Chapter 4: Build your story with shape and substance

Now it’s time to take your “story nugget” and build it into a working story.

To start, let’s look at what makes for a good story. To do this, think back to all the good things you know from the stories you have long loved. No doubt, your life has been full of stories – books, movies, and legends – each of which feels unique. Yet, from the earliest days of our history, stories have followed consistent forms and patterns. Understanding why and how certain story forms have endured, we can unveil the blueprints for storytelling that can deliver at least as much impact.  

Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” provides the most vivid illustration of the ongoing relevancy of ancient story forms. The classical, epic narrative of the everyman protagonist triumphing over evil underlies many of our most beloved contemporary stories, most famously Star Wars.

The essential distillation of the character-driven narrative was earlier provided by Gustav Freytag.

The key point is that you don’t always need to tell a complete story all at once to be an effective storyteller. Often, it’s enough to just provide “bits” of stories that tease an audience’s sensibilities. Our brains are pre-wired to shape ideas, events, and information into narratives. When we see or hear a provocative story element, we naturally start filling in the blanks in our imaginations. This builds tension and energy, as we wait to have the storyteller ultimately provide the details.

Let’s go deeper into the common structure of stories in our next tip, Know the shape
of your story
.

Your audience is insatiably hungry for the core elements of story. Understanding story dynamics and archetypes can arm you as a storyteller with an important set of pre-built tools.

With a grounding in story forms and elements, it’s time to take your best nugget and start shaping it into a story that stands alone. To do this, you want to clearly articulate every important aspect of it.

Structuring your story.jpg

WORKBOOK EXERCISE:

Go to Page 8 in your workbook, “Create the story: Shape it with intention,” and do Part A to define the essential story elements.

Next, you want to become crystal clear on the point of your story. To highlight this, let’s move on to the next tip: Identify your one key point.

In addition to the brevity that comes by distilling your story down to six words, you also want to ensure the following:

Choose your opening well

In the busy minds of your audience, you’ve got no more than ten words, just a few seconds, to grab enough attention for people to care about what you say next. Fail here, and you might as well just sit down. This means you’ve got to focus all of your best creative energies on identifying – and then polishing – an opening that works.

You don’t need to start your story at the absolute beginning and proceed in strictly chronological order. Your goal is to be provocative. An effective way to open well is to voice something unexpected, even uncomfortable. You’re looking to contravene people’s latent expectations of what you are boringly planning to say. Review your story elements and choose the one or two bits that have the most color, energy, maybe even shock value in the minds of your audience. Start there. Then assemble a satisfying narrative flow that makes logical sense in pulling all the elements of the story together.

Be clear on your takeaway

Odds are, the wisdom or lesson of your story will be almost obvious to your audience. But you need to articulate it anyway.

Generally, the place to find the essential wisdom embedded in your story is to look at the resolution. A good resolution often involves a surprise or a twist, and that’s where you’re likely to find the important lesson of your story. The nature of this lesson must resonate with both your Impact goal for your story, and it should also be meaningful to the people in your audience. Landing the takeaway well is is your bridge to further engagement with your audience.

WORKBOOK EXERCISE:

Go to Page 8 in your workbook, “Create the story: Shape it with intention,” and do Part B.

NEXT: DELIVERY YOUR STORY EFFECTIVELY