Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks
Your story must reflect changes overtime period a story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end up something new. The change can be in for testing period it need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen.
So must your story. Stories that failed to reflect change overtime are known as anecdotes. Romps. Drinking stories. Vacation stories. They recount humorous, heroin, and even heartfelt moments from our lives that burned brightly but left no lasting mark on our souls.
There is nothing wrong with telling these stories but don’t expect to make someone fall in love with you in a Chili’s restaurant by telling one of these stories. Don’t expect people to change their opinions on the portent matter or feel more connected to you through these stories. These are the roller coasters and cotton candy of the storytelling world. Supremely fun and delicious, but ultimately forgettable.
You must tell your own story and not the stories of others. People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than what happened to your friend Pete last night, even if Pete story is better than your own. There is immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you. It is visceral and real. It takes no courage to tell Pete’s story. It requires no hard truth or authentic self. This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell someone else’s story. It simply means that you must make the story about yourself. You must tell your side of the story.
Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. But feel free to tell your side of other people stories, as long as you are the protagonist in these tales.
Lastly, the story must pass the dinner test period the dinner test is simply this: is the story that you craft through the stage, the boardroom, the sales conference, or the Sunday sermons similar to the story you would tell a friend at dinner, this should be the goal.
When telling a story to an audience, we play a game with them: we pretend that we are speaking completely off the cuff. Extemporaneous storytelling, unprepared and unrehearsed. This is not usually true. While most storytellers don’t memorize their stories and I strongly advise against it, they are prepared to tell them. They have memorized specific beats in the story. They know their beginning and ending lines. They have memorized certain laugh lines. They have a plan in place before they begin speaking.
This is what the audience wants. They want to feel that they are being told ristori. They don’t want to see someone perform a story.
Homework for life
here’s the thing about that story: we experience moment like this all the time period this one may sound special and unique and maybe even beautiful, but only because I’ve crafted this particular moment into a story. In truth, these moments are everywhere. They exist in multitudes for all of us. They’re like danger in the wind. They exist all around us. More than you could ever imagine. The problem is that we don’t see these moments. We fail to notice them or recognize their importance, and when we happen to see one, we don’t reach out to catch it. We don’t record it. We don’t save it. We failed to keep these precious moments safe for the future.
I decided that at the end of every day, I reflect upon my day and ask myself one simple question: if I had to tell the story from today – a 5 minute story onstage about something that took place over the course of this day in dash what would it be? As benign and boring and consequential as it might seem, what was the most story worthy moment for my day?
I never expected any of this to happen. In searching for stories, I discovered that my life is filled with them. Filled with precious moments that once seemed decidedly less than precious. Filled with moments that are more story worthy than I’d ever imagined. Where I just been failing to notice them. Or discounting them. Or ignoring them. In some instances, I tried to forget them completely.
All of this happens because I sit down every evening and ask myself: what is my story from today? What is the thing about today that has made it different from any previous day? Then I write my answer down.
It’s crazy to think that you won’t give 5 minutes a day over to something that will change your life, but many well. Instead, you’ll blindly give two hours of your life over to a television show that you will barely remember a year later period it will give at least that much time to aimless surfing of the Internet and the liking of baby photos on Facebook, but you won’t give 5 minutes of the day to change your life.
If you’re a parent, you know this is true. Our lives are filled with beautiful, unforgettable moments with our children that turn out to be entirely in tragically forgettable.
5 minutes a day is all I’m asking. At the end of every day, take a moment and sit down. Reflect upon your day. Find your most story worthy moment, even if it doesn’t feel very story worthy. Write it down. Not the whole story, but a few sentence is at most. Something that will keep you moving, and will make it feel doable. That will allow you to do it the next day. If you have commitment and faith, you will find stories. So many stories.
Dreaming at the end of your pen
Each recovered memory, my life feels more expansive and significant. The years gather greater meeting and purpose. Surprising, significant associations between the past and the present are discovered. My life becomes brighter and sharper and better with every memory that isn’t covered. The reason is simple: we are the sum of our experiences, the culmination of everything that has come before. The more we know about our past, the better we know ourselves. The greater our storehouse of memory, the more complete our personal narrative becomes. Our life begins to feel full and complete and important.
