Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
If I can recommend storytelling to you for any reason at all, it would be that storytelling helps you realize that the biggest, scariest, most painful or regretful things in your head get small and surmountable when you share them with two, or three, or twenty, or three thousand people. The other reason I can recommend storytelling, and learning about it with the book you’re holding, is that we’re all disappearing — you, me, everyone we know and love. A little heavy for a foreword maybe, but when you tell stories, you do yourself a kind favor by taking a moment to write your name in the wet cement of life before you head to whatever is next. This is a much more selfless act than conventional wisdom would have you believe. It’s a little like leaving a note in the logbook on the trail that others will be hiking after you, a note that might give the next hiker a clue: “Keep your eyes open for rattlesnakes by the bluff at the two-mile mark” or “There’s fresh water at the fire lookout if you’re running low” or “I live in the woods now, and I don’t care if I never see an iPhone again after staring at one for a decade until my head was tortured, my eyes were ruined, and my heart was broken.”
Telling stories about your life lets people know they’re not alone; and it lets some of the people closest to you — like family and loved ones — see your life apart from the context of family and without the kind of revisionist hindsight we can sometimes fall into concerning the ones we love most. Opening your mouth, getting out of your head, and your house, so you can be fully engaged in your life and the lives of others for the night — that’s what storytelling is all about, if you ask me. Or maybe it’s just as my friend Jesse Thorn joked: “Storytelling. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s kind of like a less-funny stand-up comedy.”
Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen. Even the worst movies in the world reflect some change in a character over time. So must your story. Stories that fail to reflect change over time are known as anecdotes. Romps. Drinking stories. Vacation stories. They recount humorous, harrowing, and even heartfelt moments from our lives that burned brightly but left no lasting mark on our souls. There is nothing wrong with telling these stories, but don’t expect to make someone fall in love with you in a Chili’s restaurant by telling one of these stories. Don’t expect people to change their opinions on an important matter or feel more connected to you through these stories. These are the roller-coasters and cotton candy of the storytelling world. Supremely fun and delicious, but ultimately forgettable. You must tell your own story and not the stories of others. People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to your friend Pete last night, even if Pete’s story is better than your own. There is immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you. It is visceral and real. It takes no courage to tell Pete’s story. It requires no hard truth or authentic self. This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell someone else’s story. It simply means you must make the story about yourself. You must tell your side of the story.
Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. But feel free to tell your side of other people’s stories, as long as you are the protagonist in these tales. My wife and I work with Voices of Hope, an organization dedicated to preserving the stories of the Holocaust. We work with the children of Holocaust survivors, teaching them to tell their parents’ stories. But these second-generation survivors don’t really tell their parents’ stories. They tell their own stories, dipping into the past somewhere in the midst of them to show how the experiences of their parents have changed their lives too. They share a bit of their parents’ histories, but the stories are grounded in the storytellers’ lives. The reason these stories work so well is that they are not history lessons or biographical sketches. They are the stories of the people telling them. The storytellers are the protagonists, so they are able to bring their own vulnerability, authenticity, and grit to the tales. A story is like a diamond with many facets. Everyone has a different relationship to it. If you can find a way of making your particular facet of the story compelling, you can tell that story as your own. Otherwise, leave the telling to someone else.
The story must pass the Dinner Test. The Dinner Test is simply this: Is the story that you craft for the stage, the boardroom, the sales conference, or the Sunday sermon similar to the story you would tell a friend at dinner? This should be the goal. The performance version of your story and the casual, dinner-party version of your story should be kissing cousins. Different, for sure, but not terribly different. This means that you should not build in odd hand gestures. When I see a storyteller mime the birth of an idea with hands that flutter like butterfly wings over their head, I think, “You would never do that at the dinner table. Why now? This isn’t a theatrical production. You’re just telling a story.” This means that when I hear a storyteller say that the purple pansies were particularly pleasant on their plush pillow of purple petunias, I think, “No one talks like that. This isn’t poetry. You’re just telling a story. No one would ever have dinner with someone who talked like that.”
If you wouldn’t tell your story at dinner that way, for goodness’ sake don’t tell it onstage that way. Storytelling is not theater. It is not poetry. It should be a slightly more crafted version of the story you would tell your buddies over beers. When telling a story to an audience, we play a game with them: we pretend that we are speaking completely off the cuff. Extemporaneous storytelling, unprepared and unrehearsed. This is not usually true. While most storytellers don’t memorize their stories (and I strongly advise against it), they are prepared to tell them. They have memorized specific beats in a story. They know their beginning and ending lines. They have memorized certain laugh lines. They have a plan in place before they begin speaking. As a player in this game, the audience also pretends that the story is extemporaneous. Off the cuff. Unprepared and unpracticed. This is what the audience wants. They want to feel that they are being told a story. They don’t want to see someone perform a story. The audience and the storyteller find a common space in between the extemporaneous and the memorized, and this is where the best stories ideally reside. My hope is that all my stories occupy this space. If they do, they will pass the Dinner Test. The stories that I tell onstage for thousands of people should be similar to the versions that I would tell for just one person. I would be less methodical at the dinner table, of course. I would allow for interruptions. I might be more inclined to offer an amusing observation or an aside. But essentially it should be the same story. This is the Dinner Test. It will guarantee that you don’t sound “performancy” or inauthentic. It will ensure that your audience will think of you as a regular human being. It will prevent you from sounding like the occasional Broadway actor who finds his way downtown to The Moth to tell a story, complete with dramatic flourishes and over-the-top vocalization. We hate those people at The Moth. We also hate people who behave that way in real life. Don’t be one of those people.
If I tell the story about the time I died on the side of the road and was brought back to life in the back of an ambulance, it’s going to be challenging for an audience to connect with my story and with me. It might be exciting and compelling and even suspenseful, but audience members are probably not thinking, “This is just like the time I died in a car accident and the paramedics brought me back to life!” There’s nothing in the horror of a car accident for an audience to connect to. Nothing that rings true in the minds of listeners. Nothing that evokes memories of the past. Nothing that changes the way audience members see themselves or the world around them. But if I tell you about my secret childhood hunger, that story is much more likely to resonate with you. Why? We all have secrets that we hold close to our hearts. Maybe it’s a secret that you never want anyone to know, or maybe it’s one that you desperately wish someone would uncover. Or maybe, like me, you had a secret that was discovered by a friend or loved one. Either way, we all know what it’s like to have a secret like mine. We know how powerful and painful secrets can be. We all know what hunger feels like. We know what it’s like to want something important and essential — food, friendship, acceptance, love — but never to have enough of it. And we all know what it’s like to feel embarrassed or ashamed of never having enough of something that you so desperately need. If you’re a parent, you also know what it’s like to want your children’s lives to be better than your own. You understand the desire to fill that lunch box to the brim with food. This is why tiny moments like the one at my dining-room table with my wife and children often make the best stories. These are the moments that connect with people. These are the stories that touch people’s hearts. The story about my wife uncovering my childhood secret, in the full seven-minute version, is one of the most popular stories that I tell, but it’s not terribly funny or suspenseful or extraordinary. It doesn’t involve a near-death experience or law-enforcement officers or indoor farm animals. It’s a simple moment between a husband and wife that has come to mean so much to me, and in turn to many of my fans. There was a point at which I realized that I’d need to start finding more stories to tell. I couldn’t wait for the next time my heart stopped beating or the next time I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit. I needed to find these little moments. I needed to hunt them down. My goal was to identify the small stories that existed in my life already. I’ve been a schoolteacher for almost twenty years, so it was only natural that I assign myself homework. I assigned myself Homework for Life. This is what I did: I decided that at the end of every day, I’d reflect upon my day and ask myself one simple question: If I had to tell a story from today — a five-minute story onstage about something that took place over the course of this day — what would it be? As benign and boring and inconsequential as it might seem, what was the most storyworthy moment from my day? I decided not to write the entire story down, because to do so would require too much time and effort. As desperate as I was for stories, even I wouldn’t be able to commit to writing a full story every day, especially if it wasn’t all that compelling. Instead I would write a snippet. A sentence or two that captured the moment from the day. Just enough for me to remember the moment and recall it clearly on a later date. I also allowed myself to record any meaningful memories that came to mind over the course of the day, in response either to something I added to the spreadsheet or something that came to mind organically. Oftentimes these were recovered memories: moments from my past that had been forgotten for years but had returned to my mind through the process of doing Homework for Life. To do this work, I decided to use an Excel spreadsheet. It works well for several reasons. First, it forced me to capture these moments in just a few words. As you can see, my spreadsheet is broken into two columns: the date and the story. That’s it. As a result, I don’t allow myself to write more than the story cell allows. For a novelist who is accustomed to writing hundreds and sometimes thousands of words per day, the temptation to write more was great, but I believe in simplicity. I believe in strategies that are easy to apply and maintain even on our busiest days. This is the best way to develop a habit.
By creating a system requiring that I write only a few sentences a day, I was also sure that I’d never miss a day, and this is important. Miss one day, and you’ll allow yourself to miss two. Miss two days, and you’ll skip a week. Skip a week and you’re no longer doing your Homework for Life. Moreover, by placing these most storyworthy moments in a spreadsheet, I could sort them for later use. I could copy, cut, and paste these ideas into other spreadsheets easily, allowing me to ultimately separate the truly storyworthy ideas from the ones that merely had potential. Finally, by placing the stories in a spreadsheet, I was better able to see patterns in my life, and sometimes these patterns became stories too.
When I started my Homework for Life, I didn’t know what the results would be. At best, I hoped to find a handful of stories that I might be able to tell onstage someday. Instead, something amazing happened. As I reflected on each day of my life and identified the most storyworthy moments, I began to develop a storytelling lens — one that is now sharp and clear. With this lens, I began to see that my life is filled with stories. Moments of real meaning that I had never noticed before were suddenly staring me in the face. You won’t believe how plentiful they are. There are moments when you connect with someone in a new and unexpected way. Moments when your heart fills with joy or breaks into tiny pieces. Moments when your position on an issue suddenly shifts or your opinion of a person changes forever. Moments when you discover something new about yourself or the world for the first time. Moments when a person says something you never want to forget or desperately wish you could forget. Not every day contains a storyworthy moment for me, but I found that the longer I did my homework, the more days did contain one. My wife likes to say that I can turn any moment into a good story, and my friend Plato has said that I can turn the act of picking up a pebble from the ground into a great story. Neither of these statements is true. The truth is this: I simply see more storyworthy moments in the day than most people. They don’t go unnoticed, as they once did. I discovered that there is beauty and import in my life that I never would have imagined before doing my homework, and that these small, unexpected moments of beauty are oftentimes some of my most compelling stories.
