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Cat mystery

Use Distraction to Hide Something Important

Last time I explained misdirection.  Distraction is related: here you conceal something significant early in your story.  The audience forgets about it until it reappears towards the end.

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 5

Daniel landed catlike on his feet.  Folk cheered him as he held the silver asp aloft.  Cat and Little Sparrow were at his side and Cat moved them on.  Little Sparrow removed Daniel’s mask and gave it back to Cat.  Daniel slipped the asp onto Little Sparrow’s wrist.

Cat reminded Little Sparrow she’d said she’d reward him.  He smiled his wickedest smile.  “Stroke me!”

Little Sparrow froze in terror.  Daniel objected.  Why did he insist on tormenting her?  “Because I’m a cat, it’s what I do.  It’s up to her.  If not, it’s another tuna steak!”

Little Sparrow knelt down and held out her hand.  Cat walked towards her and as her hand touched him, began to purr.  Daniel stood there open-mouthed.

“I’m off home” said Cat, “Don’t stay out all night, she can look after herself.”

Daniel and Little Sparrow walked toward Josiah’s village. Suddenly, Little Sparrow stopped, Daniel walked on a few paces before he realised.  “Daniel”, she said.  “Yes?”  “May I hold your hand?”

He held out his hand and she slipped hers into his.  “Oh, it’s so cold!”  She pulled her hand away.  “Sorry. No, no it feels good!”

And so they walked on together hand in hand.

Near the junction with Josiah’s road, they stopped.  Little Sparrow let go of Daniel’s hand and faced him.  “Daniel, friend.  I thank you.”  She bowed.  Then she turned and ran down the road to her beloved. 

That was the last Daniel saw of her.  Except …


A few days later Cat was annoyed at Daniel’s moping.  “Forget her, she’s gone”. 

“I know.  She’ll be back under water now.  It just hard not knowing how it went.”

“Well, that’s easy, go and ask him.”

A few hours later Daniel walked down the lane toward Josiah’s house.

As Daniel approached the gate, the old man looked up from his roses.  “You must be Daniel.”

The old man said he’d never forgotten Little Sparrow.  He believed she was gone, drowned.  He’d married, had children and grandchildren and passed his love of birds to them.  “I’m so grateful to you”, he said, “my time is close and now I have a name for my lips.”  He’d prepared a gift for Daniel.  An album of photos of birds.

Back home, Daniel and Cat, turned each page.  Cat thought it would make a good take-away menu.  They turned the last page and there was a different photo.  Josiah and Little Sparrow, arm in arm, looking into each other’s eyes.  No mask.

The Gun in the First Act

The playwright, Chekhov, said that if you see a gun in the first act, it’ll be used in the last.  The challenge is to introduce the gun in such a way, the audience forget about it.  When it’s used, it’s been present all along.

How well have I done this in the five parts of this story?  This is a story about loneliness.  I probably need to make more of Daniel’s loneliness in part 1.  The fact he’s accepted an invitation from friends, shows him coming out of his shell.  Perhaps it helps him understand Little Sparrow. 

In between we have scenes of possession, comedy and the dreadful rabbit, not to mention the mystery of Bryony his grandmother.

This final part brings us back to this underlying theme.  Cat shows Little Sparrow can overcome her fears.  Daniel perhaps doesn’t see this so clearly.

The love story plays out but it is not the key relationship.  It is the friendship between Daniel and Little Sparrow.  He understands she must know whether Josiah remembers her. It’s important the lovers are reunited.  But the emotion is in Daniel’s empathy for Little Sparrow.

Provide Information Early

Now you know the end, you understand what motivates Daniel in the middle.  Why does he go through so much for Little Sparrow?  Once we know the end, we see the initial description of Daniel’s loneliness informs everything that follows.  The magic, the strangeness of the world he inhabits does not matter.  What matters is why he does what he does. 

Note how misdirection and distraction reinforce one another.  Is this a story about magical Folk?  Or is it about a teenage boy with compassion?  The magic is largely misdirection.  It distracts us from Daniel’s state of mind.  We know he’s lonely from the start.  We see the significance of this towards the end. 

Using Distraction

Distraction is finding ways to conceal the importance of some detail.  I’ll share a few ideas but if you innovate, you are more likely to succeed. 

Remember you know the end of the story and your audience does not.  This means you can relax.  It may seem obvious to you but it won’t necessarily be obvious to them.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Describe a scene and conceal something important in the description. 
  • Show the important thing being used for some other purpose.
  • Mention a weakness when describing the villain.  You could depict the weakness as a strength. 
  • Hide it in plain sight.  For example, the container that holds something of value might be more important than its contents.
  • Describe something from the perspective of the protagonist, who might not appreciate its importance at that moment.
  • Build a foreground scene that conceals something in the background.
  • A departed character makes an unexpected reappearance. 

This concludes this sequence about storytelling for the present. 

Over Here. No, This Way

What is Misdirection in Storytelling?

Misdirection builds suspense in your stories.  When you begin a story, your audience does not know how it ends.  If it’s your life story, you survived, so how do you surprise your audience?

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 4

Cat licked his lips and then his paw, his eyes on Little Sparrow.  Daniel had apologised for putting her through this audience with the Oracle. 

“So, what’s it worth?  You don’t want me to eat the bird?”

“Tuna steak”, said Daniel.   “Two this week, on condition you help us.”

“Done.  I’ve heard there’s lots of new Folk from the reservoir.  They’re having a scramble tonight.  Get to know each other.  Visit old friends before they go back underwater.”


“The prize is the silver asp.  When Folk wear it, they become human for one day.”

Little Sparrow fluttered around, excitedly.  She could enter and win and meet Josiah!

“Hah”, said Cat, “you’ve no chance.  The Rabbit’s entering and no-one has ever beaten him in a scramble, apart from Bryony.”

“My grandmother?”

“He’ll want to win when he discovers she’s taking part again.” 

“Cat, she died before I was born.”

“He’ll think you’re her.”

“No, I … Look, I’m human, they won’t let me take part.”   Daniel thought he’d spotted a flaw in Cat’s plan. 

“Which is why I’m going to lend you my mask.  With that they’ll think you’re Folk.  And you’ll move like I do, with power and grace and not like a teenage boy.”

Cat rarely took human form.  Daniel had never seen his mask.  Cat’s true name remained a mystery.

Little Sparrow had every confidence in Daniel.  How had he got roped into this?  She wanted to know how to thank Cat. 

