How to Tell Good Stories

“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.” –Ernest Hemingway

Before I start, give me twenty seconds to convince you that reading this article is a valuable use of your time, because learning how to tell good stories is important not just for obvious storytellers, but for everyone. We tell more stories than we think, but not as many as we should. Stories speak to us on an emotional level, and they’re imperative in good communication. If you want me to believe something, you can’t just tell it to me. You have to make me feel it and understand it — which is what storytelling is all about.

Stories crop up everywhere in our lives. We live them, and we share them with those around us in both social and professional interactions. They’re in books, magazines, and movies. But they also show up in less obvious places. Marketing deals heavily in stories. Sales can use stories as a tool. My favorite teachers and coaches use stories to illustrate their points.

Obviously, this article is especially relevant for marketers, writers, videographers, and other types of content creators — people who actively use storytelling in their day to day lives — but it’s worthwhile for anyone who wants to increase their effectiveness as a communicator.

So — how to tell a good story?

A Praxis participant posed this question to me a few weeks back: what makes a good story?

It’s an incredibly open-ended and general question, and it’s surprisingly hard to answer. Even as someone who’s spent her lifetime studying stories, the key elements are hard to sum up and articulate.

First off, let’s define the term “story.” Miriam-Webster defines it as “an account of incidents or events; b: the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work.” Alternate description that will fit (most) of our purposes: a conveyance of (usually linear) narrative with emotional value.

Remember the emotional value. That’s an important point, and we’ll visit it later.

There are a few basic elements that hold true in every single good story:

  • A good story is emotionally captivating and entirely believable. It draws you in, makes you care, makes itself feel real. When you’re consuming the story, you’re completely engrossed, and you care about the outcome. It makes you feel things. If a story can sway emotions, you know you’re on a path bound in the right direction.
  • A good story feels true. As Hemingway said, they feel truer than reality.
  • A good story is engaging. People have to be compelled to keep consuming — either because it’s so intriguing they want to know what happens next, or because the experience is so enjoyable they want to stay.
These are the core, overarching truths. Breaking them down to a more granular level, a storyteller has a wide variety of mechanical elements at his disposal by which to pull this off: conflict, tensive pulls (forces pulling character in opposite and conflicting directions), interesting character, interesting subject, something relatable, or something so foreign you’re fascinated (pairing those last two is really effective).

Each of these elements must be honed in as well. Your characters must be carefully crafted and detailed, your conflict must be intriguing and your subject must make a reader want to step inside of it.

Lastly (and sometimes most importantly), a good story has a strong and compelling aesthetic/ethos — the feeling of the story, or the vibe. Every story has a tone, and nailing yours can bring your whole project to life.

On the technical level, the mechanics for telling that story need to be good. Whatever your medium is, it’s the vehicle for your story, so you need to be adept in it. Ideally, you want the vehicle to disappear entirely. You don’t want people to think about the photos/video/text — you want them to be lost inside of it.

What makes a bad story?

A bad storyteller doesn’t have a good sense of what a good story is.
A bad storyteller feels like they’re trying — I think this ties back to a) the vehicle should be invisible and b) lack of practice/familiarity. The worst storytellers feel like they’re trying way too hard. Don’t try too hard.
A lot of storytellers say that storytelling is inherent. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think the best way to hone your skill at a craft is to immerse yourself in it — storytelling most of all, because story is narrative, and narrative is inherent to the way we think and m observe and live.
My final (and arguably most important thought of the whole night thought) is this: feed the well. Don’t let yourself go dry. Fill yourself up with things you can use in stories. Constantly be watching the world around you. Take lots of notes. The more you consume, the more fodder you’ll have for the future stories you want to tell.

So how to get better at telling stories? I.e. how to put this into practice?

This list is deceptively straightforward, but absolutely imperative to follow.

Consume lots and lots of stories
Consume analyses of stories
Create every day

Do these three things and you’ll improve drastically over a short period of time. Hone your mind and hone your skill in equal measure. And tell me a story!

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