In searching for stories, I discovered that my life is filled with them. Filled with precious moments that once seemed decidedly less than precious. Filled with moments that are more storyworthy than I’d ever imagined. I’d just been failing to notice them. Or discounting them. Or ignoring them. In some instances, I tried to forget them completely. Now I can see them. I can’t help but see them. They are everywhere. I collect them. Record them. Craft them. I tell them onstage. I share them on the golf course and to dinner companions. But most important, I hold them close to my heart. They are my most treasured possessions. But that’s not all. Other amazing things began to happen as well. As that storytelling lens became more refined and I started seeing stories in my everyday life, stories began welling up from my childhood that I’d long since forgotten. It was like digging into the earth and suddenly striking a geyser.
As you start to see importance and meaning in each day, you suddenly understand your importance to this world. You start to see how the meaningful moments that we experience every day contribute to the lives of others and to the world. You start to sense the critical nature of your very existence. There are no more throwaway days. Every day can change the world in some small way. In fact, every day has been changing the world for as long as you’ve been alive. You just haven’t noticed yet.
There’s an added bonus to Homework for Life. It’s unrelated to storytelling, but it’s worth mentioning. It might just be the most important reason to do the exercise. As you begin to take stock of your days, find those moments — see them and record them — time will begin to slow down for you. The pace of your life will relax. We live in a day and age when people constantly say things like: Time flies. That last school year went by in the blink of an eye. I can’t even remember what I did last Thursday. I feel like my twenties went by in a flash. I used to feel the same way. Then I started doing Homework for Life, and the world slowed down for me. Days creep by at remarkably slow speeds. Weeks feel like months. Months feel like years. I cannot tell you what a blessing this is. I don’t lose a day anymore. I can look at any one of those entries on my spreadsheet from the years I have been doing my homework, and I am right back in that moment. And I will have these moments forever. When I am on my deathbed, I’ll be able to look back at an Excel spreadsheet filled with moments from my life. It’ll probably be a hologram by then, hovering over my body, but as I scroll through the pages, I’ll be able to return to every one of those moments. Every one of the moments that made one day different from the rest. A lifetime of storyworthy moments at my fingertips. I found this unexpected gift while desperately searching for stories, and it has changed my life. It can change yours too. Five minutes a day is all I’m asking. At the end of every day, take a moment and sit down. Reflect upon your day. Find your most storyworthy moment, even if it doesn’t feel very storyworthy. Write it down. Not the whole story, but a few sentences at most. Something that will keep you moving, and will make it feel doable. That will allow you to do it the next day. If you have commitment and faith, you will find stories. So many stories.
The exercise is called Crash & Burn. It’s a simple concept, and certainly not groundbreaking in any way, but it relies on adhering to a few simple rules that I have developed that are necessary to make the exercise work well. 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. People have been utilizing stream-of-consciousness strategies for a long time, beginning first with psychologists in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, these strategies were adopted by writers and thinkers as a means of generating new ideas. Entire novels have been written to mimic stream-of-consciousness thinking.
But for our storytelling purposes, we will be utilizing stream-of-consciousness writing to generate new ideas and resurrect old memories, applying three important rules: Rule #1: You must not get attached to any one idea. The goal of Crash & Burn is to allow unexpected ideas to intersect and overrun current ones, just as that rain-drenched corner of Main Street with my dog produced an important revelation about my father and a memory of sex on a golf course. Two intersecting ideas crashed into and overran the meaningful moment that I was experiencing with Kaleigh. So, regardless of how intriguing or compelling your current idea may be, you must release it immediately when a new idea comes crashing in, even if your new idea seems decidedly less compelling than the original one. When Crash & Burn is at its best, ideas are constantly crashing the party, slashing and burning the previous ones. It’s in these intersections of ideas that new ideas and memories are unearthed. Rule #2: You must not judge any thought or idea that appears in your mind. Everything must land on the page, regardless of how ridiculous, nonsensical, absurd, or humiliating it may be. Similarly, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization are meaningless. Penmanship is irrelevant. When it comes to Crash & Burn, you must free yourself of this dreadful, hobbling, ingrained need to prepare and self-monitor. You must spill your guts on the page, free from judgment or worry about whether what you are writing is good or right. Just put the damn words on the page as they appear in your head and on your fingertips. Ignore your inner demons. Rule #3: You cannot allow the pen to stop moving. I say pen because, although I do almost all my writing on a keyboard, I have found that engaging in Crash & Burn with a pen tends to trigger greater creativity (and there is some science to support this claim). But if you must use a keyboard, go for it. Either way, your hand or fingers cannot stop moving. You must continue writing words even when your mind is empty.
That’s it. Set a timer for ten minutes, follow these three rules, and go.
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. Stories are gold. Precious and priceless. Finding six potentially new stories is thrilling. Even better, I recovered memories from my past that had been lost to me until I sat down to write. Forgotten moments that will remain with me now until the day I die. With each recovered memory, my life feels more expansive and significant. The years gather greater meaning and purpose. Surprising, significant associations between the past and the present are discovered. My life becomes brighter and sharper and better with every memory that is uncovered. The reason is simple: We are the sum of our experiences, the culmination of everything that has come before. The more we know about our past, the better we know ourselves. The greater our storehouse of memory, the more complete our personal narrative becomes. Our life begins to feel full and complete and important. As I said, Crash & Burn is damn good for the soul. Instead of the five minutes a day that I’ve asked you to dedicate to Homework for Life, this exercise requires about fifteen minutes at a time. Although I think it’s a highly productive exercise, I realize that fifteen minutes every day is asking a lot. So I’m asking a lot. Do it every day. Close Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Ignore your children for a quarter hour. Turn off the television. Find a quiet room with a lock on the door. Make it the bathroom or a closet if necessary. Give everyone in your home a cookie and tell them to go away for a little while.
Not only are stories the currency I need to continue entertaining audiences, but more importantly, finding new stories both fills in and fills out my life. They bring breadth and meaning to my life. Recalling a forgotten moment from your life or suddenly seeing it as more than what you once thought can expand the boundaries of your perceived life, while filling in gaps and connecting disparate memories into a more complete picture. Stories will both fill in the holes in the mental map of your life and help you to see how expansive that map truly is. It’s priceless.
Make it your mission to find, see, remember, and identify stories, and you will begin to see your life in a new and more compelling light. The Moth’s artistic director, Catherine Burns shared this method for generating story ideas as we watched our children play in the museum one day, and I’ve since turned her idea into a workshop exercise that I use quite often. 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. The sheet here contains the list of prompts that I use most often in my beginner’s workshops, and it also contains my responses. Prompt First Last Best Worst Kiss Laura Clara Elysha Sheila Car Datsun B210 Hyundai Tucson 1976 Chevy Malibu Datsun B210 Pet Measleman Toby & Pluto Kaleigh Prudence Trouble Corner in kindergarten Speeding ticket Inciting riot upon myself Arrested Injury Mysterious head wound Elbow tendinitis Pole-vault pole snaps Datsun B210 accident Gift Puppy 12 dates for 12 months Friends as family Bath towels Travel Pasadena 1988 Lewiston, Maine Honeymoon Disney with Cushman After completing my chart, I analyze it. Specifically, I ask myself three questions: 1. Do any entries appear more than once (the signal of a likely story)? 2. Could I turn any of these entries into useful anecdotes? 3. Could I turn any of these entries into fully realized stories? I mark potential stories (or stories that I have already told) with an S. I mark potential anecdotes with an A. Below is the same sheet, now marked for possible stories and anecdotes. Prompt First Last Best Worst Kiss Laura (S) Clara Elysha (S) Sheila (S) Car Datsun B210 (S) Hyundai Tucson 1976 Chevy Malibu (S) Datsun B210 (S) Pet Measleman (S) Toby & Pluto (S) Kaleigh (S) Prudence (S) Trouble Corner in kindergarten (S) Speeding ticket Inciting riot upon myself (S) Arrested (S) Injury Mysterious head wound (A) Elbow tendinitis Pole-vault pole snaps Datsun B210 accident (S) Gift Puppy 12 dates for 12 months Friends as family (S) Bath towels (S) Travel Pasadena 1988 (S) Lewiston, Maine (A) Honeymoon (S) Disney with Cushman (S) Here are some details of the analysis: The Datsun B210 appears three times on the chart, and the best gift entry, “Friends as family,” also pertains to the Datsun. These four entries are all related to “This Is Going to Suck,” the story of one of my near-death experiences as the result of a car accident. I won a Moth GrandSLAM championship with this story, and it’s been featured on The Moth Radio Hour several times. My worst gift, bath towels, will be part of the sequel to “This Is Going to Suck.”
Even when the prompts are intentionally uninteresting, First Last Best Worst works. First Last Best Worst is a game that can be played many ways. For someone on the hunt for stories, you can play alone, as I often do. Prompt yourself, using objects in the room, a random page in a dictionary, or ideas you hear on the television or a podcast.
I’ve given you three tools to find stories. • Homework for Life • Crash & Burn • First Last Best Worst Do all three with regularity and fidelity, and you will find yourself drowning in stories before long. Your list of potential stories will grow beyond your ability to tell them all. What a wonderful problem to have. There are many secrets to storytelling, but there is one fundamental truth above all others that must be understood before a storyteller can ever be successful: All great stories — regardless of length or depth or tone — tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life. Got that? 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. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s absolutely true. Also, rejoice! This truth — once understood and embraced — makes the storyteller’s job much easier. These five-second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person. Your opinion on a subject dramatically changes. You find forgiveness. You reach acceptance. You sink into despair. You grudgingly resign. You’re drowned in regret. You make a life-altering decision. Choose a new path. Accomplish something great. Fail spectacularly. These are the moments that make great stories. They are the moments that we seek when doing our Homework for Life. They are often small and sudden and powerful. These are the best stories. They are the only stories worth telling. In “Charity Thief,” my five-second moment comes when I realize that I know nothing about loneliness, and more importantly, I never want to know loneliness in the way that man in New Hampshire knew it on that day. In the story, that moment happens when he tells me that his wife, Lisa, has died of cancer and that his children haven’t returned home in more than five years. I can still remember that moment as if it were yesterday. As he spoke those words to me on that tiny porch, I felt my heart sink. All the strength in my body left me. At that moment I was sure that I was the worst person on the planet. It was the moment when I understood how truly stupid, self-absorbed, and selfcentered I was. That is the purpose of my story. I’m trying to tell my audience that there was a time in my life when I felt alone and lost, thinking that I was facing a lifetime of solitude, only to discover how foolish and blind I was to feel that way. The rest of the story is crafted to serve that singular moment in time and only that moment. Anything in the story that doesn’t help bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible is marginalized, shaded, or removed entirely. Anything that helps bring clarity to that moment is strengthened and highlighted.
