Based on the concept that less is more
Good grief. Is it already time to do another article? By the time my term is up, I might have to resort to plagiarism. Just kidding. I would like for these articles to flow in some sort of logical progression – only my brain is anything but logical. So some topics may be out of order due to my state of mind at the time. If you are not satisfied, I will happily return your money. Anyway, it makes sense to me that the next topic of discussion should be story crafting. I will combine some basic tips in creating a story with my own original One-Sentence approach to story writing.
But I’m not a writer you may be saying to yourself. This article can’t possibly help me. I use stories that have been written by other people. If this is you, please flatter me and at least read the rest of the article. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer. If you are a storyteller who takes a story and retells it, baby I got news for you, you are rewriting it. Whether you like it or not. Whether you’re good at it or not. Whether you put it down on paper or not. That’s what you are doing. You are taking the story and making it your own by adding your own flavor, and flavor includes words. Unless you are memorizing stories and repeating them word for word, in which case you are really an actress. And you could still probably benefit from a few basic tips. My head is starting to hurt from all this on-paper convincing. So I’ll proceed.
I have watched many storytellers, comedians, and speakers in my day, and have noticed something that many have in common. They use too many words. If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: It’s all about saying more with less. I repeat: It’s all about saying more with less.
Let’s take a moment to rethink how we view a story. Sometimes as storytellers we will set out to write/tell a story that is, for example, twenty minutes long. Or we’ll have a certain amount of time and we’ll make our story fit that time. STOP. I want you to stop going at a story from this direction. Start thinking of how to tell the story as quickly as you can. And I don’t mean quick like you’re on speed, I mean quick as in sticking only to the necessary details.
You see, that’s where many of us mess up with our stories. We think that more words make a better story. WRONG. Please believe me when I say that the more words you add to your story, the stronger your chances are of losing your audience. A point is best made with two sentences instead of two paragraphs. A poignant moment is best when kept short and sweet rather than four pages of “how sad am I.” A joke is much funnier when you tell it in thirty seconds, than when you tell it in twenty minutes. If you’ve ever been to a cocktail party, you can certainly attest to that.
When I performed for the cruise ships I told a story that was forty-five minutes long. This was just this past April, so you see that I don’t even follow my own advice. The show was a success but I still asked the client what I could do to make it better. She told me to do forty-five minutes of short stories, rather than one long story. She said that the attention span of the average American is short, and getting shorter. You have to give them breaks. Like it or not. So I came back and spent the summer reworking my portfolio of stories so that every story I have is ten minutes or less. Now when I do a forty-five minute show, I have lots and lots of variety. I have noticed a tremendous improvement in my act.
This is not to say that long stories are bad. That is not true. And thanks to the wonderful nature of storytelling fans, there will always be an audience who will appreciate them. What I’m saying is that a story should include only what needs to be said. And often you will find that you took four pages to say what could have been said in four paragraphs.
A storytelling hero of mine (Bil Lepp) once said that when you tell a story you are giving your listener a back pack. And every detail you give them is put into their back pack. And as you travel through the story, they are climbing that hill with you – carrying a back pack that gets heavier and heavier. Don’t make them get to the top of the hill (end of the story) and realize that they carried that heavy pack (all those details) for nothing. If this still doesn’t make sense to you, think of movies you’ve seen where they introduced a character in the beginning and you kept waiting for them to show why that character was brought into the story. Or you see a scene and wonder why that was put in there when it had nothing to do with the story. Or you hear a joke that had about ten minutes of information that had nothing to do with the punch line. Or you fell asleep listening to someone use three pages to describe a meadow.
But just making your story shorter is not the answer. It’s the start. It starts with cutting out those huge blocks of unnecessary information. But beyond just cutting, it’s about changing the words you use. It’s about finding a creative way to say something in one sentence, using words that another writer/teller wouldn’t use. This is where we fall into the area of “it’s not how many words you use, but what words you choose.”
