Articles by Max

Mastering the Magic of Stories, Part II

Developing Them

A kaleidoscope of memories! What a host of of images and recollections about our past from the Story Work Sheet! (previous issue) They are filled with conflicts, decisions and discoveries.

How now can we shape these events and experiences more fully into compelling stories that enliven our message and most profoundly serve our audiences?

Every person who writes about or coaches storytelling offers a slightly different set of guidelines on how to make a story effective. Look at as many of these as you can and appreciate what they have in common. They have much more in common than they do in difference.

Referring to the traditional Hero’s Journey, structure usually contains a.) a protagonist or hero who b.) sets out to accomplish something for a reason, then c.) meets an obstacle, threat or conflict d.) from which there may be a way out discovered by that hero or from another source of real or mysterious origin with e.) an ending of a safe return or a tragic ending where, either way, we gain some new wisdom.

For our purposes here we will consider what a story needs in order to be interesting, relevant, remembered and useful.

The most powerful stories have:
*Characters we find interesting and whom we want to see survive.

Many stories fail because we aren’t involved with the characters as real people. We must include significant details about the story’s main characters. What do they want? What do they care about? Can we identify with those values and desires?

How do they move and act? Let us see them doing something that reveals an attitude. Use strong or vivid verbs. Provide illustrations that include descriptions of activity. Instead of “My uncle was so polite,” you might say, “My uncle would always offer a smile, gently touch the brim of his hat and say ‘good morning’ as he walked briskly downtown. So polite. Always.”

Even things and places can have a certain ‘character’ about them. Neighbors, buildings, bridges, dogs, values, events-these should have names! We can relate only to the tangible. Mrs. Steuhrk, Legion Field, the Aurora Bridge, Sheehan of Maghera Glass, faith in Mr. Hanna’s integrity, the Schweitzerfest. The actual hits home; impersonal generalities result in glassy stares.

Some suggestion of a voice, a word choice, how they stand, their shoulders, a gesture – these all build audience interest and involvement.

Populate some of your stories with people we want to win for a good reason, and if they have a sense of humor it’s an opportunity for a story to relax tension.

Major, major point: Whether talking of characters or places, it’s the sensory language that elicits the feelings. Emotions attached to main points are more likely to survive the consolidation into long-term memory. Read John Medina’s book “Brain Rules” (Pear Press, 2008).

*Mysteries we want solved.
We all enjoy a bit of intrigue or a secret something unknown, a question whose answer sheds some light on a matter that matters. It might be a bit of an introduction to an aspect of your speech. For example: “I will be talking about something tonight that all of you have been taught is one of your greatest friends, a valuable asset. But I’m telling you now that it is often really a dangerous poison…masking as an ally. In truth it can lure us into false confidence. Listen closely…”

Part of the story may be a search for a quality. How do we find it? A solution to a crisis that needs a change in strategy. Build the mystery. Intensify the need.

And it doesn’t hurt one bit to address a dilemma common to your audience and reveal the detailed story of how it was solved. Perhaps by you.

*Conflicts and tensions we want resolved.
This will be a key to a success of many a story. It requires great attention to incrementally building the intensity of the opposing forces. It’s where we can shine the spotlight on a moment that depends on a decision, an ability, an insight.

I tell a story about returning in an emergency from my home in Seattle to where my parents live in Indiana; I arrive in the hospital at the bedside of my father, age ninety, who had just suffered a heart attack.
Standing by his bed at 2:30 in the morning, I touch his shoulder. He wakes. His response is the key not only to the story but to the entire speech. I call this a tension resolved because the circumstances here are so uncertain. Will he still be alive when I get there? Will he recognize me? Will I say something wrong? I love him so much and this is not what I want.

Look to have the tension or the conflict resolution come at the point that it provides the point of the story. My dad’s response showed how someone “flat on his back” and “whose heart had just about given up” could find the resources to step into my story. He showed a concern for me. And if he could do that in those circumstances and show how much he thought of me…I think we all could reach into our own resources when times are bad to show uncommon interest and concern in a client or customer…to be interested in their story.

*Decisions whose results intrigue us.
Be on the lookout for circumstances which include a decision that may not be the most predictable but produces very favorable results.
Make room for the stories about decisions you or another has made where you have not yet figured out what the point of the story might be. Don’t cast it aside. Stay intrigued. You might figure it out later and it may become a favorite story. It’s happened with me.

Many decisions just scream for attention, too, because they are so imaginative creative that they give us courage to move toward new possibilities in our own work.

Next issue: Some techniques for deepening the significance of the story.

  • Objects of Remembrance: Seeds of Transformation (more, much more than just a ‘prop’)
  • Keys to the Transformational Metaphor.