The 5 Secrets of Great Storytelling

In a scene from the movie Training Day, seasoned LAPD detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) invites wide-eyed recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) to breakfast. When Hoyt sits, Harris issues him a stark challenge in the form of four words: "Tell me a story."

Harris’ test is the same one an anonymous reader is asking of you every time you take pen to paper. Placing yourself in Jake Hoyt’s shoes can help you focus on what goes into a great manuscript. After all, every anecdote shared at a dinner party, every story told over a beer, every yarn spun around a campfire is like a condensed novel. If it starts quickly, builds momentum, maintains focus and delivers a satisfying conclusion, the audience will come away happy and eager for the next tale. If the story doesn’t accomplish these things, the audience is lost—possibly for good.

Powerful storytellers consistently deliver because they uphold the following five crucial principles.

1. Know Where YOU’RE Headed

A simple but fundamental distinction between good and bad storytellers is that good storytellers know why they’re telling the story.

When a skillful storyteller shares an anecdote, a comment or even a joke, he subtly identifies the point of the story first. Less-skilled narrators say things like, "Where was I?" "Back to my point" or even, "I forgot why I started telling this."

With a manuscript, knowing where you’re headed is especially important. If, after 250 pages, you abruptly end your manuscript with the equivalent of, "Sorry, I forgot where I was going with this," readers won’t be clamoring for your next title.

As a writer, you do have a certain advantage. The person telling his story at a party doesn’t have a chance to backtrack. But if you write 100 pages and decide the book just doesn’t have legs, no one other than you and your basset hound will ever know.

2. RESIST Hype

We all have a friend who starts anecdotes with, "You’ll never believe this story," "The weirdest thing ever happened to me yesterday" or "I saw a guy who was like a thousand years old." When this friend begins one of her hyperbolic stories, are you filled with anticipation or annoyance? Exactly.

Like a skilled raconteur, a successful writer uses restraint. For example, in a romance novel, when the heroine sees her lover disappearing into the distance, you could write, "As he rode away, she felt herself die inside." Consider, however, this subtler treatment: "As he rode away, her chin fell slightly." The second version is more satisfying and convincing.

3. Stick to What MATTERS

Resorting to puffed-up lead-ins is one thing; wearying an audience with lots of unnecessary detail is another. The person who promises the weirdest story ever might also be the one whose narration goes something like: "So it was Tuesday, around 3:30 … no, maybe it was Wednesday. No, Tuesday. Anyway, I run into Tom. On Elm and Jefferson. You know Tom? Dark hair, kinda curly … he actually looks like Tom Hanks, which is so funny. Did I ever tell you about when that guy driving the car called him Forrest Gump? It was so hilarious, the guy’s car was like a million years old. Anyway, that’s not the point."

No kidding. By the time the million-year-old car rolls around, we’ve ceased to care about the point and just want to be released. Effective storytellers have the opposite effect because they don’t get sidetracked. If a certain detail is irrelevant, leave it out.

Sticking to the story doesn’t mean you have to write with strict linearity. Foreshadowing, suspending action in one scene while describing another, writing from different perspectives, even flashbacks, can all serve a story well. Your story’s structure doesn’t have to be straightforward, nor does its scope have to be narrow. But it does have to be tight and nimble, and create the sense that, even if the reader doesn’t know where you’re going, you do.

Two books illustrate this principle well. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler moves like a train on a straight track. Its protagonist has a specific goal—to rise above his lot—and spends the entire book striving for it. In contrast, Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh meanders like an autumn stroll, at times creating a sense that the protagonist himself doesn’t know where he’s headed.

Both books are gripping, because both push us relentlessly toward their destination, even though they do it in completely different ways. The point? Whether you lead your reader straight ahead, left to right or round and round doesn’t matter: All that matters is that every word counts.

4. PAINT the Picture

Specific descriptions keep an audience interested. The storyteller who resorts to mundane adjectives ("The movie was unbelievable") or clichés ("It took my breath away") loses his listeners almost as soon as he begins. The storyteller who keeps us riveted tells us that the sunset cast a soft, pink light on the mountains or glittered on the lake like so many golden coins.

Try this exercise: Take a walk outside, and after a couple of minutes, stop and describe the first thing you see. Let’s assume it’s a squirrel. You might say, "Squirrel. Rodent. Furry rodent. Big rat." Now try to describe it another way, letting your mind loosen. "Nervous nibbler. Eyes darting around like it wants to blaze through its snack without anyone knowing. My cousin Shelly."

Now describe it a third way, by using metaphors. Nervous private standing at attention. Taut gray question mark. The gray of storm clouds. Leader of the acorn-stealing underground.

Repeat the exercise. Do it with at least five different objects, several times a week. Yes, many of the descriptions will sound ridiculous, but they may help to spark images that will leave your readers wanting more.

5. Tinker Until It’s PERFECT

There’s that certain anecdote your father likes to tell over and over even though it last got a response from you when you were five. Don’t you wish he’d change it a bit? Maybe take out the part about Aunt Marilyn, since she wasn’t even there at the time?

Poor storytellers fall into a kind of muscle memory when they tell a certain anecdote, thinking of it as immutable. If the story gets an empty reaction, they assume the audience just didn’t get it. Of course, it’s the story that needs changing, not the audience.

Recognize this when you get feedback on your manuscripts. When the fourth person agrees that the chapter about the protagonist’s ex-husband doesn’t really add anything, resist believing that he just doesn’t get it. Consider the merit of his view. Reading the manuscript again, you just might find that your story acquires new energy and pace without the ex interfering.

Dive deeper into your manuscript. Break it down into components and analyze where it goes off track. Maybe the lead-in is too long, the buildup is unevenly paced or the payoff isn’t satisfying. Dissect the story and examine how you can make each section as powerful as it can be.

If you were given all the parts for a bicycle but put them together the wrong way, you’d be left with something of little appeal. This quasi-bike would remain worthless unless you rebuilt it. The same goes for your manuscript. All the parts may be there but they need rebuilding.

And remember that one of the very best ways to learn to be a more effective storyteller is available around the clock, and it’s free. All you have to do is listen.
 


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