The simple trick to telling a great story

I used to watch my mom and dad argue. They argued for a few reasons, but something that always brought up a fight was stories. We would be out and about or at someone’s house for dinner and my mom would remember a story. She would start the story and everyone would listen. She did it. She did the hardest part of storytelling; she hooked her crowd.

But, inevitably, she would get lost in the details and call in my dad for support. The problem with this was that my mom had added a bunch of stuff to the story and my dad had no idea where she was going.

My mom would say things like, “Then, the governor — the last governor, not this current governor — I can’t remember his name. Isn’t it weird that we’ve only had male governors? Anyway, the governor said to Jim that he stayed in the same cabin that Jim and his family stayed in. So that’s the cabin where the squirrel got loose that one time. Honey, how did the squirrel get loose?”

Then my dad would get mad and tell her to finish the story. He would say things like, “You started the story. You finish it.” Then my mom would apologize and my dad would start the story over his way. They were a dynamic duo.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too. I’ve launched into a story on a whim and gotten totally lost before. I think it’s fun. I like the risk of it all but I’m sure the people I was talking to did not. That’s because attention is the most valuable resource on the planet. Someone’s focus and attention is directly tied to their time. It’s an honor to borrow a few moments of someone’s time because it will, someday, no longer be available. We have to steward our listener’s and reader’s attention well. My parents did not steward time well when they discussed the squirrel and the cabin.

Because here’s the thing about my parents: Both of them were not telling a story. My mother was commenting on facts that she was relaying and my father was telling an anecdote.

This is the key to a great story. If you remember one thing from this article, remember that stories and anecdotes are different. They are similar. Both use plot and structure and timing and even theme to make a point. But…

Only stories demonstrate change.

If you don’t demonstrate change, you’re telling an anecdote. Anecdotes are great. They do entertain, but anecdotes do not help anyone.

Stories do.

Our brains are wired for story. That’s how we learn. For thousands of years human beings told stories so we could remember who we are and where we came from.

A good story that will actually engage your listeners or readers demonstrates a change that the character experiences. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. I’ll give you an easy formula to help with your stories.

Your story needs:

  • A character who is one way

  • Who also wants or needs something

  • And goes on a journey to get what they want or need

  • And experiences conflict

  • That results in a change

So, next time you tell a story, make sure your character experiences change. Every scene, every detail of your story should push or pull your character toward or away from the change that needs to occur.

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