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A Tale of Two Stories and Three Keys to Storytelling

Stories (especially stories in blog posts) require a few necessary elements in order to stay relevant and engaging. They must make a statement, connect to it a few times while proceeding and really drive that statement home in the end. If they don’t stick with a single statement, stories end up meandering by distracting, boring or even irritating readers who wonder why they’re bothering reading it at all.

Here are two examples that make my point.

Wandering Around the Neighborhood

The first example is about a mediocre story to explore changing neighborhoods (check it out). It starts with making a specific point about how neighborhoods can change. In fact, the article could be an essay rather than a narrative. After a few paragraphs that describe a scene in a coffee shop, the author makes an observation about the neighborhood population. Right after that, he shifts his story to something in the past without any transition or tie to a main point. He proceeds with a few steps in different directions, mainly about other neighborhoods he’s lived in and then returns to the neighborhood he’s making his point for. However, he’s never clearly connected any of this narration to what he’s saying. He even distracts us with recurring comments about how he’s a slow learner. This story feels more about him talking about his experience rather than making a point through relevant stories that tie strongly to his statement about changing neighborhoods.

Journey of the Elusive Underpants

The second example is an amusing and engaging quest to find out why someone would keep a pair of underpants in their conference bag (check it out). It starts with a very concrete scene about the author attending a conference. It seems this story could be only for people who know about the event she describes. However, she does a wonderful thing by describing enough about the conference to give any reader the ability to connect. After a few paragraphs, she sets up a clear quest to answer a question that becomes the framework for everything that follows in her story. She maintains the quest by consistently revisiting the point of her journey, and by the end she gets to a (very satisfying) conclusion that caused the story to begin in the first place.

Keys to stories

After looking at these two stories and analyzing how they differ, I think there are three key things a storyteller must do to keep an audience focused on an engaging story.

Set a Theme

Setting a theme means introducing the topic you’re about to explore, and giving it just a little spin for people to wonder. Both stories I mentioned set up the situation through a narrative scene and both set a tone for what to expect as a result. This is essential. In the book A Story is a Promise, Bill Johnson uses this idea to explore all aspects of a well developed story. With the first author, it’s more of an opinion. With the second author, it’s more of a quest. In both cases, it’s clear what we should expect from the remainder of the writing.

Revisit the Theme

Every so often a story must come back to its point, especially if it might take a less logical turn. This is actually an important part of all writing, not just with stories. You should always clearly return to your theme with what you say after you introduce an argument, opinion, observation or premise. If you need to digress, explain why first. If you need to give backstory, be clear that that’s what you’re doing. The first author leaves you wondering where he’s headed with each new direction he takes. The second author consistently returns to the question that’s on her mind from the very beginning. This is what makes it a story instead of a lot of writing.

Resolve The Theme

Of course, every story must come to an end, but a story requires a resolution not just a finish. If you revisit your main theme, the resolution may nearly write itself. The first author just kind of fizzles out with some vague observations that don’t ever really pull everything together to help us realize, “Gee, I see your point.” The second author successfully resolves her story by giving the reader the answer to the question that started the journey in the first place.

Conclusion

I’ll now confess that I think I could learn more about storytelling myself. I’m grateful to have examples like these that help me grasp a little bit more of what it means to tell a story. I hope you’ve learned a little something from my analysis, too, and maybe you’re even inspired to risk telling a story of your own that I may end up reading and enjoying for myself.

See the book A Story is a Promise on Amazon.com

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