“If I can’t eat you, there’s something you can do for me when you’re human.   And it’s another tuna steak for the loan of the mask.  The bird must fasten it on, you must not see the outside.  It’s got ‘Idiot inside’ written on it.”

The Scramble

Daniel stood on the land in the reservoir, staring at a massive crowd of folk.  Most expected Rabbit to win. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else.  Fully armoured, snarling at any Folk who came too close.  “That’s Rabbit”, said Cat unnecessarily. 

Daniel wore the mask and mingled with the crowd.  Then the murmuring began.  “Bryony …. Bryony …”  The rabbit turned and snarled at him.  “I told you don’t race me again.  This time I win and you release me.”  What did he mean?  Daniel had no idea, release from what?  What had his grandmother done and when and how …?

The race was along the shore and then up the bank to a great oak and high in its branches, the silver asp glinted in the sun.  Suddenly the crowd surged forwards and the race began.  Cat had said use elbows and teeth, push them aside, be ruthless.  Daniel found he was stronger more agile, cat-like.  He shot ahead of all but Rabbit, who bounded along the shore.  He was soon at the tree and began to climb.  Daniel caught up and he could see the Rabbit was less good at climbing and his armour slowed him.  He leapt onto the tree and began to climb but the Rabbit blocked his way.  Daniel leapt onto the Rabbit’s back and then from his shoulder, leapt ahead, reached the asp, grasped it and fell to the ground below. 

Misdirection and Your Audience

This part of the story is a massive exercise in misdirection.  I’m not going to spoil the final part but notice what I’ve done here.  The silver asp is a McGuffin.  It is a magical instrument and its purpose is to bring the story to its conclusion.  Very little else contributes to the resolution to the story.  It raises questions about the relationship between Cat and Daniel, who Daniel’s grandmother was and why so many Folk know her, what did she do that the Rabbit wants to be released from? 

Cat has his own agenda and this brings humour into the story.  You get the impression, Daniel’s going to be paying for tuna steaks for some time.  Note the way Cat and Little Sparrow assume Daniel will take part in the scramble. 

You think you’re going to find out more about this magical world.  You’re not.  The story pivots as Daniel falls from the tree.  That’s misdirection!

Concealing the Ending

The ending is consistent from what has gone before but it also has a different feel to it.  The ground is laid in what has gone before.  This is the point of misdirection, you set off in apparently one direction and then pivot the story in a different direction. 

Humour is a common means to misdirect.  You think this is a funny story and then the story pivots to tragedy. 

In this story, Little Sparrow will either find the love of her life or else she will not.  One of those has to be true.  We can all see that.  Can the ending surprise?  Yes, it can.  

Comedy and Tragedy

When you start a story, your audience does not know what will happen.  Don’t announce at the start, this story is a comedy and has a happy ending.  We see this in Rom Coms, there is always a point where the principle couple seem to be impossibly far apart.  We genuinely believe they cannot possibly get together and then at the last moment …

There is a point where it could swing either way. The audience does not know what will happen.  Comedy or tragedy?  Keep them guessing until the very end.

Distraction is a close ally of misdirection.  Here relevant material is divulged early in the story, where its significance is downplayed. 


Wonder in Storytelling

Wonder helps the storyteller change the way we see things, builds suspense and holds attention.  Witness the story of the sparrow.  It is a story for entertainment, to be performed, not written.  What do I seek to change with this story?

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 3.

Little Sparrow kept close to Daniel.  She watched him sleep, she followed him everywhere, which was awkward in the bathroom.  Folk are not usually visible to humans and they don’t see things as we do.  Little Sparrow decided Daniel was a friend and she would not leave his side.  She was terrified of Cat and so when he left her outside the bathroom, Cat lost no opportunity to torment her. 

Daniel was glad to get out of the house and took the bus into town.  Little Sparrow sat fluttered beside him on the bus.  She sang a sad, sweet little song. Away from Cat, she seemed calm and determined.  She’d resolved to find the one she loved, to know whether he still loved her.  There were a few days before the waters returned and she would be drawn back into them.

Into Town

They arrived in the city centre and made their way to the Local Studies Library.  The Library was built where trees and animals existed and some persist and found themselves in a library.  Some enjoy fun, hiding things and turning pages when people look away.  Others try to help, although their understanding of help might be different from ours.  They were greeted by a librarian and beside her an old squirrel-headed Folk, with spectacles perched on the end of its nose.  He was delighted a Folk had come to the library for help. 

Daniel asked the librarian for a map of the flooded village, he wanted to find the house.  Various Folk flittered and flustered about.  Soon, a duck waddled over and guided Daniel’s hand, helped him write the names of books he needed.  It wanted to help Bryony, Daniel’s grandmother. With genealogies and electoral rolls, they came upon the name of Hinchcliffe.  Then they found the oldest son was Josiah and still alive. 

Daniel sat with Little Sparrow in the Peace Gardens.  He held his phone to his ear as he explained they were going to visit him and find out whether Josiah is indeed the one she seeks.  Daniel tried to prepare her for disappointment.  She listened and said she knew it was the right name.

Josiah’s Garden

They took the bus to a small village, not far from the reservoir.  Daniel walked to the end of the street.  Little Sparrow sniffed the air.  Daniel found a spot where he could see unseen.  The man lived in a small cottage with a lovely garden, full of roses.  He was deadheading and carried a small package on a strap around his neck.  Daniel wondered what it was and then he saw the man pause and look at a songbird in a tree.  He stood still and opened the package, a camera. 

Meanwhile, Little Sparrow edged closer.  As she entered the garden and stood in front of him, Josiah paused and looked up.  He sighed and then continued with his work. 

Eventually, Little Sparrow returned to Daniel.  She was very sad.  Daniel said he thought this would happen.  People often lost second sight as they grew older. 

He explained the next step was to consult the Oracle.  Little Sparrow was very excited until Daniel explained the Oracle was his friend, Cat.

Wonder in the Story of the Sparrow

This is literally a fairy story.  Fairies are often called Folk.  But what I want is to reinvent Folk.  They are often depicted with a king and queen.  My Folk are anarchic.  They are blobs of sentience that take a wide range of forms.  We glimpse more in the next part. 

They have different personalities.  Little Sparrow is timid, calm and determined.  She knows what she wants and she’ll stop at nothing to get it.  Cat is argumentative, opinionated and has his own agenda.  Others are helpful, mischievous or dangerous.  Their relationship with our world is half in and half out.  They see us more than we see them. 