If a sun is hot, I want you to show me how hot. If someone is tired, I want you to show me how tired. I want your characters to have names (nicknames even better) and stores to have names. I want your characters to have flaws – in their personalities and in their personal appearance. I want you to take your stories and cut. And cut. And cut again. And don’t expect for this to be easy. But it does get easier. And when you look over your newly edited story later, you will see how much better it is. And you will even have time left over to tell another one.
My one-sentence approach to story writing is not something that can be taught in one article. But I’m going to give you some basics that I am sure will help you create a better story. And it starts with telling your story in one sentence.
That’s right. Tell me what your story is about (including the message or meaning) in one sentence. Don’t whine, if third graders can do this (and they can) then so can you. Let me give you an example:
My story is about a girl who travels to a distant land and finds out that there is no place like the home she left behind.
In case you guessed, it’s The Wizard of Oz, and many of you will have a different sentence because people get different meanings out of stories. Don’t over think it, just understand that I want you to start with that one sentence that tells what your story is about. You’d be surprised how many storytellers I have asked that question, and they weren’t able to tell me. That’s because often the story isn’t really about anything more than a plot. Or more importantly, the storyteller isn’t clear on how to verbalize what the story is about. This is important folks. You need to know why you are telling that story, and what it means to you and to your audience. You may not put it into words, but knowing it will make you passionate about your message.
I’m not telling you to tell a one-sentence story. And I’m not saying that one sentence is supposed to be the start of your story or even anywhere in the story. I’m just changing the way you approach the creative process. Instead of taking an idea and starting on page one….start with the one sentence. This works if you’re creating your own story, or making one your own. This sentence doesn’t have to be interesting or have neat words in it. It’s just a sentence that really sums up what the story is about. And remember that it must include the meaning. Don’t tell me it is the story of a girl who gets to go to a ball and meets her prince. That doesn’t cut it. If you are having trouble at this stage of the process (bless your heart) send me an email and I’ll help you through it. Practice with some stories that you already tell.
After you have told the story in one sentence, think about what the listener needs to know. Make a list (boring I know, but do it anyway) of the necessary details. What is imperative that we know about this story? Do we need to know how Cinderella’s stepfather died? No. And if you spend three pages talking about it I’ll smack you. Do we need to know where her stepsisters went to school? Do we need a description of the house she lived in? No. No. And no. I’ve got news for you. If a detail isn’t necessary to the story, don’t include it. Especially at this stage of the process. Later you may throw some extra details in, but I assure you that they will serve a purpose too.
Once you know what your story’s about and you have your necessary details, just connect them together to form the plot. You have put together the story. And it should be pretty boring. That’s because you haven’t added the flavor yet. Those little details that make a story interesting. The next part is what I refer to as “adding the flavor.” This article is getting long enough already, so I’m going to make a list of some of my top suggestions and a brief description of each. You can email me if you have questions.
1. Make the opening interesting. You have about a minute to get and keep their attention. Don’t waste it on “once upon a time’s” and lengthy descriptions of meadows. Open with a bang. Open with an excerpt from a later part of the story and then back up. Open with a conclusion like “last summer was the year I learned that sometimes too much fun is a bad thing.” Your goal here is to spark an interest. To tell your listener that this story is going to be different. Creating suspense is always a great thing to do in the beginning of your story.
2. Cut every unnecessary word that you can. Turn two sentences into one. And cut again. If you started with your one sentence and basic necessary information, you should be off to a good start. All you have to do is add details.
3. Find ways to describe things like nobody else would. And don’t forget to describe them. Don’t be lazy and call him a tall man, or a mean woman. Work a little. Show me how tall. Compare her to something mean. Name your people and places. Use your voices and accents. Spend time on those little details and your audience will commend you for it. Trust me.
