Recently, I delivered a 30 minute talk about how to find raw material for storytelling. I described the walk from my home to the venue for the talk. I showed myself pondering what to say to the group as I walked along. (Most was prepared in advance!) Plotting your story means turning mundane material into something your audience wants to hear.
Every incident was something I experienced that same day. I had ideas before I set out, knowing the places I would walk through. I prepared teaching and exercises for the group and incorporated reflections on the exercises in the fictional walk.
On the way in I noted, there was a polling station in Sorby House, this enabled me to remind my listeners to vote! By the river, I encountered two boys, one of whom threw a half bottle of Coca Cola into the river. I was annoyed but then celebrated because I could add the incident to my story.
I ended by describing a heron I saw on the river. I saw the heron that day, several hours before the walk.
The exercises showed how we find stories from our pasts. My story illustrated use of material from this day to make a story. Processing raw material into a narrative is plotting. “I walked to this meeting and on the way saw a polling station, a boy throw a bottle in the river and a heron” may not feel like a story but it depends on what you do with the material; it depends on plotting your story.
What is Plotting?
It’s the shape you give to your story. Once you have a story, work out how to tell it. One story, many possible plots. The challenge is to tell a compelling story that holds attention and delivers a satisfactory conclusion. Here are a few things to consider.
If you tell the story in the order in which it happened, it can be very effective. For my story about the walk, it makes sense to begin at the beginning of the journey, follow the route and end at the end. Most people don’t know the route and so wouldn’t know if I varied it but the story needs logical progression.
However, chronological order can be tedious. We’ve all heard stories begin with “I was born in 1973 and went to school at …”. There are many things wrong with this approach. It’s dull. There’s nothing to root for in this account, why should I care about the year you were born or where you went to school? If these facts matter, mention them in passing.
Begin stories with action; something the audience cares about. It could be some dilemma: “Should I hand myself into the police and face years in prison?” This raises questions like, what had I done? Did I go to prison? How did I get out? Opening this way, deliberately holds back information to share as you tell the story. The audience trusts you to answer these questions (and more!) as the story unfolds.
Open in the action and then work out questions that might be in the listeners’ minds? In what order will you answer them? How can you tell the story to answer them in that order? Building tension as you unravel a mystery, is far more compelling than one damn thing after another.
In the Present
One way to avoid dull chronological accounts is to set the story in the present moment. Here are a few things to think about.
If this is a story of transformation, show us the end-state first. Say, you recovered from alcoholism. Perhaps begin the story by showing your present lifestyle. It needs to be active in some way: “I’m about to go on stage and deliver my keynote speech in front of 400 people. A few years ago I would not have done this, even fortified by a stiff drink.” From here flashback to your history and return to the keynote, possibly highlighting what happened afterwards.
Note how I constructed a false present in the telling. “I’m about to go on stage…” and not “I was about to go on stage …”. It’s a false present in the sense that the real present is you and your audience. The false present shows you post-transformation and invites comparison with an earlier time when certain issues were not resolved. It also enables return to the false present and indeed to the real present: “… and that’s how I’m able to tell you this story today.” Not particularly exciting as an ending but it shows what I mean.
Begin Close to the End
Bring the action of the story as close to the present as possible. Usually, you offer your audience hope. Show how change has happened in your life, explain how it happened and then return to the present. You could begin with some key crisis point to build tension, while you explain how you got there and finish the story by resolving the crisis.
This approach satisfies the audience. When you return to the crisis, the audience knows the tension will soon be resolved and the story will close.
The story will depend on flashbacks. A common pattern is CABC. Here A is how you got into the problem. This may be childhood issues or some mistake you made. B is how you resolved the issue. C is the state you are in now that contrasts with the state you were in when the problem began.
There are many alternative plot structures. It’s worth thinking through how your story works when you focus on the end of the story and then work out how you got there.
Finish the Story
Once you resolve the tension in the story, finish as swiftly as you can. It’s tempting to ramble on, drawing out lessons, explaining what happened later and how all your friends reacted to the changes in your life. When the story is over, it’s over – don’t prolong the agony!
One option is to segue into teaching. Incorporate teaching into your story or break the story for teaching. The way to do this is to finish the story with some key idea you draw from the story. Then start teaching with the same key idea. This is where to include a call to action or make an offer, if you are telling a marketing story.
There’s a lot to plotting and it’s impossible to cover it all in one blog post. The genius to good storytelling is in how you tell it. Indeed, as your skills as a storyteller develop, you’ll make even the most mundane activity into a compelling narrative.
Future posts will explore other aspects of plotting and next time we’ll look at setting the scene.