Understanding that stories are about tiny moments is the bedrock upon which all storytelling is built, and yet this is what people fail to understand most when thinking about a story. Instead they believe that if something interesting or incredible or unbelievable has happened to them, they have a great story to tell. Not true. Many times storytellers fail to understand the importance of these five-second moments. They see the big when they should be looking for the small. They come to me and say, “I went to Tanzania last summer. I want to tell that story onstage.” My answer is always the same: No. Visiting Tanzania is not a story. Your ability to travel the world does not mean that you can tell a good story or even have a good story to tell. But if something happened in Tanzania that altered you in some deep and fundamental way, then you might have a story. If you experienced a five-second moment in Tanzania, you might have something. Think of it this way: If we remove Tanzania from the story, do you still have a story worth telling? If the answer is no, then you probably don’t have a story. If the answer is yes, you might have something I want to hear. Big stories contain these tiny, utterly human moments. We may be fooled by whips and snakes and car chases, but if it’s a good story, our protagonist is going to experience something deep and meaningful that resonates with the audience, even if the audience doesn’t fully realize it. Without Alan Grant’s transformation from a man who despises children to a man who loves them, Jurassic Park is just another dinosaur movie in a long line of dinosaur movies, simply with better special effects. None of us will ever know what it’s like to be chased by dinosaurs or electrified by fences or trapped in a kitchen with velociraptors. But we all know what it’s like to have something large and seemingly implacable standing between us and love. We all know what it’s like to want something that the love of our life does not. We all understand how difficult relationships can be and the joy that comes with finally making them work. If you think you have a story, ask yourself: Does it contain a five-second moment? A moment of true transformation? Your five-second moment may be difficult to find. You may have to dig for it. Your five-second moment is the most important thing that you will say. It is the purpose and pinnacle of your story. It’s the reason you opened your mouth in the first place. Therefore it must come as close to the end of your story as possible. Sometimes it will be the very last thing you say.
Knowing your ending is a good thing. When I write fiction, I have no idea where my story is going to end. As odd as it may sound, I have never accurately predicted how any of my novels were going to conclude, and many novelists operate similarly. John Irving claims to always know his last sentence before beginning a novel, but I’m not sure if I believe him. Even if I do, he’s John Irving. For us common folk, writing is often the means to the end. We discover the conclusions and resolutions through the process of writing the book. But when telling true stories about our lives, we always start with the ending, because we’re not making stuff up. We’re not hoping to invent the perfect combination of action, description, and dialogue. We’re telling the truth, so even if we’re not entirely sure of how to tell our ending — which combination of action, dialogue, and description will best capture that five-second moment — we know what happened. We know the who, what, where, and when, and we probably know the why (though that can sometimes come later). We know what our five-second moment is, and therefore that is where we begin the process of crafting our story. We start at the end. This is a beautiful thing, because knowing the ending will inform all the choices that we must make as we craft the rest of the story. Everything must serve our five-second moment, so knowing the ending — and starting the process of crafting the story with the ending — is helpful beyond measure. In fact the ending simply involves the choice of words you will use. How will you describe your five-second moment for the greatest emotional effect?
The hard part is finding the beginning, because it involves choosing the right moments from your life, and there is often a multitude of choices. So how do you choose the right place to start a story? Simple. Ask yourself where your story ends. What is the meaning of your five-second moment? Say it aloud. In “Charity Thief,” I might say it like this: “I thought I was alone in this world, facing a lifetime of loneliness. Then I met a man who taught me that I knew very little about loneliness and never wanted to know loneliness the way that man knew it on that day and probably many, many days thereafter.” That’s my five-second moment. That is what I’m trying to say to you as simply as possible. It’s not a good story on its own, but choose better words to describe the moment, prop it up with everything that comes before the moment, and you have yourself a story. Once you’ve distilled your five-second moment down to its essence, ask yourself: What is the opposite of your five-second moment? Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time. I was once this, but now I am this. I once thought this, but now I think this. I once felt this, but now I feel this. Stories must reflect change of some kind. It need not always be positive change, and the change need not be monumental. In fact, stories about failure, embarrassment, and shame are fantastic. Stories about trying desperately to achieve a goal and failing spectacularly are beloved. Even when progress is made, the best stories often reflect incremental change. Tiny steps forward. Glacial improvement. Audiences would much rather hear about incremental, tenuous growth than about overnight success. Regardless of whether your change is infinitesimal or profound, positive or negative, your story must reflect change. You must begin and end your story in entirely different states of being. Change is key.
You create the arc of a story through the change that your story ultimately describes. Starting in one place and landing in another. Think of it like air travel. An airplane takes off, flies through the sky, and lands in a new place. Your story must do the same. The easiest, most effective way of doing this is by ensuring that the beginning and the ending of your stories are opposites or as close to opposites as possible. This is not the case in every story that I tell, but it’s true for most. Simply ask yourself what the opposite of the first fifteen minutes of a movie is, and you will almost always have your ending. Even when the ending is all but certain, a good storyteller can grab the audience by the throat and make them temporarily forget that they know damn well how this movie will end. So the beginning is important. Finding that five-second moment in your life is critical, of course, but in terms of actually crafting your story, where you start your story is the most important decision you will make. The right beginning creates a satisfying narrative arc that will cause people to connect to and remember your story. It will provide a clear, coherent path to the end. It will serve as an enormous arrow that will point both you and the audience in the right direction. Sometimes the place to begin is convenient and easy to find. Sometimes not.
If only every beginning were this easy to find. More often, the beginning is much harder to find because the opposite of your five-second moment does not happen on the same day or even in the same week as any possible beginning. For example, think back on the story of my wife’s discovery that I was hungry as a child. Finding the beginning of that story was challenging. I knew the five-second moment of the story was the moment at the dining-room table when my wife reveals that she knows my secret — I was hungry as a boy — and probably knows me better than anyone ever in my life. So I ask myself: What is the opposite of someone uncovering your secret? The opposite of someone uncovering a secret, I decided, is the creation of that secret. The initial decision to keep something secret. For me, this meant dipping back into my childhood for moments of hunger and shame, so that I could show my audience how and why I decided to keep my childhood hunger a secret. I had plenty of moments to choose from. Too many, in fact. Herein lies the challenge: Which moment works best? Which of the dozens of anecdotes from my childhood should I use? If you’re a good storyteller, who believes that these choices matter a lot (and they do), it’s not an easy decision. I want to choose the anecdotes that serve my story best. They need to show a variety of contexts in which hunger and shame ruled my life. Ideally, at least one will be funny and one will be heartrending. I’d like them to take place in a variety of settings. I’d love for at least one to echo something at the end of my story. When we search our past for the beginnings of our stories — which storytellers do quite often — we have a mountain of material from which to choose. Less effective storytellers latch onto the first thing that comes to mind rather than making a list of anecdotes, analyzing them for content, tone, the potential for humor, and connectivity to the story before deciding. I also believe that great storytellers know this: The first idea is rarely the best idea. It may be the most convenient idea. The easiest to remember. The one you personally like the most. But rarely is the first idea the one that I choose. First ideas are for the lazy. The complacent. The easily satisfied. I fight for my beginnings. I struggle to find the correct entry point to a story, and I believe that every story has a perfect entry point. The ideal place to start. More than half of the time I spend crafting stories is spent searching for the right beginning. Once I’ve found it, the rest of the story often flows easily. The correct beginning makes the rest of the choices seem much more obvious.
I also try to start my story as close to the end as possible (a rule Kurt Vonnegut followed when writing short stories). I want my stories to be as temporally limited as possible. I strive for simplicity at all times. By starting as close to the end as possible, we shorten our stories. We avoid unnecessary setup. We eliminate superfluous details. I started as close to the end as possible. Simplifying also helps storytellers tell their stories better. When time and space is limited, it’s easier to remember your story. Easier to master your transitions, and easier to remember those favorite lines that you don’t want to forget. But simplification is even more important because of the difference between oral storytelling and written storytelling. A written story is like a lake. Readers can step in and out of the water at their leisure, and the water always remains the same. This stillness and permanence allow for pausing, rereading, contemplation, and the use of outside sources to help with meaning. It also allows the reader to control the speed at which the story is received. An oral story is like a river. It is a constantly flowing torrent of words. When listeners need to step outside of the river to ponder a detail, wonder about something that confuses them, or attempt to make meaning, the river continues to flow. When the listener finally steps back into the river, he or she is behind. The water that has flowed by will never be seen again, and as a result, the listener is constantly chasing the story, trying to catch up. To keep your listener from stepping out of your river of words to make meaning, simplification is essential. Starting as close to the end as possible helps to make this happen. Sometimes the closest place to start is thirty years before your five-second moment. If that’s the case, so be it. But when that beginning can be pushed closer to the five-second moment, your audience will be the better for it.
Here are a couple more practical tips for choosing an opening: 1. Try to start your story with forward movement whenever possible. Establish yourself as a person who is physically moving through space. Opening with forward movement creates instant momentum in a story. It makes the audience feel that we’re already on our way, immersed in the world you are moving us through. We’re going somewhere important. 2. Don’t start by setting expectations. Listen to people in the world tell you stories. Often they start with a sentence like, “This is hilarious,” or “You need to hear this,” or “You’re not going to believe this.”
Start with the story, not with a summary of the story. There is no need to describe the tone or tenor at the onset. Just start with story, and whenever possible, open with movement. Forward progress. It’s a simple and effective way of grabbing the listeners’ attention and focusing it somewhere specific. It makes them feel that we’re already off and running. In “Charity Thief,” my opening sentences tell you that I am hurtling down a lonely stretch of New Hampshire highway, headed in the direction of home. In “This Is Going to Suck,” I’m walking out of a record store on a December day, two days before Christmas, with a shopping bag in my hand. Forward momentum. These stories are going somewhere. We are already on the move. Jump aboard for the ride. Pay attention to the opening scenes of movies. So many of them use this strategy as well. We open on the protagonist or someone similarly important to the story. That person will be moving. Walking. Running. Driving. Flying. Climbing. Fleeing. Falling. Swimming. Crawling. Diving. Filmmakers want to immerse you into their world as quickly as possible. They want you to forget the theater and the popcorn and the jackass who is texting beside you. They want you to be absorbed by the story. They want you to forget that you even exist for the duration of the film. Stakes are the reason audiences listen and continue to listen to a story. Stakes answer questions like: • What does the storyteller want or need? • What is at peril? • What is the storyteller fighting for or against? • What will happen next? • How is this story going to turn out? Stakes are the reason an audience wants to hear your next sentence. They are the difference between a story that grabs the audience by the throat and holds on tight and one that an audience can take or leave. Stakes are the difference between someone telling you about their mother and someone telling you about the time they wanted to disown their mother.
