Cafe Witness

Friday, July 14, 2006

When Is a Story Not a Story?

I walked into the 61C Cafe a few moments ago and had one question on my mind: what happened to the front window?

The plate glass window that ran along the wider side of the facade had been replaced by particle board. Immediately, I surmised there had been a break-in, followed by the possibility of weather damage during one of the recent rains.

I approached the two baristas, ordered my decaf and then asked "The question of the day: What happened to the window?"

They laughed.

"Nothing happened. It just... fell."

"Inward or outward?"

"Kind of all over."

And that was it.

We agreed it was a pretty sad payoff to a provocative permutation.

Some other employees had been fabricating stories to try and sex up the situation, including a bird having flown through the glass and an ornate funeral being thrown in its honor. Personally, I don't think you need to invent fiction in order to sex up a story: you just need to sex up the facts.

Stories are in the telling. Inherently, some will have more fuel for powerful storytelling than others -- suspense, intrigue, high drama or absurdist humor -- but every action is a story that can be told in a captivating manner. The problem is, the average person underestimates the importance of, and their ability to tell, a good story.

Thus, apropos of nothing, here are my Five Underestimated Rules of Good Storytelling:

1. Facts are overrated. This does not mean I encourage lying. It means people think that the facts of their story are enough to craft a satisfying tale for a listener. Facts are hardly ever enough on their own. Why do you pay more for steak at Ruth's Chris than you do at Denny's? Preparation, ambience, delivery.

2. Tantra applies. Just as facts are not enough to tell a good story, neither is an immediate payoff. If there's no buildup, the audience can't possibly have an emotional response to your tale because you haven't given them anything to care about. Mistaking the drama or elation in your life as a universal drama or elation that everyone can relate to without context is a storykiller. Or, in picturesque terms, the response to "Anything new?" is not "My mom died."

3. Know when to be vague. Not every aspect of your story matters in the telling. Unless certain details are pertinent to the eventual payoff, your listener will not care whether your car broke down on Tuesday night at 7:10 or 7:35; all they care about is that your car broke down. Don't bog yourself down in minutae if it kills the forward momentum of the narrative.

4. Don't starve an audience. There's a difference between "keeping them wanting more" and "pissing them off." If you don't provide enough meat for your audience to hook into, they won't stick around long enough to ride your undulating wave of suspense. Cliffhangers and pregnant pauses are golden, but like any ingredient, if overused they can have a negative effect. (Think soap operas.)

5. The end is the end for a reason. If you've managed to provide an entertaining ride for your audience, you need to sum things up the only way they could possibly be summarized. If your tale requires a lengthy denoument, allow it to unfold. If it's best served by a hammer strike instead of a marching band, then keep it short. But regardless, don't deflate the effectiveness of your story by continuing beyond the endpoint unless an epilogue is absolutely necessary. Countless tales have been neutered by two needless words: "And then..."


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