First last best worst: great for long car rides, first dates, and finding stories
finding stories from your life can have the same effect. They can fill in the forgotten moments of your life while expanding your previously perceived boundaries. Moments that once lacked meaning and relevance can suddenly be recognized as critical and essential to your life story. Make it your mission to find, see, remember, and identify stories, and you will begin to see your life in a new and more compelling light.
- What / who was your first, last, best, and worst:
First last best worst is a game that can be played many ways. For someone on the hunt for stories, you can play alone, as I often do. Prompt yourself, using objects in the room, a random page in a dictionary, or ideas you hear on the television or podcast.
In class we use first last best worst as an improv game period you are given a prompt and must tell a story using the first last best or worst version of that prompt not only does it generate storytelling ideas, but in class it helps promote extemporaneous speaking skills teachers my students to utilize the skills and strategies we learn in class without rehearsal.
Every story takes only 5 seconds to tell
there are many secrets to storytelling but there is one fundamental truth above all others that must be understood before a storyteller can ever be successful: all great stories—regardless of length or depth or tone—tell the story of a 5 second moment in a persons life. Got that? Let me say it again: every great story ever told is essentially about a 5 second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible.
These five second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever you fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person. Your opinion on the subject dramatically changes. You find forgiveness. You reach acceptance. You sink into despair.
Think about the story that I mentioned in chapter three about my secret childhood hunger. In that story, my wife tells me she knows that I was hungry as a boy. She hasn’t covered my life long secret. The full version of that story runs about 7 minutes but it all boils down to the single moment at the dining room table with my wife. Everything else I choose to include in the story only serves to bring that moment to the greatest possible clarity.
My answer is always the same: no. Visiting Tanzania is not a story. Your ability to travel the world does not mean that you can tell a good story or even have a good story to tell. But if something happened in Tanzania that altered you in some deep and fundamental way, then you might have a story. If you experienced a 5 second moment Tanzania, you might have something. Think of it this way: if we remove Tanzania from the story, do you still have a story worth telling?
But none of that is important to the story. In this tree, Alan Grant changes his feelings about children. He likes them. Loves them, even. Story over.
This is how most big stories operate. At least the good ones. Big stories contain these tiny, utterly human moments. We may be fooled by whips and snakes and car chases, but if it’s a good story, our protagonist is going to experience something deep and meaningful that resonates with the audience, even if the audience doesn’t fully realize it.
Without my friends arriving at my time of need, there is little for the audience to connect to. But add my friends to the mix, and everything changes. We’ve all felt alone at some point in our lives. We’ve all been let down by loved ones, perhaps even by our parents. We’ve all had moments when we are unexpectedly lifted from pain or despair by the kindness of a friend. This is what people connect. Few people will ever understand what it’s like to crash through a windshield or were awakened to paramedics performing CPR on your body. But feeling alone? Forgotten? Lost? We all know that feeling.
Finding your beginning
more good news. You’ve also found the end of your story. Your five second moment is the most important thing that you will say. It is the purpose and pinnacle of your story. It’s the reason you opened your mouth in the first place. Therefore it must come as close to the end of your story as possible. Sometimes it will be the very last thing you say.
Once you’ve distilled your 5 second moment down to its essence, ask yourself: what is the opposite of your 5 second moment? Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite the end. … this is how our story shows change over time:
- I was once this, but now I am this.
- I once thought this, but now I think this.
- I once felt this, but now I feel this.
You create the arc of a story through the change that your story ultimately describes.
The written story is like a lake. Readers can step in and out of the water at their leisure, and the water always remains the same. This stillness and permanence allow for pausing, rereading, contemplation, and the use of outside sources to help with meaning. It also allows the reader to control the speed at which the story is received.
An oral story is like a river. It is a constantly flowing torrent of words. When listeners need to step outside of the river to ponder a detail, wonder about something that confuses them, or attempt to make meaning, the river continues to flow. When the listener finally steps back into the river, he or she is behind. The water that has flowed by will never be seen again, and as a result, the listener is constantly chasing the story, trying to catch up.
To keep your listener from stepping out of your river of words to make meaning, simplification is essential.
- Try to start your story with forward movement whenever possible. Establish yourself as a person who is physically moving through space. Opening with a forward movement creates instant momentum in the story. Makes the audience feel that we’re already on our way, immersed in the world you are moving us through. We’re going somewhere important.