Structuring their world this way has advantages for the storyteller.  Relationships with Folk take many forms.  We see a relationship between Daniel and Cat, never fully explained.  It is established, free and easy, they appear as friends who argue.  The odd thing about Cat is he appears to be a real cat.  It’s not clear from this story whether others see him but there is something odd and in-between about him. 

The key relationship in this story is between Daniel and Little Sparrow.  I can’t say too much at this stage.  What we have seen so far is his compassion for her.  She is totally dependent on him to help her. 

It is the friendship we see develop that gives this story its emotional heft.  The wonder is in the relationship not the strange imaginary world of Folk.

Wonder in Real Life Stories

Can we learn anything from the story to help us structure real life stories?  What evokes wonder in a real life story?

Here are a few things:

  • Relationships – genuine relationships, showing love and compassion, are rare in stories I hear.  Maybe people find it easier to talk about past failings than to talk about love.  But love is only one possible relationship.  Friendship and even rivalry can be moving.  There are negative relationships as well and there are reasons storytellers avoid using them.  We might agree someone deserves punishment but is it a good note to end a story, if you are promoting your business?  Wonder is perhaps best encountered where positive relationships overcome negative.
  • Transformation – where someone becomes a better person.  This is usually the protagonist but might be someone else.  The ending of many fairy stories, “they married and lived happily ever after” may be trite but summarises the transformation we see. 
  • Spectacle – where we see something we have never seen before.  The story triggers imagination and invites us to see things differently.  This implies a sense of place, sharing details that help us see something not seen before.  This may be somewhere far away, we’ve never seen but can see as a result of a story.  Or else somewhere familiar, seen from a new perspective.

Meaning – Should Stories Have a Moral?

Maybe a fourth source of wonder is meaning.  Business owners have a purpose telling stories but meaning does not necessarily evoke wonder.  A story that helps us see things differently and act in consequence, may evoke wonder.

Confluence of wonder and meaning is powerful and easy to misuse.  Think of slogans like “Make America Great Again”.  For true believers these words evoke a story.  They’ve heard the story and listen to it repeatedly.  But do they think of it as a story or as the truth by which they live?

We see competing stories in politics.  You need a more powerful story to compete with one already powerful.  This is why images such as “unicorns” or “sunlit uplands” don’t work.  Those who oppose Brexit need a better story, they cannot win the argument without it.

Stories are Powerful

In the words of the Amazing Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  Stories are powerful and business people are obliged, with everyone else, to use them with care to build relationships and empower audiences.

It is in the nature of stories to have multiple meanings.  Retell a story to bring out a new meaning.  If you don’t do that you find audiences apply their own meanings to stories.  This might be what you want but make it a conscious decision.

However, bringing a story to a moral, “therefore we should all live in this better way”, is not effective.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  You know what meaning you want to communicate, and so build it into the story.  An effective way is to conceal the meaning of the story until the end.  There are two ways to do this, misdirection and distraction, and I shall cover these in the next two posts.

Dead bird with fairy

Build Suspense to Hold Attention

Last time, I covered use of humour in storytelling.  One use is to build suspense.  Humour diverts attention from incoming disaster.  Here is part 2 of the story I started last time.  Note how I use suspense in this part of the story.

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 2

Daniel’s grandmother left him a box of belongings.  She too had second sight but he didn’t know how she used it or what became of her.  He searched her belongings to find her mirror.  A mirror with silver backing.  Folk have an interesting relationship with silver.

Daniel peered into the mirror and recoiled at the vicious, beaked, red-eyed monster.  He threw the mirror down on his bed and stepped back.  The Folk trapped in the mirror would escape!  In a flurry of feathers and fear, anger and energy, the creature struggled and propelled itself out of the mirror and towards Daniel. 

He held out his hand and shouted: halt!  The creature fell to the floor.  “Well done”, said Cat, “I’ll finish it off.”  Cat licked its lips.

“No” – Daniel stepped forward – “let me hear it out”.  “Oh, you’re never going to help this one.  It possessed you.  Proper put the wind up me.” 

The creature stirred.  Its form changed as it took in its surroundings.  Now it appeared as a young woman.  She wore a half mask, covering her eyes, common among Folk who have not shared their name.  She leapt onto the bed and cowered in the corner, never taking her eyes off Cat.

Daniel sat on the opposite end of the bed.  He spoke gently, “What do you want?”  Folk fear human contact but also crave it.  The Little Sparrow had died in the mouth of a cat.  “Please Cat, let us be.”  Daniel opened the door.  “This’ll end in tears, mark my words.  I’m here if you need help despatching it.”  A gentle foot hastened Cat’s departure.

Sparrow’s Story

Little Sparrow was calmer now.  She had been the adventurous chick in her nest and balanced on the edge before she could fly.  A young boy had seen her fall but couldn’t reach the nest.  She loved his warm hands, gentleness and smell.  And he fed her.  But the cat got in and …

In the way of Folk, some souls persist.  She persisted, hid from the boy and watched him.  He sensed she was there.  He coaxed her with morsels of bread.  She took her current form.  They happily played and talked together.  Then one day, he left.  Followed by waters that covered and trapped her.  Until this summer.  She saw her chance when Daniel appeared and hitched a lift.   

Daniel asked: “You want to find him?”, she nodded,  “It’s a long time, you know he may be dead or love another or forgotten you?  But you need to know?  Do you know his name?”

She did not.

Why is Attention Important

This is a first written draft of a story I plan to tell live.  My challenge is to grasp and hold attention.  Reading it and part 1, in the last blog post, do you want to know what happens next?  If your audience does, you have a viable story.

Aim to tell a story that captures and holds attention.  In business this has advantages.  It produces emotional buy-in.  Skilled storytellers sell through their story; by the end of the story their audience (or some of them) are ready to buy.  You might not be quite so persuasive but a good story means an audience predisposed to hear out your offer.

If the audience wants to know what happens next, they listen.  This helps you segue into teaching at the end or during the story.  You build a relationship with your audience and invite them to continue that relationship through some offer.  This need not be a sale, it could be signing up to an email list, for example. 

How to Build Suspense

Hold attention by building suspense.  Suspense in this story comes from several places.  There are two big mysteries and I’m not planning to reveal them too soon.  One is the mystery of where this story is going.  Clearly, they are going to search for the missing boy.  How will that work out?  There’s how they set about it, what they find … and that’s all to come.

The second big mystery is the nature of the protagonist.  I have dropped hints about Daniel.  Who is he and what can he do?  What about his cat?  And his grandmother is part of the mystery.  And what about Folk?  Who are they and what do they want?

