the secret ingredient to telling a good story

I have this friend who considers himself a professional in his field. When he encounters other professionals acting unprofessionally, he reacts with some reserved disgust, as well he should. I’m like that too. Everyone I care to know is like that, because it’s a sign of pride; frustration at a peer acting carelessly, with no respect for the art you both work in, is a sign you Give A Shit.

One of the things I Give A Shit about the most is telling stories effectively, and it’s frustrating to see so many people fail to do so. I’ve talked about it before, but for me, a lot of this comes down to the simple fact that everyone thinks they can tell a story.

The truth is that everyone can tell a story, much like anyone can become a musician or a doctor or whatever else they can imagine. There’s no elitism here; sure, certain elements of storytelling might come more naturally to someone for various reasons, but there’s no magic bloodline, no secret genetics that will make you a good storyteller. All you’ve got to do is work at it. Reserve the disgust for the lazy and unwilling, for the people who’ve got no respect for the art form. Kindness is the only thing you should extend to the beginners.

“I went to the store today” is a not story. “I went to the store today and on the way back, I got a flat tire,” is getting there, but it still isn’t quite a story. “I went to the store today and on the way back, I got a flat tire, and a guy pulled over like he was going to help me, then he shouted something I couldn’t make out and raced off, like something had spooked him,” is the beginnings of a story, and it might even be interesting. A story pops off when something happens that sparks the imagination.

As you learn to write, you’ve probably gone through this process yourself. As a five year old, you left it at “I went to the store today.” As you progress in life, you’re probably writing better, more sophisticated stuff. It’s not a linear progression — tonight I was reminded of some excellent writing I’d done, and I also stumbled across some work that made me wince — but you are, gradually, getting better. At the gym, you don’t have to lift one more pound every day, but hopefully, on average, weeks and months after you started, you’re lifting 10 pounds more here, 50 pounds more there.

When we write stories, we learn little tips and tricks and things that make our stories pop, and when I set out to write this piece, that was what I intended to write about, but in setting up how we get there, I inadvertently wrote an entire thing on “how to tell a story,” so this is that now.

As we develop, we start to avoid pitfalls without even thinking about them. A common mistake that bad writers make is that they try to keep things close to the chest, especially when it comes to horror. Misunderstanding that terror is the buildup to horror, and that you can’t have setup with no punchline or punchline with no setup, many of them elect to write so cryptically that the story itself becomes difficult to follow. When a story becomes so cryptic that nothing means anything, the story stops being interesting.

Writer: GB ‘Doc’ Burford



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