- Don’t start by setting expectations. Listen to people in the world tell you stories. Often they start with a sentence like, “this is hilarious”, “you need to hear this” or “you’re not going to believe this”. This is always a mistake.
Start with the story, not with a summary of the story.
- Star Wars: a New Hope opens on two starships racing through space.
- Vertigo opens with a man frantically climbing the ladder, pursued by police officer.
- raging Bull opens with a figure set shadow boxing in a boxing ring as flashbulbs pop off.
- the Dark Knight begins with the bank robbery in progress.
- Apocalypse now opens with helicopters setting fire to a jungle.
- Raiders of the lost ark opens on Hindi and his team marching through the dark and forbidding jungle toward a mysterious mountain.
- Jurassic Park opens with a cage containing of a velociraptor moving through the trees towards a group of armed men.
- Titanic opens with the submarines descent toward the wreckage of the doomed ship.
- Casablanca opens with the narration and visual of refugees escaping from France to Casablanca during World War Two
Many movies open with simple overhead views passing over an ocean, a cityscape, or mountain pass. Many movies based in New York City open with an overhead approach of the island overwater. This has nothing to do with the film but allows the director to open with momentum. Forward movement. We’re headed somewhere important.
13 rules for an effective commencement address
- don’t compliment yourself. Don’t praise your accomplishments in any way. It is not your day.
- Be self deprecating, but only if it’s real. Don’t ever pretend to be self deprecating.
- Don’t ask for torical questions period these questions always break momentum and displeasure authority as the speaker on to your audience. Also, audience members will sometimes answer these questions and interrupt you, which is never good.
- Offer one granular bit of wisdom, something that is both applicable in memorable. Anyone can deliver a speech photo with sweeping generalities. Most people are capable of offering old chestnuts and choice proverbs. The great commencement speakers managed to lodge a small, original, useful, and memorable idea in the minds of the graduates. It’s the offer of one final lesson –A bit of compelling wisdom and insight that the graduates were remembered long after they have tossed their caps and moved into the greater world.
- Don’t cater any part of your speech to the parents of the graduates.
- Make your audience laugh.
- Never mention the weather or the temperature.
- Speak as if you were speaking to friends. Be yourself. If your language sounds more formal than your normal speech, you have failed.
- Emotion is good. Be enthusiastic. Excited. Hopeful. Even angry if needed. Anything but staid and somber. This is not a policy speech or a lecture. It is an inspirational address.
- If you plan on describing the world the graduates will be entering, don’t. It’s ridiculous to assume that the world as you see it resembles the world that this diverse group of people will be entering. Your prognostications will most assuredly prove to be wrong.
- Don’t define terms by quoting the dictionary.
- Don’t use the quote that you’ve heard someone use in a previous commencement speeds. Don’t use a quote at all, if possible. Instead, be quotable.
- End your speech in less than the allotted time.
Stakes: five ways to keep your story compelling
the audience doesn’t know why they are listening to the story or what is to come, so it’s easy to stop listening period if you don’t present from reason to listen very early on, you risk losing their attention altogether. The elephant tells the audience what to expect. It gives them a reason to listen, a reason to wonder. It infuses this this story with instantaneous stakes.
The first story offers a character sketch of the storytellers mother. We have no idea what kind of story we are listening to, so it’s easy for us to check out at this point. Nothing is at stake. There is no wonder. We don’t need to hear the next sentence. The second story starts with an elephant. It contains exactly the same character description, but it opens with a clear expectation of what to expect. “When I was nine years old, I wanted to disown her period leave home and never return. Forget she ever existed.”
Start with a Gray elephant period end with a pink one. Make your audience think they are one path, and when they least expect it, show them that they have been on a different path all along… Don’t switch elephants. Simply change the color… The laugh laugh laugh cry formula.
These are steaks. The audience must hear the next sentence. This is why heist movies like the Ocean’s 11 franchise explains almost every part of the robbers plan before they ever make move. If you understand their plan to rob the casino, you can experience the same level frustration, worry, fear, and suspense that the characters feel when their plans go awry. The film makers put the audience on Danny oceans team. They know the plan, so they feel as if they are part of the heist themselves.