Here are more techniques:


Notice how I divide this story into parts.  I don’t necessarily recommend you do this.  This story is better told in one helping.  But notice whether you want to know more when you get to the final line.  If you break a story, it is a good way to hold attention.  Is the story compelling enough to persuade someone to open your email next time?

Slow Description

Another approach to suspense is to slow things down.  The creature does not emerge from the mirror immediately.  Daniel throws the mirror on the bed and then it flies at Daniel.  These are only a few lines and the problem is quickly despatched.  You don’t know what is going to happen and so slowing down the narrative builds suspense.  Contrast with the later story of the Little Sparrow and her friend.  Here I speed up the narrative.  It’s stuff you need to know but there’s no need to linger. 

This story has a number of moments that are action packed and moving.  I make decisions about when to linger and when to get a move on.

Hold Back Information

One way to build attention is hold back information.  There are two types of information.  Information about characters or back story.  The characters in my Story of the Sparrow all have back stories.  I hint at back stories but don’t go into detail.  It’s not necessary.  Hints suggest depth for the characters.  You need to know about Daniel’s grandmother but need little detail.  Other information is held back until later in the story. 

Don’t Apologise

There is no need to explain anything, simply tell the story.  I could begin the story by saying this is a story about a Sparrow who is seeking love.  But I don’t need to say this because the story explains it. 

At the start, you know nothing about the story.  Is it comedy or tragedy?  Who should we root for?  Who are the characters?  They’re all mysterious.  Daniel is not an ordinary schoolboy.  Declaring he has second sight at the start serves to identify this as a fairy story – it’s equivalent to “Once Upon a Time”. 

He commands the Sparrow to halt.  He has a talking cat.  I don’t have to explain this.  We find out more as the story progresses but there will remain questions at the end. 

Concealed Information

Conceal information that does not seem relevant until later in the story.  So, I mention cats have second sight near the start of the story and then introduce a talking cat.  Until the talking cat appears, the remark about cats having second sight seems throw away. 

Another example is the mask the Little Sparrow wears.  Notice how this is the only feature I describe other than she takes the form of a young woman.  I don’t say much about it, other than it covers her eyes.  He saw her eyes when she attacked him, so what does the mask conceal?

What Happens?

The best way to conceal information is tell the story as it happens from the point of view of the protagonist.  We know what Daniel knows and nothing more.  We are invited to make the same decisions Daniel makes.  Should he help Little Sparrow?  What would you do if asked for help by a lovelorn sparrow? 

Notice too Cat is of a different mind to Daniel.  Cat is the voice of reason (to some degree).  Cat means I don’t need to describe the dilemma, it’s a part of the story. 

Keep the story moving forward.  Don’t pause to explain. 

The End

Do you need to tie up all loose ends?  I want this story to be mysterious and leave something to the imagination.  My promise is to resolve the story of Little Sparrow.  There will be lots of questions about Daniel and Cat.  These can be left to imagination or another time.

The end brings resolution to the story.  You don’t need to tie up all loose ends.  This raises the question: what makes for a satisfactory ending?  This story aims to build a sense of wonder.  We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, where the rules are unclear.  The trick is to create a world that intrigues and builds a sense of wonder and that’s what we’ll look at next time. 


Humour in Storytelling

Humour is one example of emotion in storytelling; it has many uses.  Here is the beginning of a traditional story I’m working on.  It’s a sad story and I’m telling it next month, if I can control my emotions!

The Story of a Sparrow

Daniel has second sight.  This is rare.  Young children often make friends with Folk.  Adults rarely hold on to the sight.  Only his grandmother held it and what happened to her?  And then of course, cats always have the sight!

Who are Folk?  They have different names around the world.  They occupy the same time and space as we do but have their own concerns.  They fear us but have no need to hide since we cannot see or hear them.  They fear Daniel but at the same time they’re intrigued.  And so they appear monstrous and deranged (in self-defence) or graceful and delightful (if they want something).  They’re rarely malicious; that’s our way.

The hardest part for Daniel is making friends with people.  It is hard to concentrate in a conversation, with some creature gurning over their shoulder.  Imagine Daniel’s delight when a couple of school mates invited him to join them on a bike ride to Ladybower.  It was a long hot summer and the boys had heard water levels were way down, exposing the drowned village of Derwent.

They stood peering over the wall into the depths.  The smell was a bit rank but OK and then Daniel saw a figure, dancing down by the ruins of an old cottage.  Just for a moment and then it was gone.  They all felt the cold wind and Daniel fainted.

His friends brought him round and accompanied him home.  He assured them it was the heat and the cold, the shock had unsettled him.  He was worried but not for his health.  What had happened?  He laid on his bed.  His cat walked through the door and hissed.

This was odd.  The cat could see Folk and was usually easy with them, although disdainful.  “What is it?”, he asked.  The cat spat at him.  Daniel looked around, there were no spirits in the room.  Unless …   He opened his grandmother’s chest and hunted for her mirror.

Emotional Control

Humour is possible in any kind of story, even tragedy.  Just as comedy does not have to be funny, tragedy does not have to be entirely serious.  Consider therefore the purpose of using humour in storytelling.  

At the beginning of my story, I use a little humour, to help my audience accept the absurd premise of Folk.  Humour is one way to do that.  It is gentle humour in keeping with the atmosphere of the story. It will be a performance story and so I’ll be able to convey humour through voice and gesture too. We all know cats see more than we do.  Humour cuts through the sadness and helps the audience appreciate the story – once I’ve worked out how to do it! 

Humour’s an excellent way to communicate emotionally, where your story is deeply moving or traumatic.  When you tell a moving story, it is important, as you move into challenging parts of the story, you show emotion.  If you seem to the audience to be too preoccupied with the story and not enough with the emotional response of the audience, it won’t work. 

Always consider the emotion your audience feels.  If you lose control, you embarrass your audience.  Even though you don’t lose control, if the audience thinks you have, it can be just as embarrassing for them.

Use humour at the beginning to reassure the audience.  They may not know the story but as it progresses, the fact that you used humour at the start reassures.

When to Use Humour 

It depends when or if you use humour.  Humour takes many forms.  A serious story might use humour but you would not expect to roll in the aisles. 

For some stories, humour all the way through may be appropriate.  But generally, for business, I would not encourage this.  You’re demonstrating a problem and how to solve it.  Usually, humour all the way through undermines your message. 

The beginning of the story is perhaps best place for humour.  This is where you build relationship and trust with your audience.  Laughter or at least a gentle smile, can go a long way.  Show the audience they’re in safe hands.  If they trust you, they willingly experience anything with you. 