Stakes are the reason we listen to stories when video games and pizza and sex exist in the world. We could be doing any one of these things, but we listen to stories because we want to know what happens next. In the best stories, we want to hear the next sentence. And the sentence after that. And the sentence after that.
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 many ways to add new stakes or increase the existing stakes in a story, but not all stories need to have stakes added or increased. Some stories are naturally infused with stakes. Their content alone is enough to grab an audience by the throat and never let go. Use five different strategies to infuse this story with stakes. These strategies are both easy to apply and almost always effective.
The 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. Movies have trailers and summaries that you can read on websites like Rotten Tomatoes to inform you of the gist of the story. Your friend might see a movie and give you an idea of what the film is about. You’re likely both informed about the film and excited to see it when you enter the theater. Rarely do you go to a movie theater and not know what the movie is about. You almost always have a general sense of what is to come. Storytellers don’t have the benefit of a trailer. When a storyteller begins speaking, whether in a theater or a dining room or a conference room, the audience often has no idea of what to expect. Are we in the midst of a comedy? A drama? An action adventure? A romance? Something in between? Is this story going to challenge our sensibilities? Make us cry? Offend us? Inspire us? 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. The Elephant should appear as early in the story as possible. Ideally, it should appear within the first minute, and if you can say it within the first thirty seconds, even better.
The Elephant is the difference between these two beginnings of a story: Version #1 My mother was the kind of woman whom everyone adored. The model of decorum and civility. She served as PTO president and treasurer of the ladies’ auxiliary. She was the only female umpire in our town’s Little League. She baked and knit and grew vegetables by the pound. Version #2 I don’t care how perfect my mother was. When I was nine years old, I wanted to disown her. Leave home and never return. Forget she ever existed. My mother was the kind of woman whom everyone adored. The model of decorum and civility. She served as PTO president and treasurer of the ladies’ auxiliary. She was the only female umpire in our town’s Little League. She baked and knit and grew vegetables by the pound. The first story offers a character sketch of the storyteller’s mother. We have no idea what kind of story we are listening to, so it’s easy for us to check out at this point. Nothing is at stake. There is no wonder. We don’t need to hear the next sentence. The second story starts with an Elephant. It contains exactly the same character description, but it opens with a clear explanation of what to expect. “When I was nine years old, I wanted to disown her. Leave home and never return. Forget she ever existed.” The audience has a good idea of the story being told, and it’s likely that they will want to hear more. Now they have something to wonder about: Why did this woman want to disown her mother at such an early age? Will things turn out okay in the end? Was her mother to blame for these feelings of ill will, or will we discover that the storyteller was the real problem? Three simple sentences at the start of the story change our perception about everything that follows. The Elephant may strike you as a simple and obvious technique, but it’s not. Pay attention to the way that people tell stories. More often than not, you will find yourself two or three minutes into a story, unsure of where the story is going and why you should continue to listen.
In “Charity Thief,” the Elephant that I present at the beginning of the story is a simple one: I’m stuck in New Hampshire with a flat tire and no spare. The audience knows this almost immediately. It all happens within the first two sentences of the story. At this point, the audience is probably thinking that this is an escape story: How will Matt escape from New Hampshire and return home without a spare tire or money? Those are the stakes. The problem is clear. Now the audience has a chance to guess. To predict. To wonder. Hopefully the audience wants to know how it all turns out. Eventually the Elephant in my story changes color. The story isn’t really about escaping New Hampshire at all. It’s really a story about understanding the nature of loneliness. I change the color of the Elephant halfway through this story. I present the audience with one Elephant, but then I paint it another color. I trick them. This is an excellent storytelling strategy: make your audience think they are on one path, and then when they least expect it, show them that they have been on a different path all along. Note that I’m not actually changing the path that the audience is on. It’s the same path we’ve been walking since the start of the story. The audience just didn’t realize that it’s a much deeper, more interesting path than first expected. Don’t switch Elephants. Simply change the color. Changing the Elephant’s color provides an audience with one of the greatest surprises that a storyteller has to offer. My wife has often said that this is my preferred model for storytelling, and she’s right. I’m always most excited about a story when I can change the color of the Elephant. “The laugh laugh laugh cry formula,” she calls it. The audience thinks they are in the midst of a hilarious caper, and then they suddenly realize that this story is not what they expected. This method of storytelling is especially effective when the end of your story is heavy, emotional, sorrowful, or heartrending. To keep an entire story from being filled with weight and emotion, I try to find a way to make the beginning light and fun, hilarious and joyous. I present an Elephant that is happy, adventurous, and amusing to contrast with the weight, the sadness, and the solemnity at the end. Start with a pink, polka-dotted Elephant and end with varying shades of blue.
Backpacks A 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: 1. Make the audience wonder what will happen next. 2. Make your audience experience the same emotion, or something like the same emotion, that the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be described. The first goal is fairly easy to achieve if a Backpack is used properly. If you can accomplish the second goal, that is really something. In “Charity Thief,” I stick a Backpack on my audience when I describe my plan for begging for money before entering the gas station. I say: So I make a plan. I’m going to beg for gas, because it’s 1991. Gas is eighty-five cents a gallon, so eight dollars is all I need to get me home. I’ll offer my license, my wallet, everything in my car as collateral in exchange for eight dollars’ worth of gas and the promise that I will return and repay the money and more. Whatever it takes. So I rehearse my pitch, take a deep breath, and walk in. At this point the audience is loaded with my hopes and dreams. They know the plan, so when the kid behind the counter refuses to give me gas for my car, the audience experiences the same kind of disappointment that I felt that day. They knew the plan. They wanted it to succeed. When I tell this story onstage, I watch my audience carefully at the moment when the kid behind the counter refuses my request. It’s always the same. When the kid says no, shoulders slump. Chins dip to chests. The audience looks frustrated. Angry. Some audibly sigh. They were hoping, just as I was, that my problem would be solved. By putting a Backpack on them, I allowed my audience to enter the gas station with me, wondering what would happen next. I turned my plan into their plan. They’re now invested in the outcome. These are stakes. The audience must hear the next sentence. 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. You’ll see this in films constantly. A group of teens is trapped in a haunted house. They devise an escape plan. Their plan fails. One of their group disappears in the process. He is presumably dead. Then our heroes regroup to make a new plan. Each time characters in a movie regroup and make a new plan, the audience is given a new Backpack. This makes them wonder what will happen next. It allows the audience to become emotionally connected to the results of the characters’ plan, or, in the case of storytelling, emotionally connected to you as the storyteller. Backpacks are most effective when a plan does not work. If I had described my plan for begging for gas, and then the plan worked perfectly, there would have been no payoff for the Backpack. The scene would fall flat. If I go through all the trouble of explaining my plan beforehand, and then I say, “The kid agrees to lend me the gas,” the audience is oddly unsatisfied. They are left wondering why I went through all of that explanation only to find out that things turned out fine. Similarly, if Danny Ocean’s complex and clever plan for robbing the casino goes off without a hitch, you have a terrible movie. It’s an odd thing: The audience wants characters (or storytellers) to succeed, but they don’t really want characters to succeed. It’s struggle and strife that make stories great. They want to see their characters ultimately triumph, but they want suffering first. They don’t want anything to be easy. Perfect plans executed perfectly never make good stories. They are the stories told by narcissists, jackasses, and thin-skinned egotists.
Breadcrumbs Storytellers use Breadcrumbs when we hint at a future event but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing. In “Charity Thief,” I drop a Breadcrumb when I say: But as I climb back into the car, I see my crumpled McDonald’s uniform on the backseat, and I suddenly have an idea. During a workshop, sometimes I’ll stop the story right there and ask my students what they are thinking. Their responses are hilarious. The most common response is “I thought you were going to find a McDonald’s and work at it for a few hours to earn the money you needed.” “Yes,” I say. “Because this is how McDonald’s restaurants work. You can don a uniform and work in any restaurant at any time that you’d like, and you’ll be paid in cash at the end of your self-determined shift.” The second most common response is “I thought you’d sell your uniform at a thrift shop.” “Yes,” I say, “Thrift shops are always looking for used fast-food uniforms. Also, how was I supposed to locate a thrift store a hundred miles from home with almost no gas in my car?” I know these guesses seem silly, but who can blame the respondents? The real answer is almost impossible to predict, and that’s why I love this Breadcrumb. All I care about is that my audience is wondering what will happen next. Even if they haven’t made an actual prediction in their mind, they are wondering: What will Matt do with that uniform? How is that going to help him get the gas he needs to escape New Hampshire? Stakes. The audience needs to hear the next sentence.
The trick is to choose the Breadcrumbs that create the most wonder in the minds of your audience without giving them enough to guess correctly. Choose wisely. Breadcrumbs are particularly effective when the truly unexpected is coming. I am about to impersonate a charity worker in order to steal money from innocent homeowners. That is unexpected. The perfect moment to lay a Breadcrumb. Hourglasses There comes a time in many stories when you reached a moment (or the moment) that the audience has been waiting for. Perhaps you have paved the way to the moment with Breadcrumbs and Backpacks, or maybe you’ve used none of these strategies because you’ve got yourself a stake-laden story, and now you’re approaching the payoff. The sentence you’ve been waiting to say. The sentence your audience has been waiting to hear. This is the moment to use an Hourglass. It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible. When you know the audience is hanging on your every word, let them hang. Drag out the wait as long as possible. In “Charity Thief,” that moment occurs as I am knocking on that blue door. The audience knows that I’m about to do something to attempt to solve my problem. They know that a McDonald’s uniform is involved (my Breadcrumb), but they probably can’t imagine what my solution might be. They want to know. They need to know. So what do I do? I stop the story cold. I bring everything to a halt. I start by describing things that don’t require a description. I say: An hour later, I’m standing on the porch of a small, red-brick house on a quiet, residential street. I’m knocking on a blue door. I’m wearing my McDonald’s manager’s uniform. We all know what a McDonald’s uniform looks like. Everyone has seen one, either in real life or on the multitude of McDonald’s commercials that plaster the television screen daily. Even if an audience member has never seen one before, knowing what it looks like is irrelevant to the story. There is no need to describe this uniform in any detail, yet I choose to describe it anyway, in the greatest detail. It is the longest bit of description in the entire story, and I’m describing the last thing in the word that needs to be described. This is because I have my audience now. I own them. They cannot wait for that blue door to open so the unknown can become known. What the hell is Matt planning to do? Why is he wearing his McDonald’s uniform? I want this moment to last as long as possible. I want to milk it for every bit of suspense. I say: Blue shirt. Blue pants. Blue tie. Gold name badge. I’m holding a gray McDonald’s briefcase with a big M engraved on the front like a shield. This story has come to a complete stop. Think about it: I say the word blue in this passage three times. I also use the word shield intentionally. A shield is used in battle. I want to hint at the possibility of danger. Violence. War. More stakes. Then I say: I knock on that blue door again. When the door opens, a man is standing in front of me. He looks about fifty, but he might as well be five hundred. He’s one of these guys who looks as if he has all the wisdom of the world wrapped up in him, and in that moment, I know that he knows that I’m about to do something terrible. That is a lot to say about a man whom I’ve seen for exactly three seconds. That’s a lot of assumptions. But once again, I’m grinding this story to a halt. Making my audience wait for the sentence they want most. I use the word terrible intentionally too. It was a word chosen carefully. I considered many alternatives. I wanted a word that would suggest many things. I wanted a word that would cause the greatest wonder in my audience’s mind. After much deliberation, I settled on terrible. I think it’s perfect. Then I say: But it’s two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. I’m standing on his porch in a McDonald’s uniform. It’s one of those moments when you realize that the only way to get out of a terrible situation is to go through with it. So I take another deep breath and say . . . All I’ve done here is summarize what has just happened. It’s unnecessary. It’s redundant. Under any other circumstances, I would argue that this section needs to be cut. But this is not any other circumstance. I have my audience dying for the next sentence, and I know it. This unnecessary bit of summary slows things down and raises the tension even further. It’s the final delay before the sentence that everyone is waiting for. The sentence that will cause people to either laugh or groan (and your reaction says a lot about you as a person). “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m collecting money for Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.” In addition to adding in superfluous detail and summary, I’ll slow my pace as I approach this sentence. I will reduce my volume. I want the audience on the edge of their seats, desperately awaiting those twelve words. It’s the perfect time to use an Hourglass. Stakes. The desire of an audience to hear the next sentence, made greater by the deliberate slowing down of action and pace. Find the moment in your story that everyone has been waiting for, then flip that Hourglass and let the sand run.
