15 Tips For Telling Better Stories

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You need to be able to tell great stories. Storytelling is one of the most valuable skills any of us can develop. In today’s episode we’ll look at a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years as to how you can tell a great story.  “When I was in the second grade I loved writing stories. Every school in the city had to choose a kid to go to a storywriting workshop, and guess what? I won the contest and was selected to go work on my craft.

The experience was good, but it was also the first time I started overthinking my possible direction in life, career choice, big dream, whatever ya wanna call it. I thought, you can’t possibly make a living as a story writer, and so I kind of stopped. Funny enough, I long to tell stories as much as ever, whether through poetry, podcasting, music, film, or blog posts, I just want to tell as many stories as I can in the time I have. Will it be a cautionary tale? Or will I make enough progress, only time will tell”

Human beings are natural storytellers. We all tell stories all the time. We tell friends, family, and colleagues things that we witnessed, or things we did. And naturally we’re pretty darn good at it. We also connect with published stories. Think of any classic tale, Goldilocks and the three bears, maybe a movie like the Lion King, or the way a stand up comedian like Kevin Hart pulls us into a story about the time he was racing an ostrich. The interesting thing is, because storytelling comes so natural to us, it’s one of the things that we also overthink the most. I trust this episode will help remind us how simple storytelling can be. But first, why do we even want to talk about it?

You can’t teach without learning and can’t learn without teaching. And storytelling plays a huge role for both. Fiction, or non fiction, we learn lessons from others through stories. And when we teach we craft stories to get our point across. Storytelling is something that could be infinitely studied and discussed. But one thing I’ve realized about getting better at storytelling is that every now and again it’s nice to look at a list of advice for storytelling as a refresher. No matter how good you might get at the craft, reviewing such reminders can be helpful. 

But first, what is a story? Neil Gaiman says “after all of the years of telling stories, the definition of a story, is “anything that keeps you interested in learning more and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end”.

For every one of these concepts, we could go on huge tangents and a million connections, in the future perhaps we can circle back to go in more detail on some specific  ideas. But for now we’re just trying to remember some strategies to make our stories better?

