Storytelling, especially visual storytelling, has become the dominant language of international culture and business. The ability to tell a compelling story will help you sell mattresses, win a court case, become president of the company – or the United States, or change your audience’s view of poverty and injustice.
Here are some tips to help you become a master storyteller.
- A good story has a beginning, middle and end, not necessarily in that order. At its simplest, the beginning reveals the hero, or person whom the story is about, and the problem or challenge they need to deal with. The middle unmasks the core identity of the hero as we watch them take action to address the problem or challenge they face, and deal with their initial failures. In the end, the hero and all he or she has learned, must grapple again with the problem or challenge and either succeed or fail at resolving the issue. If they succeed, we call it a happy ending. If they fail, we call it an unhappy ending.
- A good story has a protagonist, antagonist and person or group affected by the outcome. The protagonist is the hero, the person the story is about, the person who takes the action to resolve the problem. The antagonist is the visible representation of the problem or challenge the hero faces. The person or group affected by the outcome may be the town that is saved from the dragon by the hero, or the child who lives with either mom or dad after the divorce is final.
- A good story makes use of conflict and connection. We often hear that stories are about conflict and it’s true, the protagonist and antagonist have a conflict between them powerful enough that it takes the entire story to resolve it. However attention must also be paid to what connects these two characters, what keeps them engaged with each other until the end of the story, and what connects the other characters to these two central characters. If the connection isn’t powerful enough, characters can simply walk away from the problem.
- A good story contains the message, or theme, in the story itself. Every story is ‘about’ something. This is called the Theme. However, it’s usually best to let the audience figure out the theme after being engrossed in the story. If you have to explain what the story is about, it’s not a good story.
- A good story connects with our emotions. By identifying with the hero, by wanting what the hero wants and rooting for him or her to succeed, we feel what the hero feels. It’s one thing to know that the hero feels sad. It’s another thing to feel sad ourselves. In a good story we care more, for a time at least, about what happens to the hero than we do about our own problems. This is what we mean when we say a good story entertains us and helps us escape from our own troubles.
- Writing a good story takes practice. There are 88 keys on a piano keyboard and the concept of hitting these keys to make music is not a hard one to grasp. The difference between chopsticks and a Mozart piano concerto is practice, not the rules of the instrument. Understanding the concept of how to create a good story is pretty simple. To create a story that connects to millions of people requires practice. So, get started!
Rodney Vance is chair of La Sierra University’s Film & Television Production program. An active creator of good stories, he is writer/director/producer of the giant screen film “Napa Valley Dreams,” and recently completed directing “The Butterfly, the Harp and the Timepiece,” a short film starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and Golden Globe-winner Alex Ebert. He’s an active member of the Writers Guild of America, West, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and, ahem, MENSA. Mr. Vance has worked as head writer on two multi-award-winning television series (“Lifestyle Magazine,” “The Evidence”), sold or was hired to write several screenplays and stage plays, one of which, “Token,” won the Judge’s Choice Award in the Edward Albee International Playwriting Competition. He also wrote a children’s book called “De’Monte Love” published by Visikid Books. He produced more than 30 stage plays and events, including an event for the Pan American Youth Congress at the Mexico City Sports Palace and one for a World Congress of Seventh-day Adventists at the New Orleans Superdome. He worked as an expert consultant in writing for the Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C. and as a classical announcer for WGTS-FM in Washington D.C. and NPR member station WAUS-FM in Southwestern Michigan.