Crystal Balls The Crystal Ball is the easiest of the strategies to deploy, because you already use Crystal Balls in everyday life. 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. In “Charity Thief,” I say: [The man] points his finger at me and says, “You stay right there.” Then he walks back into his house, and I know what he’s doing. He’s calling the police, and they will come and arrest me for stealing money from McDonald’s. This does not happen, of course, but when I present this very real possibility, the audience wants to know if it will happen. By predicting my future arrest, I’ve established wonder in their minds about a future event. 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.” Or “For the first four decades of my life, I thought brie was disgusting simply because of the way it looked. But tonight I tried brie for the first time, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing.” That last one is real. It took me forty years to taste brie. I’m an idiot. We spend our lives predicting our future. Anticipating what will come next. Often these predictions about future events are incorrect, and quite often they become part of the stories we tell. We want people to know what we were thinking as well as what we were saying and doing. In storytelling, deploy Crystal Balls strategically: Only when your prediction seems possible. Only when your guess is reasonable. And only when your prediction presents an intriguing or exciting possibility. The idea that the police might be coming to arrest me in “Charity Thief” meets these requirements well. Remember, the best way to ensure that your story has stakes is to choose a story that has stakes. Elephants, Backpacks, Breadcrumbs, Hourglasses, and Crystal Balls will only get you so far. If your story is boring, it will always be boring. But if your story has some potentially boring parts — sections that need to be told but simply aren’t compelling — these strategies will help a lot. Every single one of the stories I have told onstage has an Elephant. They all begin with a clear sense of the want or need or peril or problem or mystery. Sometimes that Elephant changes color, sometimes not. Many of my stories only use an Elephant. When you’re taking your clothes off in the crew room of a McDonald’s or donning cardboard armor to battle a vicious cat or riding your bike off a barn roof, you have all the stakes you’ll ever need. If you’re not sure about the level of stakes in your story, simply ask yourself: • Would the audience want to hear my next sentence? • If I stopped speaking right now, would anyone care? • Am I more compelling than video games and pizza and sex at this moment? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to raise the stakes. Use these strategies to engage your audience and bring them to the edge of their seat. There are certainly other ways to raise the stakes in a story, but these five strategies are easily learned and easily deployed. With a little practice, these will get you far. In addition to these five strategies, I want to mention one more way to keep your audience’s attention. Humor doesn’t actually add to or raise the stakes of a story. It doesn’t give your audience a reason to listen for the next sentence. It doesn’t increase the level of suspense or peril or mystery. But it’s a way of keeping your audience’s attention through a section of your story that you think might be less than compelling.
Remember that the goal of a storyteller is not to tell a funny story. The goal is to tell a story that moves an audience emotionally. That means a story can contain humor, but if it’s all funny, then the story operates on a single emotional plane and is ultimately forgettable. Humor will keep your audience listening, but use it for this reason only when you’re unable to raise the stakes in any other way. Stakes are essential in a story. Stakes are the gears that make stories work. If your story lacks stakes or lacks meaningful stakes, there is nothing you can do to make that story great. Humor is optional. Stakes are nonnegotiable. The Five Permissible Lies of Storytelling Lie #1: Omission Every story contains omissions. If you were to tell every single thing in the story, it would never end. We all omit elements from our stories, but great storytellers do this strategically and for a variety of reasons.
Eliminate people from stories when they serve no purpose. Pretend they aren’t there. Ghost them.
A story is like a coat. When we tell a story, we put a coat on our audience. Our goal is to make that coat as difficult to remove as possible. I want that coat to be impossible to take off. Days after you’ve heard my story at the dinner table or the conference room or the golf course or the theater, I want you to be thinking about my story. I want that coat to cling to your body and mind. The longer that story lingers in the hearts and minds of our audience, the better the story. When I tell my audience about the $604, I make it easy for the audience to remove the coat. “I did a terrible thing, but then I more than made up for my transgression. The world is back in order. All debts are paid.” If I don’t tell my audience about my redemption, the world remains broken. I did a terrible thing, and it still weighs on my soul. It’s a much more difficult coat to remove. Days later you’ll find yourself thinking about what I did, because I will still be guilty of the crime in your mind. The world will still be broken.
Storytellers end their stories in the most advantageous place possible. They omit the endings that offer neat little bows and happily-ever-afters. The best stories are a little messy at the end. They offer small steps, marginal progress, questionable results. The best stories give rise to unanswered questions.
Storytellers tell the truth by not telling the whole truth. Lie #2: Compression Compression is used when storytellers want to push time and space together in order to make the story easier to comprehend, visualize, and tell. If the first scene of your story takes place on a Monday, for example, and the next scene happens on Friday, and you are concerned about the audience wondering about Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you simply push time together and turn your Monday-through-Friday story into a Monday-through-Tuesday story. Placing scenes closer together also heightens the drama and suspense of a story. It makes the world seem more visceral and cinematic.
There is never room for needless complexity in a story. Remember that stories are like rivers (not unlike the river I dammed up to empty the Basin). They continue to flow even as your audience struggles to understand a time line or attempts to construct a complicated mental map in their minds. For this reason, simplicity should be prized at all points. Compression can often be helpful in this regard.
Lie #3: Assumption Storytellers use assumption when there is a detail so important to the story that it must be stated with specificity, so the storyteller makes a reasonable assumption about what the specifics may be. This does not mean that a storyteller should assume all details. It is only when the forgotten detail is critical to the story that an assumption should be made.
Lie #4: Progression A lie of progression is when a storyteller changes the order of events in a story to make it more emotionally satisfying or comprehensible to the listener. In my experience, this is the least common lie told, and I have never done it myself, but I’ve recommended that other storytellers use it from time to time.
Change the order of the story if the real-life order did not adhere to narrative expectations. The world does not always bend to serve our stories best, so we must sometimes bend reality instead. Lie #5: Conflation Storytellers use conflation to push all the emotion of an event into a single time frame, because stories are more entertaining this way. Rather than describing change over a long period, we compress all the intellectual and emotional transformation into a smaller bit of time, because this is what audiences expect from stories.
I conflate the emotions of the moment. I transform a moment into the moment. Movies do this all the time. If you track the number of days that pass over the course of the average movie, the number is small. A lot of stuff is often jammed into one or two days of movie time, when in real life, no one ever has days so packed with action.
Conflation will also help you to keep your stories shorter, which is always a good thing. Shorter stories, onstage and in real life, are always more entertaining. One more caveat to all these permissible lies: using these lies strategically works great until someone who is directly involved in the story is standing beside you, listening. If I were to tell “Bike off Roof” in the presence of my sister, Kelli, she might interject and remind me that we actually planned my infamous jump off the barn roof the day before. This can be annoying beyond imagination. “Yeah,” I’d say. “I know, but it’s a better story if I just push those two days into a single day. Okay?” “Why?” she might ask. Now what? Do I try to explain to her that books are lakes and stories are rivers? Do I tell her that I want my stories to be easily visualized and understood? Do I lecture her on how Steven Soderbergh forces Danny Ocean’s crew to plan their casino heist in just a few days because that’s what an audience wants? Or should I just tell her that she’s not remembering it right? It’s never good.
A great storyteller creates a movie in the minds of the audience. Whether your audience is a theater full of storytelling fans, a boardroom filled with potential clients, a classroom bursting with apathetic high-school students, or a group of friends around the dinner table, the goal of every storyteller should be to create a cinematic experience in the minds of every listener. This is important. You may think it’s obvious, but if it were, storytellers would do this all the time. They would obsess about the idea of maintaining an unrelenting, uninterrupted movie in the minds of their listeners. But they don’t. Often, instead of making the story the center of their performance, storytellers make themselves the center of the show. They crack jokes. Insert amusing or observational non sequiturs. Step outside the story’s time line. Ask rhetorical questions of the audience. These are all terrible ways to start stories. Rather than presenting a fully realized cinematic experience, they present bits of the movie. They give a scene here or a scene there, intersected by unnecessary or poorly formatted exposition that ruins the flow. Stories are not supposed to start with thesis statements or overwrought aphorisms. Let me say it again, because it’s that important: A great storyteller creates a movie in the mind of the audience. Listeners should be able to see the story in their mind’s eye at all times. At no point should the story become visually obscured or impossible to see. In order to achieve this lofty goal, storytellers must do one thing, and happily for you, it’s exceedingly simple: 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. If the audience can’t see your story in their minds, the film is no longer running. You have failed to achieve cinema of the mind. Instead of visualizing the past, perhaps even forgetting where and when they even are for a moment, your audience is now staring at you in the present. Their imagination has been disengaged. The movie has stopped. This is no longer storytelling; it’s lecturing. If you’re making the audience laugh, it might be more akin to stand-up comedy. You may even sound as if you’re reciting an essay. Whatever you are doing, if the movie has stopped in the mind of your audience, it’s no longer a story. Make sure that every moment in your story has a location attached. Every moment should be a scene, and every scene needs a setting.
