Disclaimer: Read the book! No summary will show how great it is.
Have you ever heard:
Do as I say, not as I do.
This book is the opposite of that. It's not teaching storytelling without stories. It models the behavior for you, all the time.
Review: It's great.
Three groups of things I've learned: #
- How to notice stories in your life?
- What makes a story?
- How to tell a story?
1. How to notice stories in your life? #
Homework for Life #
Like every day I'm commuting to work in a tram, but on that day instead of reading a book, I listen to the Art of Manliness Podcast #462: How to Tell Better Stories. I'm skeptical about this particular episode. I'm a programmer. It's not going to be useful for me, but I decided to give it a try. I was skeptical until they started talking about how time flies. How hard is it to remember what were you doing last week or even yesterday. I've realized that's exactly what was happening to me. All days look the same, and even if something significant happened it doesn't stick in my memory. I forget about things all the time.
I conducted a storytelling workshop for principals and administrators in my school district a few summers ago. I assigned them Homework for Life. Five months later, at another training session, one of the principals approached me and said, "You know why your Homework for Life works?"
"No," I said, desperately trying to remember his name.
"I've missed three days since that training. Three days when I forgot to write down my story for that day, and it kills me. I lost three days, and I'm so angry about it. I'll never get those days back. That's how I know it works."
So the first exercise is called "Homework for Life". It's simple. Create a log of stories from each day. Each day write a sentence or two about a story from that day. That's it.
Crash & Burn #
Essentially Crash & Burn is stream-of-consciousness writing. I like to think of it as dreaming on the end of your pen, because when it’s working well, it will mimic the free-associative thought patterns that so many of us experience while dreaming.
Stream of consciousness is the act of speaking or writing down whatever thought that enters your mind, regardless of how strange, incongruous, or even embarrassing it may be.
It reminds me of a book Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James W. Pennebaker, John Evans. Expressive writing was successfully used in therapy when you write about a traumatic story that happened to you.
Once I’ve finished with a session, I look back and pull out threads that are worth saving. Story ideas. Anecdotes for future stories. Memories that I want to record. New ideas. Interesting thoughts.
First Last Best Worst #
The main intent of this exercise is to remember more stories from your life:
It’s called First Last Best Worst. All you need to play is pen and paper. As you can see from the worksheet that follows, the top row of the page (the x-axis) is labeled with the words “First,” “Last,” “Best,” and “Worst,” along with a column labeled “Prompts.” Along the left side of the page (the y-axis), the prompts are listed. The prompts are the possible triggers for memories.
- What was your first kiss?
- What was your last kiss?
- What was your best kiss?
- What was your worst kiss?
For each of these prompts, you fill in the word or words that indicate the answers to those questions. That’s it.
But, what's interesting for me is how it can help me learn more about others and myself.
First Last Best Worst is also an excellent game for long car rides, first dates, or other moments of potential awkwardness and silence, or simply as a means of getting to know a person better. Regardless of where or how you play, I promise you that it will generate story ideas for you, and more importantly, you will find yourself filling in and filling out your life, making connections never seen before and expanding your memory beyond what you might have thought possible.
What if you don't know what the story means? #
Tell it aloud without any care for the storytelling rules. When you finish, you will understand why it's important for you.
It’s a memory that lingers in our consciousness, a moment that remains locked in our heart; maybe it’s a time in our life that we frequently revisit in dreams. This was one of those moments. “Eddie in a Bathtub” was an important moment in my life, but I had no idea why.
In these cases, my advice to storytellers is always the same:
Tell your story. Speak it aloud. Don’t worry about stakes or lies or anything else. Don’t fret over where to start or finish. Just tell the story as honestly and completely as possible. Spill out all the details. Tell the overly detailed version of your story. Through this process, you will often discover (or rediscover) its meaning. You’ll come to understand the importance of your five-second moment.
2. What is the story? #
All great stories—regardless of length or depth or tone—tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life.
Let me say it again: Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible.
5-second moment #
Best stories are shaped around a short moment of realization. Even if the change took longer it will be a better story if you make it about one short moment.
5-second moment of change #
Stories need to be about change. Something must have changed about you at the end of the story. Stories without change are boring.
5-second moment of change that happened to you #
The story needs to be about you. People want to hear about the person standing in front of them. Telling a story about someone else always has to be made into a story about you and a 5-second moment that changed you.
3. How to tell a story? #
There is a lot of useful advice on things to do and avoid throughout the book. Here is what is most interesting.
Find the beginning #
- Look for a moment opposite of your 5-second moment
- It should be as close to the end as possible
- If you start with forward movement then there will be a feeling that a story goes somewhere.
- Don't settle on the first beginning that comes to mind. It's likely not the best one.
Boring stories lack stakes, or their stakes are not high enough. Stories that fail to hold your attention lack stakes. Stories that allow your mind to wander lack stakes.
There are more strategies in the book besides the three that I like, but remember that the first one is the most important:
Many of my stories only use an Elephant.
Every story must have an Elephant. The Elephant is the thing that everyone in the room can see. It is large and obvious. It is a clear statement of the need, the want, the problem, the peril, or the mystery. It signifies where the story is headed, and it makes it clear to your audience that this is in fact a story and not a simple musing on a subject. Elephants are critical to the success of a story.
It's something that makes people interested in your story.
Elephant makes people curious about what's going to happen next.
- What do you want?
- What's wrong?
- What do you need?
You should introduce the Elephant as early as possible before people get bored.
