Most speakers pay lip service to storytelling, but what they really do is relay pieces of stories, anecdotes, or name-dropping factoids-on-steroids. My wife and I celebrated New Year’s one year at the Charles Hotel, and as we were checking out, guess who got into the elevator with us? Matt Damon and his family. True story.
Only it’s not a story. It’s a factoid given artificial significance by the celebrity involved.
Could I turn it into a story? Only by creating conflict with someone and Matt Damon. One of his children was cranky and wanted some candy. Matt was all for giving in, but his wife glared at him and said, sotto voce, “Don’t spoil her.” Matt rolled his eyes and withdrew the proffered candy, causing the kid to wail and everyone in the elevator to be embarrassed. (Important note: this is not a true story. Actually everyone on the elevator behaved well.)
Now we’re getting somewhere – we have conflict between Matt and his wife, and his child. It’s almost a story, with a resolution.
Is it a good almost-story? No. The stakes are trivial, and we don’t really learn anything interesting from even this celebrity-cranked anecdotal story.
Why isn’t it a story, really? Because no one changes, that we can see. Matt is still a bad father, his wife is still playing the heavy, and the kid is presumably still spoiled.
Turning this miserable anecdote into a real story would not help much: Matt realizes the error of his ways and resolves never again to contravene his wife or feed his kid candy. Why? Because the situation is too hackneyed and the insight potentially gained from it too simple. And no one works hard enough to achieve the ending of the story.
All these machinations around poor Matt suggest a few ways to make your stories better.
1.Start with strong conflict. Conflict is key to good storytelling. Without some tension between at least two characters, we don’t have the possibility of something interesting happening. But, and this is an important but. . .
2.Make the stakes high and the conflict interesting. You can’t just offer us the clichéd father-kid-mother-candy situation if the only reason to pay attention is that a celebrity is involved. That’s not enough. We not only need something at stake; we need something important at stake.
3.Ensure that the hero learns something or changes by the end of the story. This character growth is essential to good storytelling, and it’s the other thing besides conflict that’s almost always left out.
4.Never say “fast-forward.” One of the quickest way to tell if a story is poorly structured is when the teller says, “fast-forward to. . . .” What’s happening is that the storyteller hasn’t started the story in the right place. Always start the story as late into the plot as possible, but not too late. If you do that properly, you should never have to say, “fast forward.”
5.A good story has a point, or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is. If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed.
So there you have it: good story telling begins with conflict. But not just any conflict – conflict where the stakes are high and everyone can care about the outcome. Then, you need to put your hero right into the middle of the soup, and turn up the heat. Make the hero suffer for the insight she ultimately learns. And then have a clear idea of what that insight is.
And that is the beginning of good storytelling.