A clear majority of human beings tend to connect their sentences, paragraphs, and scenes together with the word and. This is a mistake. The ideal connective tissue in any story are the words but and therefore, along with all their glorious synonyms. These buts and therefores can be either explicit or implied. “And” stories have no movement or momentum. They are equivalent to running on a treadmill. Sentences and scenes appear, one after another, but the movement is straightforward and unsurprising. The momentum is unchanged. But and therefore are words that signal change. The story was heading in one direction, but now it’s heading in another. We started out zigging, but now we are zagging. We did this, and therefore this new thing happened. I think of it as continually cutting against the grain of the story. Rather than stretching a flat line from beginning to end, the storyteller should seek to create a serrated line cutting back and forth, up and down, along the path of the story. We are still headed in the same direction, but the best storytellers don’t take a straight line to get there.
It’s the causation, or the causal links between sentences, paragraphs, and scenes that make a story. It’s the interconnectedness of moments that brings meaning to an otherwise linear collection of events connected only by time and space. Just listen to someone tell you about their vacation to Europe or their weekend at the beach. It’s almost never a good story. It’s almost never something you want to hear. Why? “First we went here, and it was amazing, and then we went here, and it was also amazing, and then we saw this, which was so amazing.” Kill me. But this is how people often tell stories of their vacations. Instead of talking about a moment of great meaning they have had, they instead recite the itinerary, adding in descriptions and food choices for each place they visited. This is not a story. It’s a boring, meaningless stroll down memory lane. Stories are not a simple recounting of events. They are not a thorough reporting of moments over a given period of time. Stories are the crafted representation of events that are related in such a way to demonstrate change over time in the life of the teller. Applying the but-and-therefore principle to your stories, both formal and anecdotal, will make you the kind of person people want to listen to.
One other aspect to the but-and-therefore principle: the power of the negative. Oddly, the negative is almost always better than the positive when it comes to storytelling. Saying what something or someone is not is almost always better than saying what something or someone is. When telling a story, these negative statements often serve the storyteller better. By presenting a binary option, they provide depth and potential to a story. They infuse a story with movement, momentum, and action. The audience feels as if they’re going places as they climb and descend the hills of possibility.
“This Is Going to Suck” is what I call a big story. When you are brought back to life in the back of an ambulance, that’s big. Here’s the surprising thing: despite what most people think, these are the hardest stories to tell. You’d think that a head-on collision, dying, and coming back to life would be easy to tell about, full of high stakes, drama, and excitement, but remember: The goal of storytelling is to connect with your audience, whether it’s one person at the dinner table or two thousand people in a theater. Storytelling is not about a roller-coaster ride of excitement. It’s about bridging the gap between you and another person by creating a space of authenticity, vulnerability, and universal truth. If this is the goal (and it should be), then the big stories can get in the way of connecting. I cannot connect with most people on the level of a near-death experience. Audiences don’t listen to me describe my head crashing through a windshield and think, “Yes, I remember the time my head went through a windshield, and yes, I also subsequently died on the side of the road. I feel for you, Matt.” Big stories are hard stories to tell, because the big parts of these stories are often singular in nature. Unusual. Unique. Hardly relatable. This holds true for all my big stories. The story of my car accident and near-death experience, as I’m sure you know by now, is not about the accident or my experience at all. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people all over the country about that story, which The Moth has aired on their Radio Hour more than once. Never has a person written, “I love the story of your car accident” or “I love the story of your near-death experience.” Instead it’s always “I loved the story of the emergency room” or “I love the story of your friends in the waiting room.” I die in my story, and yet that momentary brush with death is neither the most important nor the most interesting thing that happens. It’s almost forgotten by the end. The accident is simply the means by which I get my audience into the emergency room. It’s the equivalent of the disintegrated tire in “Charity Thief.” It’s the thing that happens that gets me to where the story really takes place.
In fact, now that you know how stories work, you should realize that “This Is Going to Suck” could never be about my near-death experience, because I never experienced it. I closed my eyes on the side of a road because the snow was falling, and sometime after that I became unconscious and died. But I had no idea that I was going to stop breathing. I had no idea that my heart would stop beating. How could I possibly experience a five-second moment of transformation or realization if I didn’t know it was happening? The same thing had happened five years earlier, when I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating on my dining-room floor following the beesting. I closed my eyes, drifted into unconsciousness, and died. But I never saw it coming. Even if I had seen them coming, I still wouldn’t have made either story about my near-death experience, because it’s incredibly hard to connect to people through death. Most of us have never experienced it before. Most of us have never awakened in the midst of someone administering CPR on us. This is the trick to telling a big story: it cannot be about anything big. Instead we must find the small, relatable, comprehensible moments in our larger stories. We must find the piece of the story that people can connect to, relate to, and understand. You need to find the story of the man who learns to love children among the man-eating dinosaurs so he can be with the woman he loves. You need to find the story of the scientist who finds faith in a higher power among the Nazis and snakes and enormous rolling boulders. You may never understand what it’s like to crash your head through a windshield, but you’ve probably been let down or ignored or forgotten by a loved one, as I was in that emergency room. You probably understand what it feels like to be alone at a moment of need. You’ve probably experienced the fear of hospitals and surgery. You probably know what it’s like to be picked up off the ground and saved at the most unlikely moment by the most unexpected figure. My story isn’t about a car accident or a near-death experience. It’s about my friends standing in the place of my family when I need them most. That’s it.
When I tell “This Is Going to Suck” in theaters or workshops or even at the dinner table, audience members cry almost every time, but no one has ever cried at my description of the accident. Despite the brutality and horror of that collision, audience members have never shed tears at the pain and violence that I suffered. They wince. They groan. They shake their heads in pity. But never tears. They cry, of course, when they hear that my friends are filling the waiting room outside the emergency room, and when those doors open and my friends are standing there, cheering me on, even I have a hard time not crying. Honestly, there are tears in my eyes as I write these words. Little moments hidden inside big moments. That’s what we need to find to tell a big story well. Big stories need not contain as much violence, death, or drama as mine do. Hopefully they don’t. Remember: my friends told me that I’ve lived the worst life ever. Not true, of course, but I hope your life hasn’t been as chaotic or violent as mine.
One of my favorite church signs that I’ve ever seen says: “Come hear our pastor. He’s not very good, but he’s quick.” In storytelling, you should always try to say less. Shorter is better. Fewer words rule. The twenty-minute commencement address is almost always better than the forty-minute address. The thirty-minute meeting is almost always more effective than the sixty-minute meeting. The six-minute story is almost always better than the ten-minute story. And yes, the shorter sermon is always better than the longer sermon. As Blaise Pascal first said, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Brevity takes time, because brevity is always better. The longer you speak, the more engaging, amusing, and captivating you must be. That’s a tall order. Those are high expectations. Most people are not engaging, amusing, or captivating by nature. But that’s okay. As the sign says, you don’t have to be nearly as good if you can be quick. Shorter is also harder. I often tell storytellers that it’s easy to tell an eight- to ten-minute story. Almost anyone can find a way to get from beginning to end in ten minutes. But it’s hard to tell a five- to six-minute story. It means making difficult choices about what will stay and what will go. It requires careful crafting and clever construction. Words and phrases must be expertly manipulated. Your choices must be spot-on. But the results are often superior.
The longer you speak, the more perfect and precise you must be. The longer you stand in front of an audience — whether it be a theater or a boardroom — the more entertaining and engaging your words must be. So speak less. Make time your ally.
When it comes to storytelling, I believe that surprise is the only way to elicit an emotional reaction from your audience. Whether it’s laughter, tears, anger, sadness, outrage, or any other emotional response, the key is surprise. This is unlike real life, where many things can give rise to an emotional reaction, and surprise is not always required.
Audiences react with shock and sympathy when my car collides head-on with the Mercedes, mostly because, as terrible as they suspect a head-on collision can be, they don’t expect to discover that my entire bottom row of teeth would be knocked to the back of my mouth or that my head would crash through the windshield. They don’t think my legs would be as ravaged as they are. It’s a surprise. As bad as they may have predicted the accident to be, it’s rare for someone to expect this level of violence and gore. I enhance this surprise through contrast. I paint a very different picture of the world right before the collision. I talk about my hopes for a perfect Christmas. I describe the picture postcard–like appearance of the homes that I pass. I turn the snow, which will prove to be the cause of my downfall, into something beautiful, blanketing the lawns in white. All of this is done specifically to enhance the surprise of the collision. I’m creating contrast between the moment just before the collision and the moment immediately after. I’m establishing expectations so I can quickly upend them. Audiences become emotional and often cry upon learning that my friends have filled the waiting room outside the emergency room, because this is also a surprise. They never see it coming. Part of the reason is that I hide important information in the story (more on this in a moment), but it’s also because I accentuate the surprise by stressing the idea that I am alone. I paint the picture of a boy who is badly hurt and completely alone in a place where no one even knows his name. I’ve primed the audience for an emotional response by playing upon their sympathy, empathy, and outrage.
Storytellers often mitigate or even ruin surprise by making some simple mistakes or failing to accentuate or enhance the potential surprise of the moment. Common mistakes that storytellers make that ruin surprise include: Presenting a thesis statement prior to the surprise. This often takes the form of an opening sentence that gives away all that is surprising about the story. “This is a story about a time in my life when my friends became my family.” “This is a story about a car accident so serious that it took my life, if only for a moment.” “This is the story of a waiting room full of surprise guests.” It sounds ridiculous, I know, but this is done all the time, both onstage and in less formal situations. People feel the need to open their stories with thesis statements, either in an effort to grab the audience’s attention with a loaded statement or (more likely) because this is how they were taught to write in school: thesis statement, followed by supporting evidence and details. But storytelling is the reverse of the five-paragraph essay. Instead of opening with a thesis statement and then supporting it with evidence, storytellers provide the evidence first and then sometimes offer the thesis statement later only when necessary. This is how we allow for surprise.
Thesis statements ruin the surprise every time. In storytelling, our job is to describe action, dialogue, and thought. It is never our job to summarize these things.
Comedians want to be funny. Great storytellers want to be remembered. For this reason, they deploy laughter strategically. If you can’t hide critical details and preserve the surprise, the audience sees it coming a mile away.
The strategies for preserving and enhancing surprise in a story: 1. Avoid thesis statements in storytelling. 2. Heighten the contrast between the surprise and the moment just before the surprise. 3. Use stakes to increase surprise. 4. Avoid giving away the surprise in your story by hiding important information that will pay off later (planting bombs). This is done by: • Obscuring them in a list of other details or examples. • Placing them as far away from the surprise as possible. • When possible, building a laugh around them to further camouflage their importance• Stories should never only be funny. The best ones are those that use humor strategically. Ideally you want your audience to experience a range of emotions over the course of your story. You can’t achieve this if your audience is laughing for the entire time.
