The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ─Neil Gaiman
Everyone has a story. Whether you are an artist, museum director, program coordinator for a non-profit organization, non-fiction writer, mother of a newborn, or running a mom and pop shop, everyone has a story and wants to know how to tell their story.
The first thing to keep in mind about storytelling is that there is no recipe – it’s an art and a skill. Like any skill, there are techniques or guidelines that you can learn and use to step up your game.
So let’s get to it. Why tell stories in the first place? According to Susan Conley who uses stories as an educational tool, stories are a way for kids to access their deep imagination, their inner lives. Imagine the power of accessing collective imaginations! Here are seven things you need to know to harness your creative abilities into great storytelling:
1. Why are stories so powerful? It’s science.
According to Ken Burns, American documentary director and producer, telling a great story is about connecting with people on a level that goes far beyond a linear plot. It’s a transformative experience where 1 + 1 = 3; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
We know this has happened when we start getting a tingly feeling in our gut and we are responding emotionally. Our brains have been story-struck and we’re feeling the effects all over. Scientists say that listening to a story is the most powerful way to activate our brains than let’s say, watching someone with a Power Point presentation. It’s because more of our brain is working when we listen to a story (not just the area that controls language processing but also the sensory, motor, emotional centres of the brain). In fact, our brains get synchronized with the speaker and we can experience the same things. When we listen to stories, we are wired to relate the story to our own lives/selves. In other words, through storytelling, we can connect and inspire people. Story is indeed a powerful tool!
Interested in finding out how you could elicit such a response in people? It’s time to get your story straight.
2. What do you really want to say (theme)?
Before thinking about the plot of your story, think about the theme – what is the message you want to communicate? In his TedTalk, filmmaker Andrew Stanton tells us that every good story has an overarching theme. The reason we stay hooked to the story is not just about the plot, it’s about what the story is telling us that is not so obvious but even more compelling. Stanton talks about when he watched Lawrence of Arabia and realized that the central question running through the film was “who are you?”. The theme of the movie was the search for self. It’s this theme that makes it a universal story – what everyone can relate to. Other examples of themes: redemption, success, loyalty, social change, culture, democracy, citizenship, etc. Dorothy Engelman describes theme as the “purpose or goal” of your story.
3. Who do you want to listen to your story (audience)?
In her tips and tricks, Engelman also talks about the need to tailor your story to an audience, set to meet a specific objective. Story elements such as setting, plot, tone, language and character development will be different whether you are speaking to a general audience, professionals in a specific field, community, the media or a funder. Hence why one size fits all doesn’t apply to storytelling.
Who’s your audience?
4. The story arc. It’s all about the structure and plot (of course).
In a classic story arc/plot, there is a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, something situational sets off a journey. Somewhere before the middle, a conflict or opportunity is introduced. In the middle, tension builds around this conflict until there is a change. The conflict is somehow resolved by the end of the story. Within the story arc, you plot your story (actions, how your characters respond).
Check out this infographic for some examples of typical plots and what happens during each chapter of the story arc based on the plot.
Now, try plotting your own story. Remember that stories can be about a people, communities, or organizations, ideas, and so much more.
Here’s an example using a fiction story: The Wizard of Oz
Plot: Dorothy finds herself is a strange land called Oz and must find a way to get home to Kansas again.
The call (set up) (Something happens to move the story towards conflict.) – A tornado whisks Dorothy away in her house to the land of Oz. Here she meets the Good Witch who tells her to follow the yellow brick road in order to find the wizard.
The challenge (What is the problem/obstacle the main character will need to overcome?) – Dorothy needs to find the wizard who will help her get back home. However, a wicked witch is out to get her in order to avenge the sister Dorothy accidentally killed when her house landed in Oz.
Growth (Important events in the story relevant to the plot) – Dorothy meets a scarecrow with no brain who joins her in seeking the wizard; They then meet a tinman with no heart who joins them; They then meet a lion with no courage who also joins them; The Wicked Witch kidnaps Dorothy. Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion come to save her.
Solution (How the problem is solved and how the story will end.) – Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch and finds the wizard. The Wizard gives Dorothy’s friends a brain, a heart and courage. Dorothy is able to return home, thanks to the ruby slippers that she’s actually had along.,
5. The critical moment of change is…well, critical.
In his popular TedTalk, Andrew Stanton talks about the importance of transformation in a story: “As parents, you’re always learning who your children are, they’re learning who they are and you’re still learning who you are and that’s why change is fundamental in story, if things go static stories die because life is never static”.
I remember teaching my daughter how to ride a bike; it seemed like mission impossible after weeks of trial and LOTS of error, until one day, it just clicked. She went from hating, to loving her bike. The moment it just clicked was her critical moment of change.
Here’s another example of a critical moment of change, produced as part of TechSoup’s digital storytelling contest:
Whether in our personal lives, professional lives or organizational lives, things are always changing.
What is the turning point in your story?
6. Create compelling subjects or characters.
Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, you will have subjects or characters in your story. Fiction writers, including novelists, playwrights and screenwriters usually develop character sketches as part of their writing process. This includes a description of physical traits, personality, and motivation. These descriptions drive the action and dialogue of the character. But not all characters are created equal; some are protagonists, antagonists, round or flat, static or changing characters. Although non-fiction writers write about ‘real’ people, these people become ‘characters’ in their stories since not everything about the person is revealed, only enough to serve the story. Say too much and you lose focus, don’t say enough and your character isn’t compelling.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a character sketch about Sally (real or fictional subject).
In your first draft, you write this:
- Sally is a 12-year-old girl with long hair.
Later, you revise it and write this:
- Sally loves her long brown hair but finds it a nuisance when she’s playing sports. She pays attention to details when she’s on the field and when she does anything, including self-grooming.
Which character sketch do you find more interesting? Probably the second one since it contains more details about Sally.
7. Make me care: Show, don’t tell.
This is a popular writing adage for a reason. People are more likely to remember stories if you paint pictures with words; we learn about characters through those pictures. And those pictures trigger the story-struck response (see #1 above). Remember Ken Burns who says the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (1+1 = 3) in great storytelling. Stanton uses the formula 2+2 = 4 to explain how people like to work for their stories. They don’t want to be spoon fed but rather like to make their own connections between actions, events, gestures. The writer’s job is to provide “clues” for the audience to interpret. Using the “show, don’t tell” technique, a writer uses action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings to allow the audience to experience the story. Of course, you don’t have to “show” everything, it’s about striking a balance between “showing” and “telling” in order to move your story along and provide vivid images that will remain embedded into people’s minds.
Let’s go back to our character, Sally. Which sentence do you prefer?
- Sally tied her hair. “Now I’m ready to roll,” she said.
- Sally rustled through her box of hair accessories to find the perfect elastic. She carefully pulled her hair away from her face and gathered it into a ponytail. “Now I’m ready to roll,” she said.
Maybe you prefer the second sentence since it allows us to imagine Sally much more vividly.
8. Read, watch, listen to stories.
Back to storytelling being an art and a skill. Observing techniques and styles others use will help fine tune your own personal style, whether you’re writing a novel, a movie, a speech, or an organizational impact story.
Susan Conley says, “We believe in the power of story to change lives.” It’s time to begin the transformation.
More resources on storytelling:
- Digital Storytelling Toolkit
- Centre for Story-Based Strategy
- The Hidden Importance of Teaching with Stories
- How to Structure a Story: the Eight-Point Arc
- The 2003 Massey Lectures: “The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative”
- Writing for an Audience
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