Humans are forever telling stories. For instance, effective advertising is essentially a story that convinces us that a) we have an unmet need, and b) the product in question meets that need. We also tell stories as ways to develop and sustain relationships. Stories help us to find common ground with strangers. If I tell you the story of how my nana’s dog used to try to herd jumbo jets and your nana’s dog used to do the same (highly unlikely, but still!) we’ll smile at one another and feel a kinship. Stories are bridges between who we are and who the person next to us might be. They connect us. Over the dinner table we tell our families the stories from our day so that they know how we’re travelling, what we’re struggling with, and to celebrate our small successes. And we listen to their stories to keep that bond between us tight. People change. Stories help us to change with each other and to understand some of the reasons for the changes.
Stories reveal us to each other. They’re also how we make sense of the world. People are rightly worried about fake news on the internet, but one of the important points to remember is that this fake news is composed of stories. Their facts are wrong. They may even be specifically designed to manipulate us. But they’re also fascinating for showing us issues that we as a society are grappling with. We want to understand our problems and our neighbours’ problems, and find a way to move forward, making a better life for everyone.
I’m particularly focused on storytelling because as a novelist it’s what I do. I write stories about who people are, what we strive for, and how we find joy. I tend to add magic to my books (since I write paranormal romance), but so do fairytales, and their magical trappings don’t change the essential truths revealed in those stories.
So, here’s my take on the seven rules of great storytelling:
- You must evoke emotion in your audience. A story works when people feel something on hearing/reading/seeing it. There are various strategies put forward on how to achieve this, from character development, to emotional topics, to high stakes.
- Tension has to build.
- The resolution must be credible. It can involve green flying monsters, but those monsters must tie back to something mentioned earlier in the story. A story makes certain promises to a reader, and those promises must be met.
- Know what promises you’re making with your story. If you’re a stand-up comedian telling a joke, your promise is that your story will amuse. Sometimes, as with stories over the dinner table, your promise is simply that your story won’t take long! Everyone wants their turn. Be attentive to your audience.
- Stories have a hero. This is the person who is changed by the story. In our personal stories, that’s generally us. Sometimes we’re our own catalyst for change, but more often, that catalyst is external.
- The most memorable, powerful stories change the people who hear them. It’s okay to tell a story with the purpose of changing someone’s mind. Doing so doesn’t make you an evil marketing genius. We do this unthinkingly when we try to improve someone’s mood with a story. In daily life, we select our stories for how they support the relationships we’re in, and for how they make us appear. All those selfies shared online are visual storytelling, affirmations that each of us is present.
- But never forget that a good storyteller is an even better listener – and by “listener” I mean someone who experiences other people’s stories. We spend more time as audience than as entertainer, and being an attentive audience alerts us to effective storytelling techniques. Listen for the gaps in the range of stories told, and you’ll also hear what people are searching for, but not finding. Tell those stories.
What have I missed? What does great storytelling demand?