Stories aren’t only funny. The best ones take you on an emotional journey, always landing somewhere in the heart, and that leaves an indelible mark that stand-up comedy cannot. Stand-ups want the audience to laugh at all times. Storytellers want the audience to laugh at the right times. Humor is an enormous asset in most stories, but it is not required and should be used strategically whenever possible. If you want your story to linger with your audience (and that should be your goal), you should end in a place that is moving, vulnerable, or revealing, or establishes connection with the audience. Save your laughs for the middle, when you want to keep your audience engaged. Allow them to carry your audience to the end. But end your story with something bigger than a laugh.
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.
For example, in a story entitled “Homeless and the Goat,” I tell the story about the period of my life when I was homeless. Near the end I say, “I was rescued from the streets by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I sleep in a pantry off their kitchen that they’ve converted into a tiny bedroom. I share this room with a Jehovah’s Witness named Rick, a guy who speaks in tongues in his sleep, and the family’s indoor pet goat.” Goat is the funniest word in that paragraph, because it is the most unexpected of all the words. It’s the biggest surprise. Therefore it must be said last. It is the ball that I use to knock down my tower of milk cans. Can you see the tower I built before getting there? Saved by Jehovah’s Witnesses, pantry, tiny bedroom, Rick, speaks in tongues, in his sleep, indoor pet goat. That’s a lot of milk cans. Look at those last two words: indoor and pet. I chose them with care. I say them slowly, with a definite pause between the two. I use these words to enhance the surprise. When I say indoor and pet, my audience is thinking, Dog? Cat? Parakeet? Hamster? Even potbellied pig is an option. But goat? Goat is funny, but it’s only funny when said properly. When my friends tell this story on my behalf, they say things like, “Matt once slept with a goat. And a guy who talked in his sleep. The guy actually spoke in tongues when he was sleeping. They slept in this tiny room off the kitchen of this family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” They kill the humor. They kill it because they can’t wait to say the word goat. They kill it because they make no effort to make the goat more than situationally funny. They kill it by not using the but-and-therefore principle; the way they tell it is essentially with an awful series of ands. I take a situationally funny moment (I once shared a room with a goat) and make it into a bigger laugh by manipulating the language around it. “Car about the size of . . .” is my milk can. It establishes an expectation that whatever is about to follow will be approximately car-size. Riding lawn mower. Horse. King-size bed. Dining-room table. All possibly funny, but not as funny as “box of Pop-Tarts” because “box of Pop-Tarts” is the biggest surprise. I’m comparing a car not to another vehicle and not to another large item, but to a small container for a food-like item. Pop-Tart is also a funny word, which only adds to the humor. 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.
Babies and Blenders is the idea that when two things that rarely or never go together are pushed together, humor often results.
In the story about Elysha discovering that I was hungry as a boy, I describe Charlie like this: Except for Charlie’s obsession with biting his mother’s ass — an obsession I can understand quite well — he is the sweetest boy you’ve ever met. His first complete sentence was “Thank you, Mama.” When he needs a diaper change, he shouts, “Poop is here!” When I arrive home at the end of a long workday, Charlie is the first and often the only person to greet me at the door. Charlie oozes love. But when it comes to food, my sweet, angelic, three-year-old boy is a little asshole. This always gets a laugh, because three-year-old boys are rarely described as assholes, especially after being described as sweet, angelic, and little. In the story about the way that my grandmother pulled my loose teeth, I refer to her as a sadist. Grandmother and sadist are rarely seen together, so it’s funny.
These are not the only two ways to create humor in a story. There are others, of course. But I would argue that almost all humor boils down to one of these two strategies, and really down to surprise.
Exaggeration is another form of Babies and Blenders. We push an unreasonable description against something that doesn’t normally fit that description, and a laugh is the result. But this only works when everyone agrees that you’re exaggerating. If I’m falsely exaggerating in the attempt to make my audience believe that my exaggeration is accurate, that is not an exaggeration. It is a lie — an unacceptable one in my book.
Humor is optional. Heart is nonnegotiable. I told the story — without any thoughts of craft or polish — and when I reached the end, I knew. Through the process of telling the story, I had managed to put myself back into that bathtub, and instantly I understood why this moment had stuck with me for two decades. I realized that the story had two important meanings for me: 1. It was the first time I realized that people will turn their backs in the face of evil and walk away rather than taking a stand. 2. It was the first time I felt that the world was a fundamentally unsafe place, that people will hurt you for no better reasons than traditions and payback. It wasn’t an easy moment to confront in front of an audience of thirty students. That bathtub was a terrible place for me, and when I found myself in it again twenty years later, it was no better. I became emotional. I rushed to the end, leaving out the brutality and specificity of the beating. I wasn’t ready to share it all with an audience, but I had found the meaning. Two meanings, really. And that is no good. Stories can never be about two things. I explained to my students that even though that moment in the bathtub came to mean two different things to me, the story that I tell onstage someday about that moment can only be about one of those things. This is because of what you already know: The ending of the story — your five-second moment — will tell you what the beginning of your story should be. The beginning will be the opposite of the end. If my story is about my realization that the world (and especially people) are fundamentally unsafe and willing to hurt you for the pettiest of reasons, the beginning of my story needs to present my previous belief that people are basically good and the world is generally safe. The arc of the story will trace my path from innocence to cynicism. From optimism to pessimism. If my story is about how people will turn their backs on you in moments of crisis, the beginning of my story needs to be about my belief that people can be depended upon in times of need. The arc of the story will go from faith in my fellow man to a loss of that faith. This is why your story can never be about two things.
Just tell your story. All of it. Forget the strategies. Start in the wrong place and end in the long place. Ramble. The goal is to return to that moment as best as possible in order to find its meaning.
Bruce Springsteen once said in an interview: “Most people’s stage personas are created out of the flotsam and jetsam of their internal geography and they’re trying to create something that solves a series of very complex problems inside of them or in their history.” I heard that and thought, “Yes.” It was the kind of yes that filled every cell of my body. Not yes. Yes. Storytellers seek to constantly make meaning from their lives. We contextualize events, find satisfying endings to periods of our lives, and struggle to explain how our lives make sense and fit into a larger story. Sometimes we see this meaning immediately. My wife says, “I know that when you were a little boy, you didn’t always have enough food to eat,” and I know instantly what this means: Elysha knows me better than anyone has ever known me. She might know me better than myself. And damn, she must really love me. But “Eddie in a Bathtub”? I needed to tell that one. I needed to get back into that bathtub with Eddie to understand why this beating — more than any of the other beatings I experienced that year at the hands of upperclassmen — stayed with me for so long. “Eddie in a Bathtub” was part of the flotsam and jetsam of my internal geography. I needed to solve the complex problem of my history in order to tell the story.
Tell your stories. On stages or in living rooms or at dinner tables. Share them with friends and family and people willing to listen. You never know what might happen. Do you feel as if you’re on the train with me? I’m trying like hell to put you here, because I am still on the train, writing these words. I want you to be here with me. I’m loading you up with sensory information. The sounds and sights and feel of the train. I want you to feel that you’re occupying my space, experiencing time in the way I am experiencing it now. I want you to feel the weight of my son’s reluctant bladder. Another strategy that I’m using to put you on this train with me is the use of the present tense. These events are happening right now for me, literally as I write this sentence, and, I hope, you feel as if they are happening in the space and time that you are occupying as you read these words. 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. It allows me to put you on an Amtrak train somewhere in central New Jersey in the summer of 2017 or in my 1976 Chevy Malibu on a lonely highway in New Hampshire in the fall of 1991 or in a chaotic emergency room on December 23, 1988. The present tense will bring you a little closer to these moments in time. It may even trick you into believing that you have time traveled back in time to these moments.
Did you see what I did there? I opened that section in the present tense again, trying like hell to suck you back into the time and space of the train, but then I shifted to the past tense when I slipped into backstory about the day I taught Charlie how to pee on the tree. I did this deliberately, for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want to compromise the immediacy of the train part by bringing in a second present tense to my story. If I spoke about Charlie’s tree-peeing lesson in the present tense as well, then I would risk diluting the visceral, present-tense nature of the train. Stories cannot have two or more events that took place at different times happen in the present time of the story. It’s like putting a hat on a hat. 2. The use of the past tense in backstory makes sense. It’s in the past. It should be presented as such. This is not always the case, but it’s often the case. When in doubt, tell backstory using the past tense. Following the tree-peeing backstory, I end that last section by returning you to the present tense. I placed you back on the train, walking down the aisle, passing the woman with the knowing glance after another failed attempt. I want you with me on that train again, if you left at all. Some storytellers are able to see their stories. As they tell it, they almost relive the moments. Rather than staring into the eyes of their audience, their minds recreate a vision of the events as they unfold. I see my stories. When the Mercedes is barreling down on me and the double doors are opening on the emergency room and my friends are standing there, I see them in my mind’s eye. I can see the events again as if a movie is playing in my eyes. Seeing your story as you tell it is a great thing. It will help you connect to it more effectively. Your emotional state will more closely match your actual emotions from the time and place that you are describing. When you can see your story, it is more likely that your audience will see your story too. I chose the past tense because I was writing about Charlie peeing on the train. I didn’t feel I needed to bring you into that tiny restroom with me while my son was sitting bare-assed on the toilet. Some things are told better from a distance. Urination, I think, is one of them. But then I switched to the present tense when I admitted to crying in the restroom, because in that moment, I wanted you as close to me as possible. But the important part is this: I made the choice. I weighed my options. I didn’t simply default to one tense. I chose what I thought was the correct tense for that particular moment. That said, not every person can tell stories in the present tense. I meet many people who have been telling stories exclusively in the past tense for years. Shifting to the present tense occupies so much of their mental bandwidth that it does more harm than good. There is nothing wrong with telling a story from the past — even five minutes in the past — using the past tense. You will not be a terrible storyteller if you do. In a lot of ways, this is the most intuitive, logical, and expected way to talk about the past. It makes a lot of sense. But try the present tense. See if it’s something you can fall into naturally. If you can, great. You’ll have a much better chance of drawing your audience into your story and perhaps seeing your story as well. You’ll have more choices to make in crafting your story, and they will give you an additional strategy for your toolbox.
