Okay, I’m tired of snow now…
Let’s go deeper into storytelling, what d’ya say?
And, if you’re still up for it, let’s do another exercise to get our chops honed to dangerous “street-wise salesmanship” levels.
But first… let’s do some triage on the previous posts.
I read every single comment that came in. And mostly, I was astonished at the quality of the stories told. It seems a lot of folks got fired up over both the 3-line limitation, plus the succinct efficiency of haiku.
If there was any glaring single fault in the group, it was the lack of a clear punch line. Many of the stories sort of “floated”, without moorings. And while meaningful to the writer, the tales remained mysteries to the reader.
So, there is a little more to be learned… especially when your final goal of good storytelling is to use it for selling stuff.
And before anyone starts huffing about how “crass” that sounds, let’s get straight on something right here: Most of the stories in our modern culture are about selling. Movies sell stars, and sell themselves. Television stories are just attention place-holders for commercials. (You think actors get the big bucks because they’re “good”? No way. It’s because they connect with a paying audience. Bob Hope was one of the richest actors to hit the stage, and he never even tried to “really” act — he just goofed his way through a stunningly-lucrative career. But people identified with him, and he cashed in on that identity.)
If you think stories should be “pure”, then move away from society. Even your weird Uncle Whazoo has an agenda with most of his stories — he wants attention, he wants to shock and entertain, or maybe he just feels family gatherings would kill the young-un’s with boredom if he didn’t retell the adventure behind his filthy hula dancer tatoo.
So, just to refresh: If you offer something that your prospect needs or wants… then shame on you if you don’t use every tactic available to get your sales message across so the poor guy can justify buying it.
And stories are just a killer way to set that situation up.
So… back to the lessons.
The idea behind limiting your stories to just 3 lines is an effort to help you become more concise. Even the most rollicking tale can put people to sleep if it’s too long, and has too many tangents.
And most people are not natural storytellers… so they ramble off on quirky paths, repeating themselves, unable to clearly explain plots, and bombarding the listener with irrelevant bullshit. “Did I tell you about the UFO that attacked us? No? It was Tuesday last week… no, wait, it was Wednesday. Yeah, it must have been Wednesday, because I was headed to IHOP to meet Suzy for waffles — you know they have specials every Wednesday, don’t you…”
This is how people get strangled.
In my long experience trying to force people to tell better stories, the first task is nearly always trimming the excess verbiage and fluff.
The outline to follow is: Set up (the tease of the payoff to come)… plot elements… action (the fulfillment of the tease)… and moral. Which doesn’t have to actually be “moral” in any righteous sense — it’s just the punch line of the story.
You have a reason to tell your story… which could vary from pure entertainment, to pure desire to sell lots of stuff. When you’re done, you want your listener or reader to FEEL something. Happiness (aww, the puppy got rescued)… alarm (my God, I’m gonna keep a loaded gun by my bedside from here on out)… astonishment (my neighbors are doing what at night?)… or, yes, even greed (hey! I want that kind of deal, too!)
To be more biological about it… the process can also be described like this: Foreplay… climax… resolution.
Stories, like sex, benefit from a focus on the goal. The less extraneous interruption, the better.
In other words: It’s not about you at all, even if you’re the star of the story.
It’s about your reader.
Ideally, he will “see” himself in your story. Or feel like he’s temporarily “in” the world you create with your words.
Have you ever read a story to a kid? Once they get the taste for it, just saying “Once upon a time…” will glaze their eyes over, as they eagerly prepare themselves to be transported to a world far different than their own.
(Side rant: I think it’s a friggin’ travesty that kids today are being shielded from the violence and chaotic messages of such wild tales as the Brothers Grimm laid out. I had zero idea what life was like in the Middle Ages, but I readily suspended all disbelief because I craved the story so badly. If everyone was wearing lederhosen and eating gruel — whatever that was — then fine. Just make sure the wicked witch or headless horseman scared the bejesus out of me.) (And I grew up fine. The real world, and all the people in it, is not some Kumbaya fantasy… and the often morbid lessons of classic children’s tales are damn good preparation for living amonst the deceit, the unfairness, the unpredictability, and the raw unbridled terror of reality. So there.)
The concept of “transporting” is critical. You’re driving the story, and it’s your responsibility to keep it on the road. Your reader will abandon you at the first hint you don’t know where we’re going… and he’ll despise you for getting his hopes up for a good tale, if you then dash them with a feeble punch line.