It’s an odd thing: the audience wants characters or storytellers to succeed, but they don’t really want characters to succeed. It’s struggle and strife that makes stories great. They want to see their characters ultimately triumph, but they want suffering first period they don’t want anything to be easy
the five permissible lies of true story telling
storytellers and their stories in most advantageous place possible. They omit the Indians that offer neat little bows and happily ever after hours. The best stories are a little messy at the end.
Cinema of the mind
always provide a physical location for every moment of your story.
If the director were filming the first version of my story, the movie would probably open on black. The description of my grandmother would be conveyed via voice over. There’s nothing for the audience to see, because no location is ever identified. It’s almost impossible to imagine my grandmother, because there is no place to imagine her in. At best you might picture a thrill image of her floating in space. More than likely, you’re not picturing anything at all. You’re probably staring at the storyteller, waiting for him or her to engage her imagination more fully. There is no movie running in your mind. It’s merely a series of anecdotal descriptors.
In the second version, and images instantly formed in your mind. A director would know exactly where to point the camera. Can you see it? The lens pant again a garden on a summer day. You see me standing on the edge of the garden, staring at an old woman who’s crouching somewhere between rows of vegetable plants. As I described her, you see her bending over, pulling a weed, bending again. There’s action. Specificity. Setting. You don’t know what my grandmother’s garden looks like, but that’s OK. Your mind instantly fills in those blanks from you. You place your own idea of a garden into the scene, because the dimensions in size and general appearance with my grandmother’s garden are not relevant to the story, I allowed this to happen. I allow you to populate my story with your details. With very little effort, your mind formulates a fully realized scene, with depth color and texture, and all I did was give the moment a specific location. One extra sentence has changed the story entirely. Actually, it made it a story.
one version is a story. The other version is an essay. The only difference is that I provided a location for one but not the other. That’s it. That’s how you maintain a cinema in the mind of your audience. You give every scene a location, just as you would in a movie. Do this, and your stories would instantly improve.
The principle of but and therefore
every Monday morning, I invite my 5th grade students to share their one sentence weekends. This is their opportunity to tell me the most important or momentous moment from their weekend.
Once I realize the mistake that my students were making, I started listening to adults, and I quickly realized that even experienced storytellers onstage do the same. Clear majority of human beings tend to connect their sentences paragraphs and scenes together with the word and period this is a mistake. The ideal connective tissue in any story are the words but in therefore, along with all of their glorious synonyms. These “buts” and “therefore” can either be explicit or implied. “And” stories have no movement or momentum. But and therefore are words that signal change.
I think of it as continually cutting against the grain of the storage. Rather than stretching a flatline from beginning to end, the storyteller should seek to create a serrated line cutting back and forth, up and down, along the path of the story. We are still headed in the same direction, but the best storytellers don’t take a straight line to get there.
Do you see the way the sentences, paragraphs, and scene work against each other? They either oppose the previous sentence (it was this, but now it’s this) or they compile the previous sentences into a new idea (this plus this equals this).
Parker and stone explained that as the storyboard each scene in there show, they have found that they must be able to connect the scenes with a but or therefore for the next scene to work. If the words “and then” can be placed between any two scenes Parker says you’re fucked.
The secret to the big story: make it little
little moments hidden inside big moments. That’s what we need to find to tell a big story well.
There is only one way to make someone cry
common mistakes that storytellers make that ruin the surprise include: presenting a thesis statement prior to the surprise. This often takes the form of an opening sentence that gives away all that is surprising about the story. “This is a time in my life when my friends became my family” or “This is a story about a car accident so serious that it took my life, if only for a moment.”
To review, the strategies for preserving and enhancing surprise in the story:
- avoid thesis statements in storytelling
- heighten the contrast between the surprise and the moment just before the surprise
- use stakes to increase surprise
- avoid giving away the surprise in your story by hiding important information that will pay off later (planting bombs)
- obscuring them in a list with other details or examples
- placing them as far away from the surprise as possible
- when possible building a laugh around them to further camouflage their importance
The present tense is king
another strategy that I’m using to put you on this train with me is the use of the present tense period these events are happening right now for me, literally as I write this sentence, and, I hope, you feel as if they’re happening in the space and time that you are occupying as you read these words. This is the magic of the present tense. It creates a sense of immediacy.