This is a feature called Good Thoughts from Good Folks where I ask a few good folks for their good thoughts on a question I’m thinking about.
This week’s good folks: Alex Braunstein, Sunisa Nardone, Heather Davis, Joan Michelson, Brit Liggett.
This week’s question: How do you tell a good story?
A good story taps into realness. Please don’t try to be funny, deep, or make me feel something. Just be you. We all need to hear more from each other’s real selves, I think. I’m tired of pretending I know what to say. Aren’t you? Let’s tell stories that have real silence, stutters, and questions. Let’s ditch the “grown up” and “TED talk” voice. Let’s tell each other our stories are interesting and important. If we do, maybe we’ll stop caring if something is good, and start valuing what’s real.
Start with someone who wants something, then put obstacles, one after another, in the way of the achievement of that goal. That windy path towards resolution is where readers get involved with a story, dodging left and right with the protagonist as she encounters the challenges of the story you’ve thrown at her.
What is most interesting to me in a story is the minute internal clockwork of a character; not whether he’s going to get the girl, the prize, the promotion, but how life rests with him when he wakes up, as he walks to the bus, or when she misunderstands her friend and they end up going for the same guy. Leo Tolstoy knows the trick, and as I’ve been reading most recently, so does Elena Ferrante.
Heather Davis is the Executive Director of The Telling Room, a nonprofit youth writing center in Portland, ME.
I’m a terrible storyteller, even though most of my life is focused on writing and storytelling. When I’m writing, I figure out what I am thinking through the process of writing itself. I follow winding paths of thought and emotion around and around until I find the center of the labyrinth, the thing I’ve been trying to say.
When I’m sharing a story aloud, I have an irresistible urge for my audience to experience exactly what I experienced, and I lose people in all the set up and details I’m attempting to re-create. So for me, the key is editing, and practice. It takes focus and discipline for me to edit and organize my stories so the paths through them are clear and crisp enough for others to easily follow.
Be appropriate to the context, illustrate a point. Make it personal. Tee it up with wording like, “let me tell you about…” or “that reminds me of when…” Keep it short, a few lines. Use dramatic timing…pausing for dramatic effect and to let images you described sink in. Be real. Choose your words carefully, use images and wit, be relevant.
All good stories have one thing in common: they have an impact on the listener. In order to have an impact, you need to pay attention to two things: clarity and emotion. First, make sure your story is clear. If people don’t understand it, they can’t be impacted by it. Once clarity is ensured, turn to the heart strings. People respond when they feel connected and they become connected when their heart is engaged. Whether happy or sad or angry, emotion is key to a great story.