4. Create interesting characters. Don’t make them cookie cutter people. Give them flaws. Give them unusual personality traits. It doesn’t have to be a whole paragraph. Just give them a sentence. For example: My Aunt Bitsy was a walking sponge of information – useless information for the most part – that she picked up at the drug store or the beauty parlor. (When you choose details to put in your story, try to use the details that are necessary to the story. Describe character flaws that later explain their actions.)
5. Some details serve a purpose other than furthering the plot. I use details to make jokes, to add humor, to set a scene. The One-Sentence approach is not about doing away with those details. It’s about having a reason for using them. Just know the reason and I’ll let you keep them. Kind of like what Milbre Burch said one time at workshop she taught us. She was talking about gestures. She asked someone if they intended to use their arms so much. She said it wasn’t a matter of whether they should, but whether they intended to. It’s okay to use them, if you are intentional about it. Does that make sense? Email me if you don’t understand and I’ll explain better.
6. Show instead of tell. This is harder to do, but the more you practice the better you will get. Take out phrases like “he was thinking about doing this” or “and then she decided she was going to say…” Just have the person do it.
7. Don’t feel the need to connect every moment together in your plot. It’s okay to jump ahead. Just make sure your listener knows what you’re doing. I have a story that is only about four paragraphs long. And each paragraph covers a different time period. I just make sure that the sentence opening SHOWS (not tells) the listener that time has passed.
8. Sometimes a story can be one moment. You don’t have to back up and give information about how they came to be there. You don’t have to explain what happened later. Many of my stories start with me describing a moment. And often the story will end without me ever having come out of that moment. Again, remember we only need to know the necessary information.
9. When you make a point, make it once. Don’t repeat it or find three other ways to say it. When you drill a point too much you will find that the reader/audience no longer buys into it. Sometimes it’s better not to even make the point. Let the reader come to their own conclusion. You want to avoid sounding like you’re preaching a message. If you tell your story well, you won’t need to end with the message.
10. Keep endings short and sweet. The longer they draw out, the more your audience starts to get bored.
11. Be careful of true personal stories – they tend to be more interesting to you than other people. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write about true personal stuff, just try to be objective about it. I run into this quite often. My business is comedy and so my objective is making people laugh. I know how to write jokes and how to write stories that make people laugh. And I think I’m pretty good at it. Until I tell something that really happened in our family. Most of the time it bombs. Because much of what made that story funny is only going to be funny to my family and those who were there. I lose all sense of objectivity because it actually happened to me. This is hard to explain. But try to get someone to help you – to listen and tell you if it is funny. Or how it could be funnier.
12. True stories need some lying. Many people are afraid to alter the details of a true story. “But it’s true, that’s the way it really happened,” they’ll tell me. But that doesn’t make it interesting or entertaining. And that is your first goal when you take the stage – to entertain your audience. Find a good friend who can help you analyze your material.
13. The weaker the punch line, the shorter the joke. There is nothing worse than a twenty-minute joke with a weak punch line.
14. Be careful of repetition. If you’ve got a story where your character has a repeated action, then each time you walk through that repetition, walk through it faster. You can actually speed up your voice, but I want you to take some words out. The audience will forgive you when you repeat the action once verbatim, but do it again, and, heaven forbid, again, and you will annoy them. Trust me.
Darn it…. I couldn’t think of a number 15. What a bummer. I feel like I’m dangling in the middle of nowhere. Who ends on 14? But so be it. The timer on my Hamburger Helper is going off and I need to go.
That’s enough for now. This is a lot to take in, especially if it’s the first time you are hearing it. Even if you only do a couple of these, your stories will improve. And we’ll probably cover some of these again in future articles. I’m here if you have any questions.
I leave you with a challenge. Write a one-page story starting with the one-sentence approach. Add the necessary details and then add the flavor. What happens? I’d like to know. Until next month….may the force be with you. (I’m in a weird mood. No more drinking while Will takes his nap.)
It’s all fun and games ’til the hair gets messed up