That’s why striving for pithy, concise stories is so important for writers. Set up… action… punch line.
And the 3-line tactic is classic. One of the best:
“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”
No need for any other detail. In this example, the words “rich” and “poor” are Power Words… carrying their own payload of emotional backstory with them, because in this context nearly everyone will have a feeling about the concept of being rich, and a feeling (probably very personal and visceral) about being poor. Any long-winded rant about HOW poor you were, or HOW rich you were, is excessive.
Concise, memorable stories pack a punch.
Even better, there is a segue into the life of the reader in that 3-line beauty. “Rich is better” may seem like an obvious statement, but coupled with the set-up lines, it delivers a strong message that smacks of truth.
Now, the classical “rags to riches” sales pitch requires more detail, of course. But not so much that you lose the flow of a quick story, told with feeling, ripe with implications for the reader.
However, good ad copy doesn’t rest on implications.
It’s got to move quickly to specifics.
So here’s a simple tactic from my Bag of Tricks that has helped me bring many a story “home” to readers: First, you tell your story, and you aim for the kind of breathless prose that makes your prospect afraid to exhale, for fear of missing a delicious detail.
Then, you tidy it up. Deliver the punch line, or the moral, or just the ending. Don’t try any clever transitions back into your sales pitch.
Instead, you merely say: And here’s what that means for YOU…
When reading fables to kids, any such attempt to explain the moral would ruin the transcendant pleasure of listening to stories. Ideally, you’d want the end of the story to rattle around in their heads, while they mulled over the ethical implications and came up with their own (right) conclusion. (Kids hate it when adults wag fingers and try to force lessons on them.)
But when you’re writing to adults, you can’t assume anything. Adults are so numb to incoming data, they will suck up even a great story, absorb it, and move on to the next volley of arriving stimuli without coming to any conclusion whatsoever.
So, as the copywriter, it’s your job to complete the thought.
Not in any condesending way, of course.
You just continue the thread, going deeper into your sales message.
“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better. Here’s what that means for you: You can continue on with your life believing that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ if that makes you feel better… but I’m here to tell you that having a pile of extra cash is actually a fabulous feeling… and your life will get better almost immediately. Plus, since I’ve already done the hard work of going from clean broke to filthy rich, I know all the shortcuts… and I’ll share them with you…”
So, if you’re up for it… here’s the next assignment: Tell a short, 3-line story (using the concept of set up, plot, action and punch line)… and then write a one or two line segue bringing your story home to your reader.
You’re allowed to be non-sensical for this exercise. In other words, you don’t actually have to be selling anything. You can make it all up.
Just think — really, really hard — about how the moral or punch line of your story MIGHT lead to a sales message.
If you read all the stories in the comments section of my previous posts, you probably noticed the frequency of “we met, we kissed, something went wrong” stories in the submission pile. That’s great — to get good at story telling, you first want to practice (a LOT) with telling tales that have emotional impact or meaning to you. Everyone remembers their first legitimate kiss. (Those sloppy pecks from Auntie Mame don’t count.) Most people’s stories tend to be pretty typical, but if they’re told right, they can still be funny, or shocking, or even corny in a way that gets the reader nodding in agreement.
And while it may not seem obvious that you could possibly sell anything, after sharing the humorous story of your first fumbling efforts at romance in junior high… just reflect on all the commercials and ads you’ve seen that blatantly couple sex and product.
Heck, they sell laundry detergent with sex. And while Warren Buffett might put you to sleep with his theories on compound interest, a real entrepreneur would explain the exact same concept from the deck of his yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad beauties. And get more attention, too.
Be concise, and bring it home to the reader.
You cannot “fail” at this exercise, because you’re just warming up your chops.
And, as a number of commenters noted, these are MEGA-important exercises if you want to get good. You COULD have been honing your storytelling chops all along, every day of your life. But you didn’t, did you.
Because no one challenged you to do it.
So, here is an excuse to engage that scary brain of yours, and force it to work for you, for once.
You don’t learn to ride without hopping into the saddle. And it’s okay to fall off, as long as you climb back on.
Again, I’ll read every submitted story, and comment as needed.
P.S. Stories sell. It’s just that simple… That’s why honing your storytelling chops can change the game for anyone who is an entrepreneur or copywriter…