Storytelling: Suspense

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 20: Suspense

If you want to keep an audience hooked, don’t tell them how the story ends.

Case study: Relocating C Warncke Writer

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What it is:

After fifteen years in the UK and Europe, C Warncke is moving to the American South, and there is absolutely no telling how things will turn out.

Why it matters:

Successful stories combine action with unforeseen consequences. In this case the action is a person — me — leaving behind her entire life (country, cat, cutlery) to move thousands of miles away and live with someone she met on Tinder.

As for consequences, who knows?

Romance, disaster, or reinvention are all distinct possibilities.

In typical damn the torpedoes fashion I charged into this with minimal consideration for what happens if it goes, as the Brits say, tits up. I’m as curious as anyone to see how things turn out.

If nothing else, it will make a great story. And the perfect conclusion to the Elements of Storytelling series. Thanks for following and stay tuned for more storytelling adventures.

In other words:

“Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the peoploe we might have been life a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
~Cheryl Strayed Tiny, Beautiful Things

Practice: “Create characters that live and breathe on the page… I realised I had come to know some of these people so well that the idea that something bad was going to happen to them had become almost unbearable. I was turning each page with a sense of dread and it dawned on me that here was the most satisfying way to create suspense.”
~Mark Billingham via The Guardian

Remember: “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” ~Mary McCarthy

Storytelling: Framing

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 19: Framing

What a story is about, and the conclusion it reaches, depends on how you frame it.

Case study:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

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Who they are:

Respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 American presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Trump won the majority of Electors and is slated to become the next President of the United States.

Why it matters:

The bitter, split decision presidential election highlighted the fact that there is no single “story”. What we think a thing means and what we believe about people and events, is drawn from a rich mass (or mess) of facts, ideas, information and preconception.

After last week’s storytelling post a reader rebutted my assertion that Hillary Clinton is “a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician”:

Surely this must be qualified as “by comparison?” Isn’t it a fact that Hillary Clinton:

1) Supported the Iraq War forcefully and was a key proponent as an opposition pol from NY

2) Supported overthrow of Libya forcefully

3) Supported overthrow of Syria forcefully

4) Was endorsed by entire Bush family and most of GWB cabinet officials

5) Received 100s of millions from wall street banks and multi-national corporations

So, if Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned against Trump and you judged her by her policies she would be a rightwing neo-con Republican.

I think perhaps you should also consider the story telling of the Clinton campaign which would argue that perceived racism and sexism are more important than real policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 

This is a perfect example of framing. My narrative frames Hillary’s experience and views as a positive; my reader highlights different, but equally legitimate, information that casts her in a different light. Trump can, likewise, be any number of things depending on how you frame him. He is either a robust example of American iconoclasm or a racist shit. He went bankrupt and made billions; the story depends on what facts you put in the picture.

In other words:

“While reality itself does partly determine the meaning we assign to it, it doesn’t insist on any one specific meaning. So, while we all live in the same reality, we interpret it differently. Most of the time, the differences are negligible: at the day-to-day level, we agree sufficiently about most things. But some differences are radical. And that’s what politics is about.

Politics is a colossal magnification of the differences in how we perceive the world around us. And an election is a simplified, brief magnification of that. In an election, time stops, and a complex, gradually evolving jumble of differences of opinion is frozen in a single statistical figure.” Rob Wijnberg via The Correspondent

Practice: “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.” Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

Remember: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.” ~ Tim Burton

Storytelling: Lying

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 18: Lying

Stories don’t have to be true. Sometimes the most powerful ones are pure fiction.

Case study: Donald Trump

donald-trump

Who he is:

Pathological liar who used exaggeration, hyperbole and outright 24k lies to concoct a shady business empire then successfully campaign for President of the United States.

Why it matters:

Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobic goon with an ego the size of the wall he promised to build between Mexico and the United States. He is a self-professed business guru who has gone bankrupt four times. He is a self-professed sexual abuser who has said on record he’d like to date his own daughter. He claims to represent the common man but rarely pays taxes.

Despite all this, Trump beat won the electoral vote from under the nose of Hillary Clinton, a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician.

The only explanation? He told a better story. Because he made it up as he went along.

In their own words:

“In announcing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this morning, Donald Trump started with what Forbes believes is a whopper. He claimed his net worth was nearly $9 billion. We figure it’s closer to $4 billion — $4.1 billion to be exact.

