[This is part of an ongoing ChurchMag series, A Dutch-Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Better Writer.]
We live in a story-focused culture. Stories have always been popular of course, look at the epic tale of Homer for instance which is still being told thousands of years later. But in our present culture, amidst the bombardment of information people process daily, stories remain remarkably popular and effective.
It’s the reason why many communicators (pastors, writers, bloggers, business leaders) use stories in their communications, made up ones or true tales. But writing a good story, a captivating story, that’s not so easy. All too often stories become hard-to-follow detailed-loaded meandering accounts of ‘stuff’.
So let’s look at how to write a good story with four easy principles.
A story needs a structure. Remember the old fairy tales? They all begin with ‘Once upon a time’ and most of them end with ‘and they lived long and happily ever after’. It’s a brilliant story structure!
The easiest structure is a beginning, a middle, and an end:
Beginning: what was the situation when the story starts
Middle: what happened that changed this situation
End: what was the situation at the end
If you stick to this very simple structure, you have a solid base for a logical story everyone can follow. Oftentimes, the beginning takes one or two paragraphs, as does the end. The middle is where things happen, this is the bulk of your story.
A good story has focus: you only include those details that are relevant to the story. This is where many storytellers struggle, especially when sharing true tales from their own lives. They share too much information, too many details, bogging down the story and making the listener or reader lose track.
When writing your story, constantly ask yourself: does this matter to the story? If it doesn’t, it’s usually best to leave it out.
Granted, there are notable exceptions to this rule and some great storytellers get away with sharing way too many details. That’s because they have a great talent for storytelling however and manage to keep readers and listeners captivated. If you can manage that as well, go ahead, but until then, focus is the name of the game.
When describing relevant details, use your senses: what do you see, hear, feel (touch), smell, taste? It’s these details that make a story come alive!
Example: a pastor shared how he survived a dangerous situation in thick fog. Instead of saying ‘there was a very thick fog’, he used three senses:
- You couldn’t see you own hand if you stretched your arm out
- The fog felt thick and suffocating
- You couldn’t hear anything, the fog muffled all sounds
I could instantly picture the fog. Then when he described the danger, he used a fourth sense: the metallic taste of fear in his mouth.
You don’t have to get too flowery in describing details, but do take some time to use all senses and go beyond your own dominant sense.
4. Action + Reaction
If you want your story to both make sense and to be captivating, focus on action and reaction. It’s a physics law that every action has a reaction, and in life it’s oftentimes the same. But sometimes in stories, we only see the reactions, which makes us confused. Or we only see the actions, and we wonder what happened to the people involved.
When you’ve written your story, check if every action and reaction is logical for the reader or listener. This is especially the case with true tales, since we already know what happened and fill in the blanks ourselves. But readers can’t do that, they need for us to paint a complete picture for them.
BONUS: Be sure to also check out Pixar’s Golden Rules for Storytelling!
Let’s use an example to bring it all together. Let’s say you want to share on your blog how reading a certain book changed your life. Here’s what you could write:
I grew up in a Christian family and we went to church every Sunday. I thought I knew what words like redemption, saved, and grace meant. [BEGINNING]
Then a friend recommended Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. As I started reading it, my pulse sped up and I had actual goose bumps.
Heaven as a place for sinners instead of saints? That concept was completely new to me. I remember crying so hard at certain parts, I had to stop reading. My throat was raw from grief. Grief over what I had always understood to be true, what had governed my life. And what had turned out to be so wrong.
When the full meaning of grace registered with me, there was a joy in my heart like I have never felt before. Someone told me I was beaming like Moses after his encounter with God. I had never felt so alive, so full. I culd not stop singing, rejoicing and praising God. [MIDDLE]
Reading that book has completely changed my understanding of grace, both in theory and in practice. I not only know, but feel loved and accepted by God as a sinner. [END]
It’s a very condensed story obviously, but all the elements are there. There’s a beginning, middle and end. The story is focused on important details (I learned a lot more from that book, but focuses here on the concept of grace which impacted me the most). I invoke senses and the logical chain of action + reaction is present.
Are you a good storyteller?
Which of these principles comes natural to you and which do you struggle with?
[Image via Patrice Dufour]