Humour works part way through.  The audience does not know the end of the story, so use humour to point them away from the eventual outcome.  This builds tension where the audience doesn’t expect the big negative at the heart of your story. 

Don’t End with Humour

This is good advice ,even for comic stories.  Where stories are conceived as comic, perhaps ending on a big joke is OK.  But if you tell a story from life, using it in a business context, humour at the end undermines your message.

It is particularly bad, in a serious story.  Describe some traumatic story, then end with a merry quip?  Not a good idea.  Even if the end is happy, honour the story that has gone before.  Aim for a response of hope or affirmation, not a belly laugh.

I heard a story about someone diagnosed with a genetic disorder.  He has a future of gradual decline, he’d already seen in his parents.  His story begins with a hilarious account of the tests he experienced to get the diagnosis.  He was genuinely expecting an all clear and so the story pivots on the letter with the test results.  After that humour would be out of place.  He found an affirmative note by describing the daughter they conceived as a result of the diagnosis and how he looks forward to seeing her grow into an adult.

His emotional journey is almost slapstick humour, the tests were on his sperm.  Then the shock of the diagnosis.  Then the affirmation of the birth of the child.  A joke at the end would undermine the story.


What happens if your humour turns out not to be funny?  This is something many find worrisome.  Is it better to avoid humour if you don’t have a talent for it?

You don’t know for certain until you try it with your audience.  You may find carefully crafted humour results in stunned looks.  Or you say something in a certain way and everyone laughs.  The best advice is don’t laugh at your own jokes and don’t pause in anticipation of laughter.  You may have to pause for a very loud laugh.  But don’t milk it.  Some audiences smile inwardly, appreciate the humour and don’t express it dramatically.  You don’t need to signal an intended joke.  You wouldn’t expect everyone to burst into tears at a sad point in the story, so why expect gales of laughter?  Silence does not imply humour is not appreciated.

Different people have different tastes.  I prepare my tea listening to Radio 4 at 6.30pm.  Sometimes, programmes at this time are laugh out loud funny, sometimes I follow intently, appreciating the wit but don’t laugh aloud and sometimes I wonder why the programme was commissioned. 

Presumably someone in the BBC appreciates all these programmes.  That I personally find some of them incomprehensible, does not mean there aren’t others who appreciate them.  The same applies to your stories. 

Even if you deliver the story to a live audience, you cannot be certain how much it is appreciated because audiences don’t always respond with obvious emotions.  The big advantage to going live is, if you see your audience, you pick up cues.

But lots of storytelling is not live.  Written and recorded stories invite feedback through comments but you rarely have any idea how your audience responds.  If you deliver the story live, it may give you some idea about how it goes down with an audience.  Then you can prepare a recorded version, although this is not always practical.

Humour is one way to capture and hold attention.  Next time, I’ll explore other ways to build suspense.

Rose and masks

Emotion in Storytelling

Emotion in storytelling is key to character development and makes your stories compelling. Here’s a story about boredom. How does it make you feel?

I’d like to say I’m never bored.  But then sports have always bored me.  Especially cricket!  I’ve been to a football match twice.  The first was Aberdeen versus Hearts and the second was Coventry versus Sheffield Wednesday (my inherited team).  At the last, we sat at the Coventry end.  Fortunately it was a no score draw, because with goals I’d have been out of synch with those around me. 

To be honest, I wasn’t bored!  I thought I would be.  I’d seen football on TV and found in the grounds you see the context, the teams’ strategies played out.  I’m still not interested but I see why many people are not bored by football.

I love opera and one of my favourites is Rosenkavalier.  It’s an opera you need to know to appreciate, especially if it’s in German.  There’s little action and whilst character development is profound, I imagine the whole thing is incomprehensible to some.  I remember taking a potential girlfriend.  Afterwards, she was no longer a potential girlfriend, if she ever was before.

Emotion in Storytelling is Artificial

It’s not the same as real life.  With 10 minutes to account for over several years; you cut an enormous amount!  The storyteller constructs everything, including emotions.

Aim to evoke an emotional response in your audience.  You do this deliberately or inadvertently.  Decide the response you want or else lose control.  Emotional responses you usually don’t want include boredom, revulsion, anger (aimed at you). 

Whilst you normally aim to finish on a note of laughter, joy or hope; many times you touch less positive emotions like sadness, anger at some injustice, worry, frustration …

Emotion and the Audience

Focus upon what you want your audience to feel at each stage of your story, whether you tell a story from experience or a fictional story.

When marketing, you have another concern.  What is your call to action?  How do you want your audience to respond, what would you like them to do?  What emotional state is likely to encourage them to respond?  Perhaps you present a problem and your solution to it.  So, leave your audience in a hopeful state.  Someone ready to buy is likely to be hopeful this purchase will solve their problem.

Often your audience passes through several emotional states as you tell your story.  A common pattern is laughter followed by sadness.  If you begin with humour, you do two things.  You build audience confidence.  Many fear the storyteller who seems likely to break down during telling a heavy story.  If you use humour, it shows you in control of your emotions.  Laughter also conceals the true nature of the story.  When the sad part comes along, it has more impact for not being expected. 

The challenge for the business owner is once you get to the sad part, how do you bring hope into the story?  Returning to laughter may work but often doesn’t; a merry quip at the end is rarely appropriate.  Something serious happened and you must honour that.  Finding that keynote of hope or affirmation is key to bringing your story to an end that inspires potential customers.

Wounds and Scars

There are two common problems using emotion in storytelling.  Usually emotions are more intense where you tell a story from experience but maybe some traditional stories cause you to choke up if they resonate with your story.

It takes time for wounds to heal.  If you tell a story in public too soon, you may encounter two waves of negative emotion.  The first is overwhelm as you speak.  The problem is not so much a public display of emotion, as losing sight of your audience’s emotional response.  A public performance is not a good place to hunt down your inner demons.  Your audience will work out you are not in control and lose trust in you.  The second wave may be remorse after you have told your story.

Discern whether you are ready to tell the challenging story.  Maybe you need to wait a few years.  Maybe therapy would help or telling the story to a trusted friend.  There is no compulsion to ever tell the story.  If you want to tell stories, you have many more.  I have heard speakers allude to other stories and when I ask in private, reply they are not ready to tell them. 

When you’re ready to tell a difficult story, the chances are it is a story many need to hear, a story told from scars.  The events you tell of are still a part of you but now you focus on your audience and their needs.