This discrepancy is noteworthy, since Trump’s financial success – he put his fortune at exactly $8,737,540,000 — is core to his candidacy. “I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job,” said Trump at his circus-like announcement, before referencing his autobiography. “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'”

via Forbes

In fact, Trump even lied about that. The Art of the Deal was written by journalist Tony Schwartz. Howard Kaminsky, former head of the book’s publisher Random House said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

 

Practice: “Counterattack. The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar’s favor. “You’ll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression,” says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. “What they’ll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they’re forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage.” Jeff Wise via Psychology Today

Remember: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
― Adolf Hitler

Storytelling: Character

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 17: Character

Characters drive stories. Make yours unforgettable.

Case study: Yoga With Paul

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Paul Dobson

What it is:

An umbrella brand for the professional activities of London-based yoga teacher, masseuse and former professional dancer Paul Dobson.

Why it matters:

Yoga teachers are two pence a dozen in London and students typically cram sessions into hectic schedules. In this environment convenience, rather than affinity for a teacher, is often the deciding factor in choosing a yoga class.

Yoga With Paul was created to buck this trend by sharing founder Paul Dobson’s character. Instead of saying why he’s a great teacher it shares what he believes and cares about. Through a blog and social media, Yoga With Paul (#YWP) has built a network of like-minded yogis who share Paul’s interest in yoga, meditation, clean eating, mindfulness, fashion, urban life, and more. The proof is in the success: Paul now teaches several styles of yoga across London, and his annual Yoga Holiday With Paul summer retreats sell out well in advance.

In his own words:

“My life changed radically when I became a Bikram yoga teacher and it made me realise how easy to get locked into a “ladder” mind-set in our careers, relationships, or even hobbies. What I strive to share with my students is the awareness that you grow and become more yourself by challenging your preconceptions and being open to new experiences. It’s never too late for Bikram and never too late to change your life.”
Read more

Practice: “Your readers will live in a house made of their own mental pictures while reading your fiction. Those pictures are based on your words, of course, and you will curate that mental gallery quite closely. And yet the infinite details that your readers will conjure up around the mental pictures suggested by your words are all their own.” via Michael Alexander Chaney

Remember: “Desire is the crucible that forges character. ~Kristen Lamb

paul-backbend

Yoga With Paul

 

Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White

Elements of Storytelling 13: Accessibility

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 13: Accessibility

Stories are most effective when they are accessible. Don’t confuse your audience with florid language or complexity for its own sake.

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Case study: Vino y Co

What it is:

A wine shop in Ibiza run by father-daughter team Jeroen and Rosa Hamersma. The unpretentious oenophile sanctuary is as much an wine-education centre as it is a shop, thanks to its proprietors’ delight in sharing their knowledge. This makes it a magnet for chefs, sommeliers, locals and travelling wine buffs alike.

Why it matters:

Wine is often swathed in mystery, or at least pretension, and many shops actively perpetuate this elitism. Rosa and Jeroen take an opposite tack. The believe in making wine simple so everyone can enjoy and appreciate it. Jeroen taught himself about wine by buying almanacs in the ’80s in his native Amsterdam and drinking his way through vintages and varietals. He has a couple decades head start on Rosa, but she is catching up fast, laptop on the shop counter to answer any questions.

Rather than emphasise the arcane or technical, they focus on the communal, practical aspects of wine culture. Information about grapes, regions, winemakers and techniques are woven into stories, reinforced by generous samples of the wines in question.

Vino y Co grows its business year on year, and has fanatically loyal customers, all thanks to its dedication to making wine accessible.

In their own words:

Wine is all about taste. And about tasting. It’s not difficult.

Who said that wine shops should be boring? Wine is fun! So shopping for wine is fun!

Read more

Practice: “From time to time, all of us make the mistake of sending an email, turning in a paper, or handing a report to the boss without rereading what we’ve written. Raise your right hand and say this aloud: “I promise to reread my writing at least once before I consider it finished. If possible, I’ll read it aloud.” Now that you’ve made the pledge, your ears can help you simplify any unnecessary complexity in your writing.” Ann Edwards via Grammarly

Remember: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” ~Charles Mingus

Elements of Storytelling 12: Ethics

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 12: Ethics

Great storytellers hook their audience with a clear ethos, worldview, or proposition.

Case study: Kat Lister

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What it is:

Freelance journalist Kat Lister has carved a successful career writing for publications including Marie Clare, The Telegraph, Huff Post, InStyle, Vice, and Broadly by championing the ever-contentious cause of women’s equality.

