What is a Natural Storyteller?

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

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    What an encouraging, liberating revelation: we are innate story tellers because ‘it’s built into the architecture of our brains’. You may have launched a thousand ships with this insight, Lisa. It certainly floats my boat.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..White Space

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    • says

      Thanks, Alex! I happen to LOVE ships, in fact, my very first email address was SHP2SHR (get it, ship to shore? ;-). Ah, those were the days! Dial up AOL. See, you triggered a story right there.
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..Story Abounds

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  2. says

    I find telling a story with an exaggeration hooks listeners. For example, after my co-worker and I were finished comiserating about our harrowing morning commutes, our boss asked us how we were doing. “Oh fine,” I said, “except that K and I almost DIED getting to work this morning.” Laughter from K, attention from boss.

    You’re right. It’s natural. Best to take notes on what comes (with or without thinking) out of my mouth!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..Cacography

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    • Marilyn Slagel says

      Jillian, your commute to work just reminded me of a harrowing cab ride in Dallas, TX while traveling for work. It involved several ladies in dresses and heels, a crazy driver and a banana. Might enter this particular story in a contest. LOL

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    • says

      It’s so true, Jillian! Reminds me of what my BFF is always saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, stop exaggerating!”
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..Story Abounds

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  3. says

    You are brilliant, Lisa. I was just struggling over this scene in my WIP, and then I paused (desperate) to read your post. Et voila! I know now what was missing: my character’s internal struggle.

    Thank you!
    Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Discomfort

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  4. says

    I was getting nowhere with my story–so flat! I took a break to read your post. Ah-ha! This is a great help–so much so that I printed it out and taped it into my writing notebook. Thanks for giving me confidence, and tips, to bring this story to life!

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    • says

      Oh Pat, I’m honored! Like all writers, I write these posts in at my desk (read: kitchen table) in my work clothes (read: pjs), hoping to help. So hearing that it’s made a difference just makes my day. Thanks!
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..Story Abounds

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  5. says

    My mom would recount her day in hilarious detail. I “knew” her co-workers. When I’d meet one, I’d smile to myself because my mom nailed the description of the person. Her favorite quote, “Never ruin a good story with the truth.” From her, I learned to expand the details and add observations at will.
    Mary Jo Burke´s last blog post ..Hello world!

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  6. Carmel says

    Is there anyone else out there who writes yet doesn’t feel they *tell* a good story? I’d be discouraged by that if I hadn’t discovered over the years that I have the instincts of a writer. The stories just don’t come out of my mouth very well! (And time shall tell if the writing comes out well. :o)

    Wonderful post. I’ve learned so much from your book, Lisa, and picked up some good tips on set-ups just the other day.

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  7. A M Perkins says

    Sadly, I work with someone who has never learned to tell her “trip to the market” stories without all those extra details.

    And it’s brutal.

    I kid you not, she once started a story about how her daughter got in a car wreck like this:

    “Okay, so I drove home from work yesterday, and when I got home I let the dogs out. Fluffy wouldn’t go even thought I knew he had to, so I put down pee-pads for him. Then I called my cable company. It rang a couple of times. I said, ‘Hello?’ but it was only a machine. Then I pushed the buttons to speak to a person but I had to wait ten minutes. When I heard him pick up I said, ‘Hello.’ and the man on the other end said, ‘Hello, how can I help you?’ and I said, ‘I had a problem with my television yesterday,’ and he said, ‘oh? what happened?’ and I said….”

    FOR TEN MINUTES. I heard every detail of the riveting cable exchange, then how she folded her laundry, then how she watched Oprah, and right before I tried to kill myself, she said how her daughter called and told her she’d been in a car wreck.

    Maybe she needs to hire an editor ;-)

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    • Marilyn Slagel says

      An editor and perhaps a script for something to control OCD or maybe some Imodium for a “loose mouth?” Her poor daughter!

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  8. says

    ~ “When our expectations aren’t met we’re instantly curious about what the hell is going on and what we should do about it.” ~ This cracks me up! Because you hit the nail on the head here! Bookmarked for sure! Reading through the comments it appears as if I’m not alone in my wandering storytelling ways on the page.

    It occurs to me though, that when I’m telling a story in person, there are visual cues to remind me when I’m veering too far into ~what type of apple it was that so-and-so was fidgeting with in the fruit section when she discovers her nemesis staring her down from the salad bar with what? what was that in her hand? this week’s issue of ‘How to Poison Your Enemies and Still Make a Seat on The School Board’~ by my audience’s yawns and deafening silence.

    I think your advice is spot on! I will refer to it at my next meeting with my inner muse.
    Scarlett´s last blog post ..Barefootin’ It! ~ An Army of Peepers

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  9. Marilyn Slagel says

    Love this, Lisa! This might just be what I needed to get out of the funk of the last few months and get the story told!

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  10. says

    I love story telling. I call it story time. That’s my middle school student’s favorite part of English. Every monday, I give kids the opportunity to tell a story, and then I tell one from my weekend. Sometimes, I forget to tell a story, and the kids immediately prompt me to tell one. This small thing I do in class is a big reason why I turned to writing my own work down.
    Dave´s last blog post ..I’m Sick with It – Writing is Taking Over

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