I only know one Bart Simpson line, “I like Stories.” And I use this line often when someone says to me, “Do you want to hear a good story?”
I bet you like good stories, too. Storytelling seems to be hot right now. Why? Because it is one communication strategy that really engages people when done effectively. Storytelling, whether spoken or written, is a skill. And it is a skill that effective leaders need to develop and continuously practice.
This week I have done some reading about how to write effective stories. Here are my five tips for constructing an effective short story.
Understand your story’s purpose and write a title. Write down for yourself what “it” is you are trying to accomplish with the story. Is it a story that will simply inspire people or make them laugh? Is it a story that will move people to take a specific action? Is it a story that will teach your audience a valuable lesson?
Once you understand the story’s purpose or objective write a six-word title connected to this purpose. I was inspired several years ago to use only six words after reading about six-word memoirs – six words force you to communicate your purpose in a concise manner. (How many words are in this article’s title?)
Pick your character, choose your writing structure. Usually before you start your story you have a character in mind. However, you need to decide whether the story is about that person or your reaction to that person’s actions or behaviors. The main character needs to grow or change during the story. You also want your audience to identify with and root for the main character. Think about how you will accomplish this. If it is a story about yourself, be sure to include your feelings and how those changed.
Then choose whether you write the story in the first person (“I”) or third person (“s/he”.) Finally, decide whether to write the story in the present or past tense.
Write an opening sentence that hooks your audience. Your first sentence should give the audience something to relate to and give the reader/listener a reason to stay tuned-in. It should also contain a clue to the purpose of the story. For example, “I woke-up Friday morning to my dog barking out the slider at a bear on our back porch.” Or “Justine’s smile on that difficult Monday morning made everyone on her team relax.”
Middle of story must connect the opening to the ending. So often it is the middle of the story that loses the audience. As Kurt Vonnegut has succinctly written, “Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.” When you are writing a very short story this lesson is very important because every sentence is precious. After you write a sentence ask yourself if the reader/listener really needs this information and, if yes, does it pass the Vonnegut test.
Another common mistake is to start the story too far back in time. If you do this you have to include more information than is needed just to get the reader/listener up to where the climax happens. Start nearer in time to when the climax happens.
When writing the middle part of the story remember this tip from Aaron Shepard to young authors, “The basic steps of a plot are: conflict begins, things go right, things go WRONG, final victory (or defeat), and wrap-up.” Remember every story has this arc – story begins, story changes, story ends.
The Ending. Effective stories often end with a short climax or surprise. Your closing words wrap-up your purpose. If you meant to inspire people or make them laugh, your closing words should give people chills or make them smile. If you wanted to move people to take action, your closing words tell them how to take that action right now. If you wanted to teach your audience a valuable lesson, your closing words should restate the lesson or ask a thoughtful question.
In my next Blog posting I will put these tips to the test and ask for your feedback. I will publish a short story that will be less than 400 words. Stay-tuned!