Tell Me a Story

Start Simple

Write or tell a short story about a recent bad shopping trip. If everything was fine, then there’s nothing to tell. But a bad experience means something happened. Something worth writing about.

Did you have any problems getting to the place? Describe things that you saw when you got there. What caught your attention about them? If you weren’t alone, describe who you were with, in a way that someone who doesn’t know them might understand what they are like. Were there any surprises when you checked out? Did you buy something you didn’t want? Were there any strange women/men/dogs/cats outside? What was the day like?

What you think and feel about that stuff is what’s important. That’s your story. That’s what counts. Don’t tell us what you went shopping for: tell us what happened when you did. That’s storytelling.

The Secret to Storytelling

The great storytelling secret is to make someone else feel what you feel. Have you ever had your heart broken? What did that feel like? Is there a song that makes you think about that? That’s a story right there. Were you ever furious at someone? What ran through your mind when you did? It’s never one thing: it’s a hundred bits and pieces that you often can’t make much sense of. So, you talk to a close, trusted friend to hear yourself thinking out loud.

What would you say? Make your close friend feel something of what you feel: that’s the goal. That’s storytelling.

Ideal Reader

When you write your story, think of telling it to a close, trusted friend. Imagine them as your Ideal Reader. Someone you trust to sympathetic to what you are saying, and honest in their reactions. Your goal is to make them feel what you felt.

Here’s an exercise: think about a terrible day you’ve had in the past year. Describe that day to your Ideal Reader – but do it with a keyboard or on paper. How can you make that Ideal Reader appreciate just how profoundly bad your day was and why? Would it help to use pictures? Music, possibly?

Use that frame of mind when you are writing. Keep your special reader in mind as your audience, then work to make them understand how you or felt as you assemble the pieces of your story. The stronger you feel about it, the easier you’ll find it to start gathering those pieces. But what if you don’t have many ideas or aren’t feeling inspired yet? You’ll find suggestions about how to get the creative juices flowing in Ideas.

Light a Fire

A story isn’t an instruction manual or a collection of facts. When you tell a story, you’re trying to spark your audience’s imagination. Telling a story means getting someone involved in what you’re telling them, in a way that they fill in some of the unspoken details.

Here’s an example. My cousin Lewis has a dog. That’s a fact, but it doesn’t conjure up much of a picture in anyone’s mind. But what if I said my cousin Lewis lives in the Scottish Highlands and has a very silly dog, who’s his very best friend, is always friendly, energetic, and is the perfect companion for long walks in the hills above the family farm? Your imagination begins to create a picture.

I still haven’t described the dog, but I’ve collaborated with you in creating a mental picture of what that dog might look like. You become a part of the process.

Star Wars

The Star Wars movies are greats examples of good storytelling. You don’t leave a Star Wars movie thinking, “Okay, now I know how to attack a Death Star.” Most movies give you a head full of images, ideas, and feelings, which might roll around in your mind for days to come. That happens because these movies are full of metaphors like good versus evil, weaknesses and strengths, and the vast range of people’s traits and emotion. You get involved in the storytelling because you subconsciously connect with feelings they stir up.

You write and present your ideas in stories to spark people’s imaginations. Your objective is to get them involved with the tale you’re telling, and everyone will take away something different from it. So, if you’ve held their attention and occasionally made them think, “I wonder if…?” or “What happens next…?”, then your work as storyteller is done.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

Musical Stories

Stephen Sondheim is a composer of some of the greatest musicals of the past 50 years. He tells stories in songs but tends not to write about big abstract ideas, like love. He writes musical stories about small, specific details and ideas.

It’s the small stuff that we connect with, and that connect us to stories. As you build your story, find the details that interest you, and then show us how they make you feel.

“If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her 5th martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.”

It’s the small stuff that we connect with, and that connect us to stories. As you build your story, find the details that interest you, and then show us how they make you feel.

A Chinese Fable

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away, and their neighbours exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbours shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares, and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Time will tell.”

The Moral

Tell the story you want to tell. Few real stories have a simple ending. Tell us the story that you want to tell. It doesn’t have to have a happily-ever-after or neat as a pin conclusion.

As Walt Disney said,”The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing!”