  1. Most importantly, there is no such thing as writer’s block, and there is no such thing as storytelling block. They don’t exist. Start writing, or start talking, without any expectation and things will come out. Always just put something on the paper, recorder, phone, typewriter, computer, it doesn’t matter your process, but just write something. When really in doubt, take a break by doing something mindful that you enjoy, like going for a walk, playing with a pet, a puzzle, painting, whatever and then come back to your story.
  2. Make it emotional (emotions bring about memory). I was having chinese food with a friend the other day and he was sharing about the time a babysitter let him watch a horror movie at the age of six. He remembered ever detail about that night, and I thought it was remarkable for that age. But, then he mentioned that he’d spend sleepless nights pacing the room remembering back to that movie, which reminded me, of course he remembered every detail, it was such an emotional experience, it’s probably etched into his brain for life. As emotions increase, so often does memory.
  3. Make it unique. No matter the inspiration, we can always tell a story in a different way. When stories are too similar people tend to tune out because we’ve heard it before.
  4. It need not be long. Stories could be written in a single sentence, or two. This helps for social media. We can tell stories within a 30 second social clip. We can also capture listener, or viewer attention within 3 seconds. Now that may seem too simple, but here is a classic example: boy meets girl, boy messes up relationship, boy redeems himself, boy and girl live happily ever after. 
  5. Be authentic. Even with fiction stories, be sure to speak from a place of truth. This does not need to be factually true, they could be part of a fictional narrative. But, they need to be true in the sense of you aren’t trying to fake it, connect it to results, or overcomplicate. Going back to the first point about writer’s block, we only develop such a block if we aren’t writing from creative truth. It’s important to speak from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. You have to intrinsically care and share, or no one else will care. People will not connect with the story.
  6. Create an inspiration system. Austin Kleon calls it  a swipe file, Neil Gaiman, a compost pile. Either way, open yourself up to being inspired by anyone and anything. And have a place to record and capture these influences. When you need inspiration you have a place to go look and make connections with.
  7. Think in terms of central dramatic questions. Who is it about, what do they want, why can’t they get it, what do they do about that, why does, or doesn’t it work, and how does this end? Connect with an experience, a lesson, or an idea and then let the story develop naturally.  
  8. A classic way to simplify a story, or narrative arc, is in three acts. Act 1, introduce characters, scene and goal. Act 2, characters evolve as they face a challenge. Act 3 the challenge is resolved, or the pursuit is concluded. Without going into too much detail about plot, or character development, picture the pyramid, or rollercoaster graph that we use to sketch out the overall story. It starts at the bottom left with an introduction, an incident, rising action, the climax at the top and then some falling action and resolution. You could take a deeper dive into how to develop each of these areas and lengthen your story, but this basic concept is all we need.
  9. Every story can be divided into four categories. How much of your story do you want to be about Expression, Enlightenment, Education and Entertainment?
  10. If it’s a cautionary tale, or a tragedy, be sure to let your audience know what could have been. What is the character missing out on afterall? What did they long for and not get? What would they, could they, should they have achieved? Perhaps their legacy, even though not achieved can be felt, or lived on by other characters, or the audience.
  11. Build around a mythic theme. Depending on who you ask there may be 5 different classic story themes. Or there may be 50. Regardless, we can all think of a few story themes. Essentially any timeless, successful story can be a template for your own story big, or small. Some classic themes that exist are stealing fire from heaven, a wake up call, search for a soulmate, search for promised land, war in heaven, fatal attractions and many, many more.
  12. Create through a character archetype. Yet again, because stories have been around for so long, there are many different ways to classify archetypes. Regardless, having a template for your character can be helpful. It outlines what are they like, what are their strengths and flaws? The most famous of which is “the hero”. Other examples include, the magician, scientist, lover, outlaw, innocent, the caregiver and many, many more. 
  13. Keep it simple. Don’t over define the story you want to tell. The hero’s journey is typically 12 steps and you can look that up in detail. But, every story introduces a character, who has a goal, faces an obstacle and then either achieves it or not. That is your narrative arc. In summary, take your character across the bridge of progress for your audience to witness. Help them appreciate the emotions that come about as the character goes from ordinary, limited awareness, through some sort of a change, facing a challenge and achieving a reward, or not and having a tale to tell.
  14. Use prompts to create stories. Whether for practice, or to publish, a prompt can be helpful to craft a story. Inspect other stories that already exist. Find a story, get familiar with it and look at it through the lens of storytelling tactics. Break it apart and try to determine the different elements of a story that you can identify. Now, try to write a different version, or take inspiration from some of the themes, or questions and create your own story. Another way is to go out to public places, people watch and see what types of stories come from mindmapping about possible characters. You might also think about people, or events in your own life to come up with ideas. If you search for “story prompts” online, or get a book of prompts, there are all kinds of ideas to start, or continue your story. Either way, ideas will come from taking two, or three ideas in your mind and then combine them together to create something new.
  15. Don’t underestimate the power of editing. Create a filter based on “what is your story about”? Once you have an idea of the story and how you want to tell it, be sure to keep the essential items and remove everything that distracts from the main purpose. When it comes to story telling, less is more. Editing does not just remove words, it actually adds clarity and meaning. There is a great quote that goes “I’m sorry, if I had more time, I would have made my story shorter”.

Bonus Tip: There are no secrets. No art can not be entirely formulaic. Find YOUR storytelling style. Find YOUR process, routines and rituals. Yours, not anyone else’s, but yours. Some people create fiction, some non-fiction, some a combination. Some people write, some record, some film, some edit and some a combination. Some people work best in long creative stretches, whereas others work best in short bursts. Some create best alone, in silence. Others create best when they get into a busy coffee shop and have to tune in to their work in the middle of lot’s of stimulation. 

No matter what type of stories you tell, I would love to hear them. If you create a youtube channel, a young adult fiction novel, or a documentary film, I wanna see them, be sure to tag me at @justtries so I can check em out.

All the best and remember Just Keep Learning.

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