Today, I am attending a workshop on how to tell a story.
The presenter, (Paul K Schwartzkopf) began by talking about the importance of telling a story. He recalled instances where he used story to share sermons/scripture with youth in his past. He also interspersed this with information about structure, and the reason why stories keep people engaged.
Paul is an old man, with a balding head and “liver spots” dappled across his skin. He wears rectangular glasses, and everything about him screams, “Librarian”. His own storytelling is that of a grandpa, sharing history. His stories are a bit disjointed, with details that have to be added back in.
Like any good storyteller, it seems effortless when he catches your attention.
At various points, we all have an opportunity to talk about stories that we’ve told. One participant tells of their experience on stage, sharing their story with an auditorium full of listeners. They tied their personal experiences to Paul’s statements, helping to drive home that “detailing the problem” and then “showing the resolution” are very important.
One story that Paul told goes like this:
All mothers have eyes in the back of their head. My mother? Hers were on a periscope. This story takes place in the 1940’s. It’s important to know a few things:
My older brothers liked to play “Commando”, even though they weren’t supposed to. “Commando” was played by crawling under the electric wire that my father put around a field, trying not to get shocked. The center of the field was our baseball diamond, so all the kids in the neighborhood liked to play there.
Well, on this day, my mother was in the basement. She was down there using an old, (well, new at the time) wringer to wash our clothes. That’s why my brothers decided they were going to play “Commando”. So they went outside, and took one of our cousins with them. While my brothers had no problem crawling under the wire on their bellies, my cousin did not. I’m not sure why, but my cousin grabbed the wire with his bare hands.
The wire grabbed him, and it would not let him go. He sat there, shaking and crying as electricity shot through him. Immediately, my brothers knew they were in trouble. If they were caught, they would be “chastised” by any adult in the neighborhood. So my brothers both tried to knock him off the wire, but the wire just wouldn’t let him go.
My brothers were about to run back inside to get help when the wire suddenly released our cousin. He fell to the ground, crying, and my brothers grabbed him and pulled him to his feet. They immediately ran back inside, down the stairs, and told her the story while tears streamed down their face.
My mother nodded and said, “Oh. So that’s why I turned the outside electricity off,” and turned back to the washing.Paul K. Schwartzkopf
This story went through several iterations before he told it to us, and I’m sure that I got parts of it incorrect. This story is a great answer to the question, “How do you show the problem, instead of explaining what the problem is.”
By building characters that are real, and using a little foreshadowing (the eyes on the periscope) you can put the character in a situations that your listeners and readers are able to relate to. So you don’t have to tell them what the problem is. By the time the character hits the lowest point of the problem, the readers are right there with them, and they feel the pressure your characters are under.
How to Structure The Story
“I’m very analytical. English was never one of my favorite subjects, and literature too. I love listening to stories, and reading, but I could never get into those classes. I’m a math and science person. So, how can I take my mind type, and use that to tell a story?”
This question was posed by one of the members of the group. Professional storytellers, also known as authors, are very familiar with this problem. For years, authors have struggled with trying to figure out where their story is going, and how to get their characters to get to the end. George R. R. Martin is a gardener who throws seeds into the bed. As he writes, he has his characters respond as realistically as possible to the little seeds of plot he’s sprinkled around.
Other writers, like David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are gardeners who have to know where the story is going, and each step of the process along the way. They start with an overall arc, and then start filling in the big parts in between the larger plot points. Repeat until your story is written, filling in each part of the story as you go.
Dungeons and Dragons storytellers, (Dungeon Masters) have used both of these for years. For a lot of storytellers, a mix between the two is the best approach. Too much “planning” makes your characters feel stiff, (or railroaded), and too little “planning” leaves your story never finished and meandering.
Paul shared a method for getting the story “right”.
Imagine two different shores. Your listeners are on one side, and you want them on the other. Your job as the storyteller is to use stepping stones, (the high points of your story) to create a path that gets the readers from one shore to the other.Paul K Schwartzkopf
Every story is a journey, and you want your readers to take that journey with you.