510520691_90bf054846 copyYou know that feeling, when you can’t wait to get home to tell your significant other about the crazy thing that just happened at work? The second you walk through the door, even before you kick off your pinchy-toe shoes, you’re saying, “You’re not going to believe this . . .” as you launch into the story, complete with revealing hand gestures, passion, and well timed pauses that effortlessly build to the riveting climax.

You didn’t write it out first. You didn’t agonize over where to start. You didn’t choose each word for its poetic splendor, think about what sensory details to include, or spend time talking about the unseasonable weather, or the nuanced pale green of the office walls. (That is, unless the story revolved around a flash flood caused by a sudden rainstorm, or turned on the fact that the office walls were supposed to be painted bright red . . . )

As writers we all want to be natural storytellers. Here’s the thing: in real life, we are. 

We instinctively know how to zero in on what will rivet our listener, how to parse it out to keep her intrigued, what’s relevant and what isn’t, and what’s going to wow her at the end.  When we tell stories about things that have happened to us, it flows naturally. It’s not magic — it’s built into the architecture of the brain.

You see, we think in story — our brilliant brain is wired to translate objective facts, events, concepts and ideas into a compelling narrative that centers on just one thing: how said facts, events, concepts and ideas will affect us, subjectively. That traffic jam on the way home from work? Objectively, it’s just a bunch of cars going real slow.  Subjectively, it’s the reason you’ll get home late, and instantly you’re telling yourself a story about the affect it will have – the dog isn’t fully housebroken, uh oh, plus you’ll be late picking up your cranky daughter from her piano lesson, that slow cooking roast is going to be burnt to a crisp and sheesh, did you forget to fill up the gas tank on the way to work again, is that why that little red light just went on?

We tell ourselves stories every minute of every day. It’s how we process incoming information.  And the stories we tell others? They’re spurred by the unexpected things that happen to us, the things that break a familiar pattern, forcing us to learn something new – and possibly juicy – in the bargain. 

That “something new” is the point of the story. It’s information that might come in handy in the future. In fact, the reason we’re biologically wired to listen attentively to stories is that they allow us to learn life’s thorny lessons via someone else’s hard won experience. The beauty of it is, instead having to navigate the danger ourselves, hearing a story about it is actually enjoyable!  Stories feel good for the same reason food tastes good – because they’re crucial to our survival.

This is evolution at its finest.  So why, then, is writing a story so damn hard? Why do so many aspiring writers lament the fact that they just aren’t natural storytellers – when, in fact, they are? Could it be that when it comes to writing, we’re taught to foster the exact opposite of what we do naturally?

Yep. Writers are continually encouraged to focus on the externals -– words, metaphors, dialogue, setting, place, characters -– as if mastering all these “elements” will somehow result in the ability to tell a story. What’s more, we’re taught each of these things separate from story, when the power they derive stems from one thing only: the story itself.

So what’s the real story here? That you know much more about storytelling than you think you do. Speaking of which . . .

Here are four things you can learn from your own brilliant brain when it comes to the natural art of storytelling:

1.  When we tell stories we instinctively understand that for something to be interesting, it must shake up something we already know. In other words, it must break a familiar pattern we’ve long since taken for granted. That’s why things that are out of the ordinary interest us greatly. When our expectations aren’t met we’re instantly curious about what the hell is going on and what we should do about it. It’s that very curiosity that yanks our listeners in and keeps ‘em hooked.

So when you’re writing a story, ask yourself:

  • What familiar pattern has been broken here?
  • What are my protagonist’s expectations, and why aren’t they being met?
  • What will my reader instantly be curious about?

2.  When we tell stories we innately know that it’s not the beauty of our language, our great metaphors, or our ability to render realistic dialogue that stokes our listener’s curiosity, but the story itself. We know that she’ll only care if there’s a clear problem unfolding. She’ll ask herself, how is this going to resolve? What will the real-life protagonist have to figure out to solve it?

As listeners our interest is far more goal driven that simply kicking back and getting lost in a good story. Behind our hardwired curiosity is the most primal of quests – survival. What our cognitive unconscious is really dying to know is: What useful info can I glean about why the protagonist did what she did? This is because the biological goal of our curiosity is to gather intel. We’re constantly applying what the protagonist learns to our own lives: how might this new info fit into, explain, and possibly alter what we already know about how the world works?

So when you’re writing a story, ask yourself:

  • What is the external situation at hand?
  • What problem does it pose for the protagonist?
  • What surprising intel am I giving my reader about the world?

3.  When we tell a story, we know the goal isn’t to simply recount what happened, but why it happened – because that’s what we’re most curious about.  It’s not about the “what.” It’s about the “why.”

For instance, here’s a what: Joe went to work today, leapt on his desk and recited the Gettysburg address, backwards and in French, in the middle of the morning meeting. Certainly that’s the sort of thing you’d tell your significant other – it’s out of the ordinary, it breaks a pattern, and surely it isn’t something Joe does every day.

But so what? By itself that info is surface – it doesn’t teach us anything except that Joe is odd — so it isn’t all that interesting. Rather, it’s the why we’re curious about. Why on earth would Joe do that?

So when you’re writing a story, ask yourself:

  • What is driving my protagonist’s behavior?
  • Why is he doing what he’s doing?
  • What internal problem are the events forcing him to deal with?

4.  When we tell a story we innately know exactly what the story is building toward from the very first word. We’re passionate about the point we’re making – after all, it’s the reason we’re telling the story.  And we know it’s what our listener is dying to know, too. Thus, we wouldn’t risk losing him by digressing into something irrelevant like the unseasonable weather or the pale green walls. We keep our eyes on the prize, and build toward it.

Watch yourself naturally do this the next time you’re telling a story. You only mention things your listener needs to know in order for the story to make sense. You never burden the story with random facts, details or an abundance of metaphor-strewn sensory details. Instead, you innately cherry pick only the parts of the event that are relevant to the point you’re making.

For instance, you’d never call your BFF and describe your trip to the market in cinematic detail, with lots of great metaphors about the lush, crisp green of the salad aisle, and how the light filtered in through the windows just so, and that it’s your favorite market because the spinach is always grown locally, and then get to the part about how you were standing at the bread counter when you glanced up, felt an unsettling jolt, and realized you’d just locked eyes with your boyfriend Jeff, who’s supposed to be out of town. The panicked look on his face made you look around, and that’s when you saw a woman sauntering up behind him — Michelle, his new neighbor, grinning and holding out a dripping bunch of arugula, which he always said he thought tasted like soap.

Are you kidding me? Instead, you’d start and end with Jeff, beginning with how much you’d trusted him, building to how the betrayal made you feel, what it taught you about him – and maybe yourself – and ending with what you’re planning to do as a result. From the first sentence your BFF would be hooked, because we all innately know that stories are about what happens when our expectations aren’t met. So starting with, “I really trusted Jeff . . .” not only instantly grabs her attention, it gives her an idea of where this story is going. She’s right there with you, not only because she’s your pal, but because, in part of her brain, she’s hoping to learn something from your experience that might help her with her own love life. It’s just how our brain rolls.

So when you’re writing a story, ask yourself:

  • What point is my story making?
  • Does everything in my story lead to that point?
  • What irrelevant details can I leave out?

It’s kind of thrilling to find out you know way more than you thought you did, isn’t it?  Turns out when it comes to storytelling, you’re already wearing the ruby slippers. So the next time you find yourself wishing you were a natural born storyteller, stop and remind yourself that you are. Then why not take yourself out for coffee and pick your brain for pointers.

Photo by djwhelan via Flickr

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.