Writing

How To Tell Stories, Part IV

How To Tell Stories, Part IV

When I was younger & married to my ex, we lived in Berkeley & we’d often go to the bookstore for a treat, since we both loved to read for hours. Along the way, we’d always go by these two homeless guys who hung out right by a great Italian restaurant. They were Vietnam vets & we had great conversations & they’d usually talk us out of a dollar or two. One time, we loaded up both of our small children in the stroller & went off to the bookstore & as we got closer one of them started asking us for spare change. His partner recognized us & punched him in the ribs. Oh man, he said, I’m sorry. You have a family. We should be giving you money. So, he jumps up & starts stuffing crumpled bills in my jacket pocket & I’m digging them out & giving them back & saying, no really, it’s fine. Finally, I give him back all the bills & we start walking off. But as we leave, he calls out, those are beautiful kids you got. Make sure you teach ‘em what’s right. I looked back over my shoulder & said how am I going to know that? & he blinks & starts laughing. Good point, he says, Well, make sure you don’t teach them any obvious wrongs then.

That’s the thing with stories. You already know how to tell them. Consider this: you’re actually pretty good at them, in your own way, as long as you don’t get trapped by some of the obvious wrongs. Those usually start to creep in when you start thinking of you telling stories as something outside yourself. When you start thinking of yourself as THAT PERSON WHO LOOKS LIKE YOU, TELLING STORIES. That’s when you get weird & stilted & you forget your place & you digress wildly. That’s when you generally start to suck as a storyteller.

So, think of today’s storytelling tip as a way of getting past the obvious wrongs. I call it… 

Make It Personal.

That’s right. Even if you’re telling Little Red Riding Hood for the thousandth time, turn it into a story about you. Or someone you know. Flesh out the details with real things that happened to you & the people you know. It's easy to do with phrases like this: This happened to me. Or, my grandmother first told me about this. Or, I remember the summer we… You get the idea. I have a friend who says telling a story should always cost you something. If it doesn’t cost you, if it doesn’t matter to you, why should we care? By making it personal to you, the storyteller, you’ll find it matters more. (In a funny way, we have to believe our own story before we can tell it to anyone else..) Pretty simple. Make it personal.

Your audience doesn’t have to know that the part about the squashed lizard in your garage happened to a friend of yours. Or that the part about the little boy petting the white Bengal tiger was something you overheard when you were in the waiting room at the dentist. Or that time you almost got hit by lightning was from a news item on page 15 of the paper yesterday. 

You’re telling the story, so make it personal. It all happened to you, or someone you know. So, that you can absolutely, positively verify that it’s true. Or, at least, mostly true. :-)

with love, Brian

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