Beware, you can over control emotion in storytelling.  You become inured to suffering and tell the story in a mechanical way.  It is OK to choke up as you speak.  What you feel now may not be anything like what you felt then but you need to show you feel something!

Boredom can be Interesting!

Obviously, you should not bore your audience.  Everyone knows boredom.  They remember as kids, at home while it rains or in school conjugating verbs.  When you describe boredom, you trigger memories. 

Where were you bored?  Can you describe the bus stop where bored teenagers gathered and hung out?  When were you bored?  Was it as a kid or teenager?  Have you been bored in adult life? 

Boredom is not always having nothing to do.  The story at the head of this post describes adult boredom.  Hopefully it shows boredom can entertain!

I could do more with that story but you can see its potential.  The only rule is, don’t bore your audience!  One way to entertain your audience with boredom is to use humour.  Humour has several roles in storytelling but maybe not what you would think.  Find out more next time.

couple walking together

Stay in the Moment to Tell Better Stories

How do you stay in the moment and manage events in past and future from that moment?  The anime Toradora is a consummate example of a love story.  It builds forwards and backwards (see below) and I strongly recommend it, to explore this aspect of storytelling.  The following describes a subplot and does not give much away.

Ryugi is the protagonist and his mother is extraordinary.  He is a schoolboy, deeply committed to cleaning and cooking.  If he sees something that needs cleaning or tidying, he’s on to it.  Yes, he actually enjoys housework!  His mother works in a bar, where she has an alter ego, who is about 20 years younger.  She is lazy, clingy and funny.  Ryugi is devoted to her and embarrassed by her. 

At first, she seems to be a brilliant comic creation.  As the main plot comes to a head, we realise there’s a subplot.  There are reasons things are as they are between them.  What we thought was purely a running gag turns out to be much more.  They’re rock solid, devoted to each other but when does a mother tell her son the truth?  If you watch expecting a revelation, when it comes it seems minor.  It’s over in a sentence or two but explains what has gone before and something of what follows.

This is brilliant storytelling because we think a comic subplot is solely for entertainment until we see another story going on beneath the main story.  When we stay in the moment, we build tension and mystery that creates satisfaction in the audience when revealed.

Don’t Prefigure!

Stories are spoiled if the teller lacks faith in their story; they’re strongly tempted to reassure their audience all turns out well.  “I’m going to tell you the story of my breakdown and how I got through it.”  That’s not a good way to start.  You don’t occupy the moment of the story but some future time, looking back.

Say your breakdown was triggered by witnessing something in the street.  You could start with “I was walking down the street a few yards from home …” or better “I’m late, have just left home and hurrying down the street …”.  Both contain the same information.  In the second you stay in the moment.  The first is OK but the second feels more immediate.

It puts you in a frame of mind where you know only what you knew at the time.  You’re less likely to continue with “Little did I know, I was about to witness something that would cause a breakdown that took me years to recover from.”  This may seem a good way forward.  After all, what could possibly have happened that caused such a reaction?  In effect, it moves the focus to the event that precipitated the crisis and away from how the protagonist recovered. 

Say you continue like this, “As I rounded the corner. I saw …”.  Whatever it was, you are now in a position to describe it as you saw it.  It was a moment that held you prisoner for some years.  At the start of the story, the protagonist didn’t know what they’d get into or whether they’d get out of it. 

Their presence, telling the story, is perhaps a spoiler.  This is essentially a Voyage and Return story and so the precipitating event, however dramatic, is not really that important.  The protagonist enters a new world and has to find their way back.

The Art of Surprise

Whatever’s waiting around the corner is a surprise.  If truly surprising, you want to build tension.  But the real challenge is how to hold attention for the rest of the story. 

Some event precipitated a breakdown.  What did you lose?  What did you almost lose?  You might have contemplated suicide but you’re stood in front of an audience, so there’s no surprise there. 

Your first task is to describe the new world you occupy.  Maybe you lost your job, your family or became addicted to something … Were you drawn in by something that at first seemed positive and then proved to be a disaster? 

Take the audience to a dark place. The tension is in how you get out of it.  At the darkest time, you could not see your way out.  So, when you take your audience with you, neither should they.

Sow seeds earlier in the story. If the audience does not see their significance until later, you surprise them with something that feels right.  The reveal is not an intervention from God but something that flows from what went before and makes sense later in the story.

Building Forwards and Backwards

Let’s say you have a couple of main characters.  If you have the space of a novel, you can manage more.  Game of Thrones is gripping because it has many characters and several tell the story from their own point of view. Each of the 7 or more volumes is weighty!

We’ll stick with two.  Explore the relationship between them.  There are two ways (at least) to do that. 

Building Forwards. Follow their interactions.  Boy meets girl and they walk home together from school.  They talk.   They argue.  We know where this is going.  The tension is in how they overcome the obstacles to their growing relationship.  The problems they encounter show the differences in the way they approach them.  What happens as they learn to work together? 

If one of them is the protagonist, tell the story from their point of view. They have no idea what’s happening inside the other’s head.  They watch and learn and the other does the same.  As we listen, we ask whether they are right for each other.  How will this end?

Building Backwards.  Another way to build character, tension and surprise your audience is through their past.  What we see is rooted in some unknown past event.  Now the story depends on some revelation that clears the air between the two characters.

The technique is to drop hints and clues.  The best are disguised as window dressing.  What seems an arbitrary quirk, turns out to be rooted in something important that needs to be brought to light.  Handled well, you feel tension building because one or more characters act in apparently inexplicable ways.  Or perhaps the revelation resolves something for another character, causing them to act in an unexpected way. 

Both ways build tension and tension resolves through emotion.  Understanding emotion and how to use it in written and spoken stories is the art of the storyteller and the topic for next time.

Footsteps in Sand

Character Development: The Point of Your Story

Last time I looked at how to introduce characters into your story.  This time it’s character development, perhaps the most important topic to storytelling because without it, there is no story.

Here’s a continuation of last time’s story:

My team had a plan but did not share it with me.  They knew about my bereavement and so things flowed a little easier.  What they didn’t tell me was they sheltered me from bad news.  So, my decisions were still way off because I did not have the full picture.

They fielded my instructions and responded to situations as they understood them.  Mostly they were on the ball but didn’t follow instructions.  This led to more conflict.  When I started disciplinary procedures, I had to face a delegation from the staff.

I stopped them hiding bad news. Despite several mistakes, they’d taken initiative and overall done pretty well.  I had to change the way I worked; allocate more responsibility and trust my team.  With permission to speak to me, if I was too directive, I made a real effort to listen.

