Story Building 101

The power of story 
Stories are powerful tools in business. A good story focuses attention and motivates people to change. We can use stories to illustrate the application of theory or to give people a real-world context for practising skills. Stories can even be offered whole or incomplete. If you’ve never used a story set-up to challenge others to make up the ending, try that soon.

A versatile tool
Few tools are as versatile or as essential to our continued existence as living beings capable of change. Stories can find their way into emails, reports, courses, manuals, presentations and marketing materials. You’ll hear them in classrooms, boardrooms and lunchrooms. I challenge you to make it through a single morning without hearing at least one story.

But how do we build a good story?
You would think something so essential and common to human existence would be easy to do. And yet, the world is full of boring stories nobody listens to.

In school, you were probably told all about the three acts or the story pyramid with a peak at the climax. No doubt you’ve also heard about character development and themes. While these theories are solid, they can be difficult to put into practice.

Books about story building
If you haven’t already guessed, I am obsessed with stories. I’ve read a lot of books about them and it’s a habit unlikely to end. In my quest, I’ve found two books especially helpful: “Attack of the Copula Spiders” by Douglas Glover and “From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction” by Robert Olen Butler. In each of these books, I found a simple story-building principle that has served me well in business and fiction writing.

Character change through conflict
 From Douglas Glover, I learned that story is character change through conflict. There you go: a simple rule that is shorter than any story pyramid and easier to use. Whenever you come up with a story, ask yourself two questions: Does the character change? Does that change happen because of a conflict?

If the answer is no to either question, you don’t have much of a story. There’s more. The character must engage in the conflict in order to undergo change. Fairies with magic wands work only in picture books or fantasy fiction. Businesspeople want stories that reflect real life.

Yearning revealed through the senses 
From Robert Olen Butler, I learned that the real driver behind stories isn’t plot. It’s yearning. Sure, we enjoy the things people do in stories, but we care about them because of what they want.

When you start building a story, begin with a foundation of yearning. What does the person or group of people in your story want? Show that vividly in the first sentence and then let the yearning play out. Show us the yearning being denied, or fulfilled, or denied and then fulfilled, or fulfilled and then denied. There are many possibilities and people love them all.

Yearning is about emotions and so are stories. People don’t feel emotions by being told how they are labelled. The story must take them into their own body and let them experience the emotion through their senses. This is the true gift of powerful stories. We don’t just think them. We live them.

This skill takes more practice, but it is worth the effort. Often it helps to describe a physical activity with the emotion in your mind and let the feelings be conveyed naturally.

Try these simple principles the next time you need to build a story. Listen and read for examples of other people using these principles. The world needs more good stories. Thanks.

© Debbie Bateman 2019. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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  1. Pingback: Step 1: Gain their attention - Clear Choice Writing Inc.

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