Why it matters:

Journalists have flirted with starvation since at least 1891 (the year George Gissing published New Grub Street*). Modern multimedia journalism is unapologetically fuelled by celebrity and sensation. To survive journalists must be inimitable. Lister nails it. Everything she writes, from investigative pieces on Syria, to reportage on young Muslims, to think pieces on Brexit, “glass cliffs” and IVF is examined through lens of her feminism. Lister’s cohesive, provocative ethical stance, plus ferociously good writing, whets editors’ appetites, and has prompted 40K shares and 140K Facebook Likes (and counting).

In her own words:

I write about women and culture

Read more / Follow @Madame_George on Twitter

Practice: “Put yourself at the center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” ~ Anne Lamott

Remember: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ― Elie Wiesel

*Free on Kindle: Amazon.com  and Amazon.co.uk

Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett

Elements of Storytelling 10: Magic

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 10: Magic

Every great story needs a touch of magic: a perfectly conjured sentence or feat of illusion.

Case study: Comedy & Magic Society

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What it is:

Four hard-working professional magicians: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Woods. Together they have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each, if modesty allowed, could claim to be one of the world’s finest prestidigitators.

Why it matters:

My acquaintance with Comedy Magic Society began when Mark Phillips commissioned me to write a profile of the quartet. Interviewing and writing about the four magicians was an eye-opener. Dexterity is the smallest fraction of illusion, it turns out. The real magic lies in storytelling.

Magic relies on hooking the audience into a narrative. The story distracts then, holding their attention while the magician does his work. A great magician can tell stories to anyone: Mark uses magic as a tool to help corporate clients communicate and sell; Brian honed his skills doing close-up tricks for restaurant patrons; Bob is a former circus clown who perfected the art of magic bartending; and Barry educates and entertains kids in schools and hospitals.

In their own words:

Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realises it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.” Read more…

Practice: To retain all the “juice” of being in the moment, a writer needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – to use sleight of hand that moves the reader from a second-hand recounting to feeling present in the scene.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is shot, for instance, Nick Carroway, his narrator, is off-stage. Yet he allows Nick to surmise not merely what happened, but also what Gatsby must have felt during those last few minutes of life:

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

via Writer’s Circle Workshops

Remember: “We are all magicians. What we see will never coincide with absolute reality. As a result, the human brain must make a narrative.” ~ Frederick Reiken

 

Elements of Storytelling 9: Research

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 9: Research

Research is the foundation upon which compelling stories are built.

Case study: Abacela 

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Abacela Winery

What it is:

An award-winning winery located in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. It is best known for producing world-class Tempranillo, the grape that makes Spain’s famous Rioja wines.

Why it matters:

Abacela founder Earl Jones was a fan of Spanish wines and a medical research scientist. His wife Hilda was a medical technologist. They are by training and inclination people who study, analyse, test, and investigate. When Earl started wondering why he couldn’t find any good-quality American Tempranillo he didn’t shrug and leave it. He did research.

Earl’s quest to find the secret to great Tempranillo took him across countries and decades. He travelled through Spain and across the States, interviewing winemakers, studying soil and climate records. Reviewing the latter, Earl hypothesised that climate is the secret to growing top notch Tempranillo grapes.

As any good researcher would, Earl put his theory to the test. This meant identifying an American region with a similar climate to Rioja, moving there with his family, buying land, planting grapes, building a winery, and making wine. The initial results were good: Gold medal winning Tempranillo wines that outmatched Spain’s finest. More than 20 years on, Earl and Hilda are still researching, still growing, still writing new chapters of their story.

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Hilda and Earl Jones, founders

In their own words:

Abacela, in 2016, is a world-class, multi-award winning winery and viticulture success story. But 21 years ago when founders Earl and Hilda Jones planted its first vines they had no way of knowing what the outcome would be. They were scientists with zero winemaking experience who left secure careers and trekked 2700 miles west, kids in tow, to test a hypothesis.

Abacela was an experiment they hoped would answer a question that had puzzled them for years: Why doesn’t America produce any fine varietal Tempranillo wine?

Earl and Hilda probably weren’t the first enophiles to wonder why the great grape of Spain’s famous Rioja wines was mysteriously absent from American fine wine. However they were the first to approach the question with scientific rigor, form a hypothesis, then devote their lives to testing it.

This is the story of how one ordinary family’s curiosity and determination transformed their lives, built one of Oregon’s best-loved wineries and influenced winegrowing not only in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest but across America.

Read the Abacela story 
Practice: “Interview people, if you can, and if it’s relevant (no one who was alive in 1717 was available for me). But I have done interviews that have enlightened me on ballet, horse riding, frogs, injuries and country policing, for example. Prepare good questions beforehand, tape the interview, and take good notes.” via Sherryl Clark

Remember: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
~Zora Neale Hurston