My team responded and gradually we hammered out how to work productively.  

The Hero’s Journey

This outline story shows how someone changed their management style.  Note the scope for character development, not just the protagonist’s but also for one or more members of his team. 

The hero, sometimes called protagonist, is the main character.  He or she is the person we root for.  They are always inadequate to the task.  They want to achieve something but are not equipped to do it.

Their story shows how they acquire what they need for success.  Their needs may be external, eg wealth or weapons, or internal, character development.  Often external needs are met through character development.  Indeed, grabbing external advantage before they are internally prepared is disastrous.  Tragedy is about a hero who oversteps the mark and pays for it later.

Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots have, with the possible exception of Comedy, a similar five-fold structure:

  1. An initial challenge taken up by the hero.
  2. Early good progress.
  3. Barriers, obstructions, temptations encountered.
  4. A final confrontation, where the hero almost loses.
  5. Final victory (or defeat) and the aftermath. 

It is possible to tell a story with little or no character development, eg James Bond is reset at the beginning of each film.  But mostly we are interested in how the hero finds the resources they need to meet their goal.

You Are the Protagonist

What happens when you are the protagonist?  It’s possible you can’t see how your character developed.  This is one reason personal stories seem less compelling than fiction. 

Some people go through significant trauma and emerge with a clear image of how they were before and how they are now.  Leaving aside how accurate their picture is, they at least have a compelling story.  If you listen to their story over time, they revise their story as their understanding deepens.

What about the rest of us? 

Here are a few thoughts.

  • Talk to others involved in your story.  Ask them to tell it from their perspective.  Find out what changes they saw in you.  You don’t need to include everyone present at the time.  In the story at the head of this post, it is not even clear how many were in the team.  You could name and develop one or more team members, leaving the rest anonymous.
  • Rehearse your story, telling it from the perspective of other characters.  Do this with or without interviewing them.  Imagine the changes they perceived.  You could be biased but in private there’s no need to be.
  • Rehearse with others present and invite feedback.  Does this ring true?  If they are part of the story, they can perhaps be more helpful but even people who were not present may raise helpful insights.
  • Introduce more characters into the story.  Villains are particularly good at uncovering the hero’s weaknesses.  Anyone can challenge the hero, though and a guide or support character can be just as helpful.
  • Or introduce more threats into the hero’s journey.  Give them more to overcome.  This shows up weaknesses and hidden strengths.

Telling a story from real life, you inevitably summarise what might have been a long complex story.  You should include incidents that serve character development for the hero and possibly other characters.

More Than One Character

Time is a big constraint for most business storytellers, with a few minutes to tell their story.  Whilst character development is possible, what happens when there is more than one character?

You don’t have to be the hero of your own story!  A parent, spouse or business partner might take on that role.  Try out your story with various heroes and see what happens!

However, you don’t have the space to tell a complex story, like the novelist or writer of TV series, anime and the like.  When you have more time, you can develop several characters.  

What can you do in a few minutes?

Some characters are ciphers.  If there is a doctor in your story, you don’t have to say much about them.   We all know what doctors do and mostly make do with that general idea.  Your doctor needs no name, sex or age, unless such information is important to the story.

The next step up is characters you describe but don’t develop.  Your team has four members called A B C and D.  Name them and explain what they bring to the team in support of your goal.  They interact with you and each other but you don’t need to focus on their development.

Slowly reveal their powers.  Don’t include everything about them in your first description.  Seed hidden powers early in the story, so when they’re revealed it is not as a sudden escape hatch.  This helps the audience feel they are getting to know the character without spending a lot of time on development.  These characters are predictable but that’s OK so long as they have a role in the story.

If a secondary character develops alongside the hero, we expect it to be someone who matters to the hero.  A villain who interacts with the hero, for example.  If the story is about a relationship, perhaps leading to marriage, then expect some character development in the partner. 

Bear in mind the voice the story is in.  If it is told from the point of view of the protagonist, they do not have access to the innermost thoughts of other characters.  In a love story, for example, they don’t know what the other is thinking.  You can have a lot of fun with that but when the other’s thoughts are revealed it is still a reveal and not necessarily character development.

And this leads us to the topic of the next post: staying in the moment as understood by the protagonist.  This allows other characters to be surprising, even though as characters they might not develop.

Five characters

Characters: Who Inhabits Your Story?

Today’s post is about the characters who inhabit our stories.  How do we identify and manage them?  The next post shall be about character development.

The following story is based on a real story, with a lot of detail changes!

I was utterly devastated by the death of my wife and concealed my grief by going into the office as if nothing had happened.  The “crying man, that everyone calls laughing boy”.  My grief expressed itself despite my best efforts.  My decisions were off and my staff saw it.  They didn’t know why.

At first, they coped with my contradictory directions in their own way.  Some did as they were told and sulked when I told them off for not doing what I meant to ask them.  Others did their own thing, exercised their own judgement and argued when I told them off for not doing what I said.  Some feared me and looked for new jobs, other planned to oust me from my post by appealing to senior management.

It was only when my PA opened a bereavement card, sent to the office by a business acquaintance who did not have my home address that the staff found out the truth.  Now they understood what was going on, they came up with a plan to get their old boss back.

Types of Character

Many business-owners’ stories lack characters.  Where they focus on the owner’s life story, it feels as if they sail through life with little contact with other people.

Sometimes the story includes many undifferentiated names, with little to help us follow where they enter, take part and depart the story.  Moira, Annie and Helen may have all been great friends but why should I care about them?  Maybe one of them accompanied you on some enterprise – but do I really need to know?  The story may work better if you are unaccompanied, despite what happened in real life.

Alternatively, there are no characters apart from the protagonist.  Parents, brothers and sisters, wives and children are mentioned in passing but have little traction in the story.

A Few Basic Characters

Many people play various roles in your story.  Your father may have been supportive mostly but what about that time he stood in your way?  Is he hero or villain? 

You don’t need all these in every story but when someone appears, ask what role they play.  If none, why mention them?

  • Dependents –  these are people who you fight for or should fight for.  Your family – aged parents, spouse and children.  Other dependents may be employees.  Your decisions mean kept or lost livelihoods.  Whoever they are, give them agency.  I expect you work to provide for your family.  But what say do they have?  Do they actively help or stand in your way?  Are there times of conflict with them?
  • Companions – these people strive alongside you.  They are on your side but have their own agency and motivation, strengths and weaknesses.  At heart they are allies, except when your story is about betrayal.
  • Helpers or Guides – these people support you but do not work alongside you.  They may be formal coaches or consultants, who bring new ideas to your story.  Or informal, in fairy tales they can be elders or young children.
  • Villains – these people bring tension to your story.  They stand in your way and thwart your ambitions.  They are not necessarily bad people.  Most villains believe sincerely they do right and you are the villain!  If you need to spice up your story, introduce a villain.

