he wants
And why does it matter that the popular kids always get what they want?
Because the popular kids always take everything away and he never gets anything
Why does it matter?
Because the soccer balls means everything to him
You’re beginning to see how the story is about a child learning that life can be unfair. The story will never explicitly say that life is unfair, but the soccer ball serves as a metaphor for that lesson.
Finally, it’s important to be vulnerable and share failure. Sharing only positive things in a story will make you sound inauthentic. It may even come off as humble bragging. Be honest and share the truth, which inevitably includes obstacles and challenges. Talk about the bad guys and bad gals that you had to deal with :-)
I hope this was helpful and that it got some gears spinning for you!
I’ll end with a small plug for Adam and JPs course.
If you’re interested in upping your storytelling skills and standing out from your peers, consider checking out Adam and JP’s course. You can learn more on their website here.
Happy New Year! Be safe, and have fun!
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