The audience doesn’t know why they are listening to the story or what is to come, so it’s easy to stop listening. If you don’t present a reason to listen very early on, you risk losing their attention altogether.
The Elephant tells the audience what to expect. It gives them a reason to listen, a reason to wonder. It infuses the story with instantaneous stakes.
Backpack is a strategy that increases the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event. It’s when a storyteller loads up the audience with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment before moving the story forward. It’s an attempt to do two things:
- Make the audience wonder what will happen next.
- Make your audience experience the same emotion, or something like the same emotion, that the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be described.
Tell what you feel, and think. Introduce your plan. If your audience shares your feelings and expectations then they are more invested in the story.
This is why heist movies like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise explain almost every part of the robbers’ plan before they ever make a move. If you understand their plan to rob the casino, you can experience the same level of frustration, worry, fear, and suspense that the characters feel when their plans go awry. The filmmakers put the audience on Danny Ocean’s team. They know the plan, so they feel as if they are a part of the heist themselves.
Crystall Ball #
A Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by a storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction will prove to be true.
We use Crystal Balls in everyday life because we, as human beings, are all prediction machines. We are constantly trying to anticipate the future, so when telling stories, recounting those in-the-moment predictions is critical.
You might tell your significant other, “The boss called me into her office this morning, and as I walked down the hall, I just knew I had done something wrong and was getting fired. This was it. The end of the road for me. It was the longest walk of my life. When I stepped into her office, she told me that I was being promoted.”
Or “I was sure that my boyfriend forgot my birthday again, but when I got home, he had a surprise party waiting for me.”
Tell how bad it can get. It has to be intriguing and believable, but wrong. It's something to mislead your audience. To make the story unexpected, and fun when something else happens.
Describe what you see and where you are (Scenes in a Movie) #
Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story. That’s it. If the audience knows where you are at all times within your story, the movie is running in their minds. The film is cycling from reel to reel. If your audience can picture the location of the action at all times, you have created a movie in the mind of your listeners. Hopefully, it’s a good one.
The Principle of But and Therefore #
It's best to watch it if you can. The “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone appear in a clip from the mtvU show “Stand In.”
I've copied the transcript (but made small changes) from The Key to story structure in two words: Therefore & But
"Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want to have one scene and go ‘well, what was the point of that scene?’ So we found out this rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline. And if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you’re f****d.
Basically. You got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word 'Therefore' or 'but,' right? So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘okay, this happens’ and then ‘this happens.’ No no no.
It should be ‘this happens’ and THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ BUT ‘this happens’ THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ … And sometimes we will literally write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but ‘then this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels okay."
- "and then" -> BORING
- "but", "therefore" -> STORY
It's a must-have to get any emotional reaction when telling a story. Especially to:
- make them cry
- make them laugh
Milk Cans and Baseballs #
Milk Cans and a Baseball refers to the carnival game where metallic milk cans are stacked in a triangular formation and the player attempts to knock them down with a ball. In comedy, this is called setup and punch line. The milk cans represent the setup, and the ball is the punch line. The more milk cans in your tower, the greater potential laugh. The better you deliver the ball, the more of that potential will be realized. The trick is to work to the laugh by using language that carefully builds your tower while saving the funniest thing for last. Sadly, the instinct of most people is to say the funniest thing first. They can’t wait to get to the funny part, and in doing so, they ruin it.
Babies and Blenders #
Babies and Blenders is the idea that when two things that rarely or never go together are pushed together, humor often results.
One notable version of it is using the
Omne Trium Perfectum rule (it means "Everything that comes in threes is perfect").
However, jokes following the AAB structure are consistently rated as being funnier than their AB or AAAB counterparts.
Wikipedia: Punch line — Three-part structure
Example from the book that I've enjoyed:
Zimmers, pineapple-flavored ham, and despair.
"Neighborhood Watch" — Steve Zimmer
Bonus: words with K sound are funnier. #
Some words are just funny. It’s well known that words with the K sound are funny. Words like cattywampus, cankles, kuku, caca, and pickle are funny just because of that hard K sound (though I think pickle is funny even without the K sound).
Oddly specific words are also funny. It’s funnier for me to say, “I’m pouring water over Raisin Bran because I am too stupid and lazy to buy milk” than it is to say, “I’m pouring water over a bowl of cereal.” Why? Specificity is funny.
Present tense #
Storytelling is time travel. The best way to accomplish that is by using the present tense when describing what happened.
This is the magic of the present tense. It creates a sense of immediacy. Even though you are reading these words in bed or by the light of a roaring fire or perhaps naked in your bathtub, a part of you, maybe, is on this train with me, staring at a little boy who desperately needs to pee. The present tense acts like a temporal magnet, sucking you into whatever time I want you to occupy.
You want to avoid things that can pull them out from the time-traveling trip they are having. Imagine they are watching a movie in the cinema. You don't want them to remember that they are sitting on an old dirty chair. You want them focused on what's going on in the story.
- Don't ask rhetorical questions
- Don't address the audience or acknowledge their existence whatsoever
- Don't say the word "story"
- Avoid ideas outside of the period you're talking about.
- No props
- Wear boring clothes
Bonus: don't practice in front of the mirror. #
You're not going to see yourself during your performance so it's the worst thing to look at yourself when you're practicing. Practice in front of people.
It's one of the best books I've read. Highly recommended.
Want to learn more?
Sign up to get a digest of my articles and interesting links via email every month.