There are times when you might want to tell a success story, and when you do, there are two strategies that I suggest you employ. 1. Malign yourself. 2. Marginalize your accomplishment. Rather than attempting to be grandiose about yourself or your success, you must undermine both you and it. This is because of two realities: First, human beings love underdog stories. The love for the underdog is universal. Underdogs are supposed to lose, so when they manage to pull out an unexpected or unbelievable victory, our sense of joy is more intense than if that same underdog suffers a crushing defeat. A crushing defeat is expected. An unbelievable win is a surprise. You already know the importance of surprise in storytelling. If you cast yourself as the underdog, your audience will enjoy your success. They will root for you. They will expect you to lose and hope for you to win. This is why Bruce Willis is outnumbered and barefoot in Die Hard. This is why Star Wars opens on a massive star destroyer attacking Princess Leia’s tiny rebel ship. This is why Jack is from the wrong side of the tracks in Titanic. Underdogs are what make movies like Rudy, Revenge of the Nerds, The Breakfast Club, Miracle, The Karate Kid, A League of Their Own, Rocky, The Bad News Bears, Erin Brockovich, and Hoosiers so beloved. All of these movies feature protagonists who are not expected to win. They are flawed, forgotten, failed people who achieve unexpected success.
Human beings prefer stories of small steps over large leaps. Most accomplishments, both great and small, are not composed of singular moments but are the culmination of many small steps. Overnight success stories are rare. They can also be disheartening to those who dream of similar success. The step-by-step nature of accomplishment is what people understand best.
Rather than telling a story of your full and complete accomplishment, tell the story of a small part of the success. Tell about a small step. Feel free to allude to the better days that may lie ahead, but don’t try to tell everything. Small steps only.
In its best form, storytelling is time travel. If I am doing my job well and telling an excellent story, you may, for just a moment, forget that you exist in the present time and space and travel back to the year and location that I am describing.
Theaters are designed the way they are. Filmmakers want you to forget that you’re watching fiction. They want you to laugh and cry and worry about people who are pretending to be other people in a story that never actually happened. It sounds crazy, but you know it works. You’ve become so engrossed in the lives of fake people that you have wept among strangers in the dark. This is what great storytelling can do. Filmmakers also want you to forget about your own life for a while. Put aside your troubles. Ignore the fact that you’re sitting beside strangers in a seat that has been occupied by thousands of strangers before you. Filmmakers want to transport you too. Not through time, but to a fictional world they have created on the screen. As a storyteller, I seek a similar goal. I attempt to encircle my audience in a time-traveling bubble. I want to thrust them back to a time and place of my determination. If I’m doing it right, and my audience is in the right frame of mind, and the conditions are ideal, I believe it can happen. But it’s a fragile bubble. It can be popped easily. It doesn’t take much. Storytellers must be careful if they don’t want to ruin any time-traveling magic that they might muster. Here are some rules to avoid popping this mystical bubble: Don’t ask rhetorical questions. Actors in movies never ask rhetorical questions of their audience (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being the only exception I have found so far), and neither should you. Asking a rhetorical question causes the audience to devise an answer in their mind. You have just turned your story into a Q&A session. You’ve reminded them that you exist, they exist, and this moment that you and they are occupying exists. Don’t address the audience or acknowledge their existence whatsoever. Avoid phrases like “You guys!” for the same reason you shouldn’t ask rhetorical questions. When a storyteller says something like “You guys, you’re not going to believe this!” the bubble is instantly broken. Time travel has abruptly ended. The audience is keenly aware that someone is standing in front of them, speaking directly to them and the people sitting around them. This also applies when the audience talks back to you. If you say, “I was walking across the campus at Ohio State” and someone in the audience shouts in approval at the mention of their alma mater, say nothing and do nothing. Unless you’re speaking in a Baptist church, storytelling is rarely a call-and-response scenario, so pretend the whoop or the cheer was never uttered. Ignore it completely. We disregard fools in the hope that our lack of recognition will cause them to cease acting foolish in the future. Allow them to silently stew in a puddle of shame and regret, and move on. No props. Ever. I once listened to a man tell a story about his frantic sprint through the Miami airport while dragging his daughter to catch a flight. He treated everyone in his path terribly. He was rude, dismissive, and unkind. When he finally arrived at the ticket counter, he demanded that the airline employee hurry so he and his daughter could board the plane before it was too late. The airline employee looked at the ticket, smiled, and told the man not to worry. He had plenty of time. The ticket was for next month. The man looked down at his daughter and realized that he had just dragged her through the airport, setting the worst example for her ever. He felt like a fool. Great story told brilliantly. I could feel the heat and humidity of Miami. I could see the throngs of travelers blocking his path. I could even hear the public-address system call out flight numbers and gates. I was in that airport with him and his child. Brilliant. Then he removed the ticket from his back pocket and waved it to the audience. “And it’s still good,” he said. “Too bad I won’t be in Miami three days from now to use it.” Pop! That was it. I was no longer in the Miami airport. I was in a theater in Brooklyn, staring at a middle-aged man with a piece of paper in his hand. Time travel over. Did the ticket help his story? Of course not. It punched his nearly perfect story right in the mouth. Don’t use props. They never help. Even worse, they always hurt. Avoid anachronisms. An anachronism is a thing that is set in a period other than that in which it exists. It’s a microwave in the Middle Ages. A refrigerator during the Renaissance. The internet during the Inquisition. If you’re telling a story about something that happened in 1960, but at some point you say that your mission was as unlikely as the moon landing, you’ve created a temporal impossibility in the story and likely popped your time-traveling bubble. Anachronisms are like sledgehammers, reminding us that this story is just a story. It reinforces the idea that we are not traveling through time. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are also unavoidable. In “Charity Thief,” I mention that it’s 1991 and cell phones don’t exist. I hate saying this. If cell phones didn’t exist in 1991, then they shouldn’t be spoken of at all in my story. The only reason I mention the absence of a cell phone is because too many millennials have asked me why I didn’t have a cell phone on that day, so I feel the need to control their wonder by reminding the audience that something that didn’t exist in 1991 did not exist in 1991. Apparently if you’ve lived in a world where cell phones have always existed, it’s hard to imagine them not existing. Annoying. But in most cases, I avoid these anachronisms at all costs. Don’t mention the word story in your story. Phrases like, “But that’s a story for another day,” or “Long story short” serve to remind our audience that we are telling a story. If your audience knows that you’re telling a story, then they’re not time traveling. Downplay your physical presence as much as possible. When I tell a story onstage (or even in a workshop or at a conference), I wear blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a hat. I wear this every time. It’s my uniform, chosen because it suits me as a person and is fairly nondescript. My goal is to downplay my physical presence. I want to increase the likelihood of becoming a disembodied voice in the mind of my audience. I want them to completely forget that I’m standing in front of them. There was a time when I varied my outfit slightly. I wore graphical T-shirts and other variations of shirts and pants. Then I took the stage in Boston one night wearing a T-shirt featuring a half-dozen storm troopers from Star Wars, sitting on a beam, looking like construction workers. As I adjusted the microphone, a cluster of audience members up front began to laugh. I looked. Why were they laughing? I listened. They were laughing at the graphic on my shirt. I didn’t want my audience laughing yet. I didn’t want them looking at me. I didn’t want them taking inventory of my wardrobe or thinking about my shirt at all. From that moment on, I’ve opted for the same bland outfit every time. This is not to say that jeans and a black T-shirt are my recommendation for everyone. Just don’t wear clothing that might upstage you or attract the audience’s attention during your story. An audience member once told me, “Listening to you tell a story is like listening to an audiobook.” Exactly what I wanted. Actors are required to memorize their lines. You are not, nor should you. Actors also have fellow actors on the stage or in the wings to help them when they forget a line. Actors are also pretending to be other people. It’s hard to be authentic and vulnerable when you’re reciting lines. It’s also obvious to an audience when a storyteller is simply reciting a story instead of telling a story. Instead of memorizing your story word-for-word, memorize three parts to a story: 1. The first few sentences. Always start strong. 2. The last few sentences. Always end strong. 3. The scenes of your story. If you’re following my advice and placing every moment of your story in a physical location, then your story will be composed of scenes: places where the action, dialogue, and internal monologues are taking place. If you remember these places, you will remember what happens there, even if every prepared word of your story suddenly flees your mind. In “This Is Going to Suck,” for example, my scenes are: 1. On the sidewalk outside the record store 2. Driving in my car through Mendon, Massachusetts 3. The accident scene immediately following the collision 4. The ambulance 5. The emergency room 6. The waiting room outside the emergency room 7. The other side of the emergency room I don’t memorize my stories. I memorize the places where my story takes me, so even if I can’t remember how I want to tell it, I can still do so. I may lose some laugh lines, clever transitions, and “golden sentences,” but I’m still telling my story. It may not sound as good as it could, but I’m not trapping my audience in awkward, story-killing silence. Some people remember their scenes in a list, but I actually remember these scenes as circles in my mind. The size of the circle reflects the size of the scene. The color of the circle reflects the tone and tenor of the scene. This is not something I do purposefully. It’s just the way I have always remembered my stories. I tell you this because for some people, this method has been exceptionally helpful. I try not to have more than seven scenes in a story. The phone company uses seven digits in our phone numbers because they determined that seven bits of information is the most that the average person can retain at one time. Seven feels right to me. I have some stories that only have three scenes — even better. I have a story composed of just one scene. But seven is my max. Find a person on your left, a person on your right, and a person dead center who likes you. These will be the people who are smiling. Nodding. Laughing. Use these three people as your guideposts. Make eye contact with them, and the people in each of those areas will feel you are attending to them as well. Choosing people who like you will make you feel great. I like to think about storytelling in terms of superheroes, because I believe that a person who can speak in an entertaining and engaging way to a group of people possesses a superpower that is sorely lacking in the world today. As people’s gazes continue to fall to their screens and communication is truncated into bite-size text messages, the human beings who can still hold the attention of an audience and teach and speak in an entertaining way possess enormous power. In 2015, I spent some time in Brazil consulting with an engineering firm. The CEO of the company told me that he would rather hire poorly trained engineers who can speak to potential clients, meet with government agencies, and pitch projects to large groups of people than highly skilled engineers who lack these communication skills. Why? “I can teach a bad engineer to be a good engineer. But I have no idea how to turn a person who can’t write or speak well into someone who can. I’m not sure if it’s even possible.” It’s possible; unfortunately, it takes longer than the afternoon I was spending with this man. But think about that: bad engineers who can speak well will be hired over good engineers who cannot. That is a superpower. Or think about it this way: If you are conducting a one-hour meeting at your company, you have effectively stolen one hour from every person in the room. If there are twenty people in the room, your presentation is now the equivalent of a twenty-hour investment. It is therefore your responsibility to ensure that you do not waste the hour by reading from PowerPoint slides, providing information that could have been delivered via email, lecturing, pontificating, pandering, or otherwise boring your audience. You must entertain, engage, and inform. Every single time.