The Perils of the Short Story

Most stories used in a business are short.  Short in comparison with a novel, where there is ample space to develop character. 

In a story with clear character development, the protagonist and others, change as a result of the story.  The challenge is to show change to the protagonist by the end of the story.

So, flag up the problem at the start.  What problem?  You may define the problem as the need to make profit, some threat to a business, a customer in trouble.  These are all predictable issues.  The interesting question is why the protagonist is not able to solve their problem.  They have a character flaw and we need to see them change as they solve the problem.

For example, a business owner faced by a major threat to their business.  She’s a self-made woman and rejects assistance.  She got to where she is today under her own steam.  As the story develops, she finds she cannot solve this problem on her own.  She must trust her employees, who between them resolve the issue.  Now the owner has learned teamwork and she grows her business further.

But look closely at that outline.  This story is potentially huge.  Not only do we get to know the protagonist and see the change in her attitude, we need to know her employees.  Describing how the contribution each makes is discovered, accepted by the protagonist and how each person is accepted by the team could easily run to several hundred pages! 

Here’s the challenge.  You have a 10 minute talk to tell this story and do justice to the business owner and her team.  A skilled storyteller can tell the same story at length or down to a minute or so. 

When You Are the Protagonist

It is worth experimenting with making someone else the protagonist in your story.  It makes sense to place yourself at the centre of the story but there are advantages to putting someone else at the centre.

The hero of any story is by definition flawed.  This may be hard to accept.  “Everyone is valued and no-one is too blameworthy”,  may be true but it makes for dull storytelling.  The question is, do you know your own flaws?  Can you see what really changed when you made that breakthrough?  Perhaps you see change in some other character who took part?

Look at the story from that character’s point of view and understand their motivation.  This means you become more sympathetic to their point of view, whatever role they played.  Can you see why the villain believed they were doing the right thing? 

As you empathise with other players, you see your behaviour in a new light.  You see their point of view and know the conflict from a new perspective.  You say: “looking back, I see I behaved as a complete …”.  You point to the person you were and show how everyone else stepped around you to do the right thing. 

The made up story at the head of this post, shows the problem from the perspective of those around the protagonist.  How do we handle development of the character at the core of that story?  I’ll follow up that question next time. 

red rose

How to Use Detail in Storytelling

I’m going to describe a pivotal scene from an anime, called “After the Rain”.  It is about the relationship between a man in his 40s and a 17 year old girl.  This story is about awkwardness and it is a tender description about how they both rebuild their lives, after they lost track of their dreams.  He’s the manager of a restaurant and she is a waitress. This story includes several excellent examples of judicious use of detail in storytelling.

Rain is a recurring motif and each episode title is rain related. Umbrellas are a recurring motif, one example of the use of detail to create a mood.

In a pivotal scene, in the back office at the restaurant, they have visited a bookstall at a market.  The man once wanted to be a writer and the owner of the stall was an old acquaintance.  The girl purchased a book.  When she examines it, a bookmark falls out.  She asks if she should return it.  He replies, no it’s yours.  They examine it and it has a design of leaves.  The man notices if you hold it to the light there is a faint impression of a swift.  Probably foil has worn away. 

This leads to the man explaining there was a nest of swifts outside the office a few years ago.  He takes her outside to see where it was.  The conversation turns to the birds’ flying away to freedom. 

Following this they both move on and return to their dreams.  He takes up writing again and she regains confidence to run again, following a serious accident that had prevented her from running.

When to Use Detail

There are two possible mistakes when it comes to detail: too much and too little.

The best way to conjure a world in the minds of your audience, is to allow them to fill in the detail.  Visualise a kitchen.  You don’t need me to tell you to include a cooker and a fridge.  Probably, you start with a familiar kitchen, maybe your own and make adjustments as the story develops. 

Take great care over adjectives.  Mostly you don’t need them!  You don’t need to tell your audience the kitchen has magnolia walls, unless the colour of the walls is important to the story.  That’s the point, use adjectives to flesh out important detail.  The example at the start of this post, shows how detail moves the story forwards. 

Many personal stories lack detail.  We’ve all heard the advice, “show, not tell”.  Detail of objects packs an emotional punch, evoking emotion, place and time.  One person had a story about recovery from depression.  She would spend all day in bed.  I asked her to describe the bed.  The bed tells us what it’s like to be depressed, far more than a description of feelings. Detail in storytelling is immensely powerful.

The Power of Detail in Storytelling

The story at the start of this post, illustrates the power of detail.  There is the book, the bookmark that requires a lot of description and then the remains of the nest.  Each of these points, with increasing power, towards the path each protagonist must take.  And yet none of these objects, in themselves mean anything. 

It is easy to focus on the main character, especially if it is you but if you truly know your story, you can bring the world you inhabit alive.

A story I heard recently was about a man who had something stuck in his throat.  The story is about being unable to communicate, for more than one reason.  Eventually, the object is removed and turns out to be a large, green bayleaf.  How do I know it was large and green?  Because that is how the storyteller described it.  We don’t know for most of the story what it is, and until it appears we don’t know we want to know!  The bayleaf is captured because the man finds his voice.  Until that moment, we all assume it was fishbone because he was eating fish soup.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with adjectives.  The point is they are immensely powerful and should be used sparingly.

Detail and Emotion

We focus on relevant detail and suddenly the story pivots around us because we invest emotion in the object.  We don’t need to say how the protagonists felt, we show it through the object. 

I bought a deep red rose for my beloved.  In the ensuing row, it fell to the floor and she trod on it, it left a red stain on the carpet.  Do you see how you use imagery to express emotion?  How do you think this relationship develops?  We sometimes talk about blood on the floor, following a row.  It doesn’t look good. 

You could use this image as the final scene or just as easily as a pivotal moment, when they both saw – what?  Detail in storytelling has emotional heft but it is pliable, you can take it in many directions.  If this story has a happy ending, this scene serves to build tension. 

But note, the significance of the red rose depends on the character of the two protagonists. Detail in storytelling depends upon the character of the protagnists, who drive our stories and so we’ll look at that topic next time.

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