I come across a lot of people who want to be writers — and who might actually really be good writers, from a technical perspective. That doesn’t mean they’re storytellers, or even that they know how to tell a story.
So, here’s a guide that breaks down the ideas to their most basic levels. No matter how you tell stories — as a performer, journalist, novelist, filmmaker, public speaker, podcaster, really fun guy at the bar, WHATEVER — following what I lay out here will turn you into not just into a storyteller, but a good one at that.
Get an Idea
Getting a story idea might feel like the hardest part, but ideas are everywhere. It just takes some time and practice to learn to recognize them. For those of you working in fiction, I’ve got like four billion prompts that will help you out. Maybe more like a hundred or so. I don’t know, I’m bad at math.
Non-fiction ideas are a lot easier to find. No, really. They need almost no imagination at the beginning because every one of us has a couple of go-to stories that we pull out at family get togethers or to friends at bars. They are part of us, part of who we are, so you just might never have thought of these as Stories before, just as stories. But they are! Just ask yourself, what stories do I tell over and over again? Or, on the stealing front, ask yourself what stories friends and family tell over and over again. Boom. You’ve got an idea.
For those of you in non-fiction—especially public speakers or performers, you’ve got the harder job. Not in terms of coming up with an idea, but massaging that idea into a workable story that’s still true. We’ll get to that in a second.
First— what’s a story? Well, it has a beginning, middle and end. Ha! You laugh. So simple, right? Believe me, I’ve come across more than one story that misses one of those critical pieces. Let’s take them all in turn.
There are really two parts to the beginning of a story: the status quo and the inciting incident. You might’ve heard these called different things, but they all mean the same. First we see the character’s world as it is, and then something changes it. You miss these parts, you don’t have a story. You have an essay, an anecdote maybe or worse, just a bunch of events with no drive behind them, no life. Not something scientifically proven to activate the emotion centers of our brains.
Something has changed the character’s world. They’ve been handed a problem they’re inclined to fix or a goal they’re inclined to achieve. The middle part of the story is where we watch them go after the solution to their problem or reach that goal. The trick is they don’t succeed at first. We watch them try, try, try and always fail until finally — they don’t. Most stories rise in complication through their middles. The obstacles get tougher, more dangerous, more outrageous, whatever. It’s called rising tension or rising action. It’s pushing us toward a resolution.
Finally, our character succeeds — they solve their problem or they meet their goal — or they don’t. It is okay for a character to ultimately fail and, for those of you in non-fiction, that might be the ending you have to go with. But the point is there’s always resolution. The character, even if they fail, reach another point of stasis or status quo.
Of course, there are other story structures and some more complex forms that, mostly, are variations of this classic three act structure (even, say, network TV dramas written in a teaser + four acts format can still be distilled down into three acts). And why is this the classic, go to formula? Because it works. We connect so well and so readily to it. On evolutionary terms, it’s driven by cause and effect. We respond to that because our brains are hard-wired to respond to it. It’s how we think. Pixar sums this up all really nicely: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
You certainly can play with this form and the other forms — and I think you should — but seriously, you can’t go wrong if you build your story from a solid and clear beginning, middle and end.
Storytelling is a natural human instinct. It activates parts of our brains and creates chemical highs that lead to awe, deep emotion and even empathy for others. All of that happens most effectively with low complexity. Just like I’m constantly telling writers to simplify, to choose the most economical telling and the clearest language, the same goes for your overall story.
Do you need those subplots? Maybe they work in a novel or a movie, but a public speaker will really confuse their audience with too much complexity (as will short filmmakers or short story writers). Is the sidebar about Uncle Joe Losing His Luggage really necessary in your How Grandma Saved Christmas With a Ham story? Probably not.
How do you know when you’ve lost that simplicity in structure? When the story isn’t being driven by your character’s need to fix the problem (or achieve the goal) that started the story in the first place. What about in the mechanics of your language? Probably the first time you feel the need to reach for a thesaurus.
Now, again, there’s a time and place for more complexity. A lot of television shows run simultaneous stories together — what we call A & B plots (or in some shows, even C & D plots). Novels and movies often feature interweaved or sometimes completely separate plots. Still, when you really break them down, you’ll find that those A & B plots, standing alone, are just really simple stories cut together.
Here’s a great example of how powerful simplicity in storytelling can be.
Can It Really Be This Easy?
So much yes! Stories are such a huge part of our lives — we actually think in narrative all day long — that we tend to overlook it and overcomplicate the process. Then, we shroud storytelling, especially really good storytelling, in this cloud of how-do-they-do-that mystery as if it’s not a talent humans are naturally imbued with. Seriously— the ideas in this how to tell a story guide are foundational to the human experience, so don’t make it hard. Follow what I’ve laid out here, pay special attention the section on simplification, and get to work telling stories. You’re gonna amaze yourself.