Storytelling is manipulation. Manipulation of facts. Manipulation of time. And most importantly, manipulation of context. Storytelling is the single most important device that human beings have used throughout our species’ short existence. Moreover, storytelling is what distinguishes us from animals. Stories have the ability to grab attention and not let go. They can be told with words (movies / books / music) or without them (art / photography / images / music).
Storytelling has the power of provoking overwhelming happiness and excruciating agony to both children and adults. Most areas of expertise use it. As such, storytelling has the power of changing history (politics) and of revealing it (history). Both religion, through scripture and teachings, and science, through discoveries, hypotheses and rationale, use stories to convey these findings to us. In fact, the way we make sense of the world (psychology) and the memories we have from it are the result of internally attributed storytelling.
Aren’t you tired of being constantly manipulated? Don’t you want to get on top of the wheel?
Here are 8 steps to becoming an Expert Storyteller!
MAKE A PROMISE
You need to tell the reader that his time will be worth it in the end. A promise can take the form of a hook or of something really cheesy such as “once upon a time”. The promise is needed to grab the reader’s attention.
My favorite hook comes from Andrew Stanton in his TED speech on The Clues to a Great Story:
A backpacker is traveling through Ireland when it starts to rain. He decides to wait out the storm in a nearby pub. The only other person at the bar is an older man staring at his drink. After a few moments of silence the man turns to the backpacker and says in a thick Irish accent:
“You see this bar? I built this bar with my own bare hands. I cut down every tree and made the lumber myself. I toiled away through the wind and cold, but do they call me McGreggor the bar builder? No.”
He continued “Do you see that stone wall out there? I built that wall with my own bare hands. I found every stone and placed them just right through the rain and the mud, but do they call me McGreggor the wall builder? No.”
“Do ya see that pier out there on the lake? I built that pier with my own bare hands, driving each piling deep into ground so that it would last a lifetime. Do they call me McGreggor the pier builder? No.”
“But ya fuck one goat…”
It’s a great hook, it packs a great punch, and it has fantastic humour. Stanton got the audience eating out of his palm right about then.
TITLE MUST SCREAM “MURDER”
This. This is probably the only reason people read your story. Shock with it! One of my great friends, who helps me with editing, always gives me the same advice “Mihnea, your title needs to contain rape, child molestation or killing… or nobody will care.” He’s probably right. If you don’t give people blood and gore, users won’t bother clicking. Give people what they want!
DELIVER VALUE WITH EVERY SENTENCE
The whole point of your outrageous title (two that I rather enjoy are: Why Successful People Are Douchebags by Neil Patel and SEO Is Dead. Link Building Is Dead. Your Pony Is Dead by Ana Hoffman) and of all the BOLDS, underlines and italics is to get people to read your post’s first sentence. The whole point of the first sentence is to get people to read your second. You need to keep offering value for people to go all the way through your article.
BLOOD MUST FLOW IN THE FIRST LINE
This is one of James Altucher’s tips for writing. There is a reason why the Roman mob enjoyed the Colosseum. Blood. The principle of Panem et Circenses (bread and circuses) is just as major today as it was back then. You need to either draw blood in the first line, or sacrifice yourself to bleed in it. That’s your choice, but the blood must flow or nobody will care and all eyes will turn to Facebook.
KILL OR BE KILLED – CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION IN STORYTELLING
Conflict is the focus point of your story. It leads to momentum, suspense and in the end resolution. If Storytelling was a house, then conflict would be the foundation.
Conflict drives the narrative. In order to have a great story, you need vivid characters. In order for the story to engage with the reader it needs to constantly present obstacles (which make the future uncertain) for the protagonist to overcome.
Imagine Homer’s Odyssey without having Odysseus’ ten year journey back home and withoutfacing the Gods to reach his beloved Penelope. Was the quest worth it? Of Course… love triumphed, until some Greek twist was applied and out came incest.
Being funny helps you in a crucial task: setting up expectations and then smashing them. If you want to keep people’s attention you need to defy expectations since people are constantly looking for patterns. That’s the job of the frontal lobe, people want to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know that they are doing it! When you turn to humour, you maximize the reader’s attention and shift their brain activity from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system, which is in charge with emotion. Basically, people stop thinking rationally, and start doing it emotionally. In fact, laughter predates human speech by millions of years (as it was used to show acceptance), just as the limbic system predates the frontal cortex.
KILL YOUR BABY
You need to be prepared to cut about 30% of your work after you are done. Delete every phrase that starts with “as you know.” gut every words that stalls the flow of your story. One of Hemingway’s rules is “use short sentences.” For example, writing about “a small boy with ragged clothes in a park” is the same as describing “a small boy with messy hair, a ripped red t-shirt, torn green pants, blue shoes, with stains on his hands that stood in the middle of a dusty green park where grass and dirt merged into oblivion.” Nobody cares. People just turn off if the details don’t seem pertinent enough for them. If your story is not fantasy or fiction, keep sentences short. Short sentences build great momentum.
You can read everything out loud and see how it sounds. If it sounds bulky and bad to you, it certainly will to your reader. Only after you have set the work on fire can it finally come back alive. Yes, you are Victor Frankenstein and your creature is on the table ready to be brought back to life.
LAST LINE PACKS THE BIGGEST PUNCH
Another great advice from James Altucher is that “Your article is meaningless unless the last line KILLS.
Your last line must link perfectly with the message of your story! It must go back all the way to your first line and make the reader fall back into his chair, look up and smile after an “ah” moment.
Mary Shellery’s ending in Frankenstein is great:
“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
but Orwell’s Animal Farm does it masterfully:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Good writing follows rules. Great writing breaks them all. If you want to be a great storyteller, you should break all of the rules you find (including the ones above). Master your stories and use them with every opportunity. Change history and politics, change the way we perceive the world, even better deconstruct our universe and then put it back together.
Many of my friends run their own businesses, raised hundreds of thousands for their start-ups, and are close to retiring before reaching thirty. Me, I’ve travelled the world, with a pen in my hand.
Mihnea Nastase is a foreign policy advisor at the European Parliament, a writer and a blogger. Having graduated from the London School of Economics with a degree in Social and Public Communication, Mihnea engages in politics by day and fiction by night. Set on bringing new ideas to Fantasy and Fiction literature, his blog, Herebedragons.live will help you with great sources of inspiration, content and world-building techniques.