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Archive for the ‘Brighten the story’ Category

What if?

“What if?” is the magic phrase for story tellers. It’s a combination of ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Open sesame!’ It turns an ordinary, everyday incident into a real story.

It works like this. You experienced or watched an incident that was kind of interesting. Kind of. Not truly interesting or intriguing, but there was something about it that made you remember it.  It floats about in your mind, never quite fitting your speech purposes, but still a pretty good incident. It’s like one of those odd kitchen gadgets someone once gave you. You never use it but you never throw it away because one day it might come in handy.

I can’t do much about your kitchen gadget, but what your incident needs is a good stiff dose of ‘What if?” You take the initial happening and ask ‘What if?’, then ask it again and again as you go through the incident, building until you’ve got a dramatic anecdote or story.

Let’s look at an example. At the Toastmaster conference one of the presenters told about her son going on a tough hike and asking her to pack his backpack. She was mildly annoyed at the extra task and, seeing a rock almost the size of a pineapple, she tucked it at the bottom of the backpack.

It’s a nice story, but it could be better with “What if?”

– what if…he tosses the back pack at someone and injures them

– what if…the extra weight pulls him over a precipice. What if he has to hang on until Search and Rescue arrive? What if there’s a TV crew filming it? What if the mother turns on TV and sees her son being rescued?

– what if…a bear attacks them and her son throws the back pack at it and stuns it so it takes off

– what if …he drops the backpack and breaks his toe? What if another hiker helps with first aid? What if she takes him to hospital? What if she turns out to be a doctor? What if this is the love of his life? Marriage. Happy ever after.

– what if…none of the above happens but the mom starts to worry about the possibilities. What if it ruins her day? What if it reminds her at a deep level how much she loves her son?

You can see how it works. To make the process more fun invite friends over for a ‘What if?’ session. You’ll come up with the most intriguing ‘What ifs?’ with everyone building on the ‘What if?’ that came before. Maybe try it as an exercise in an Ed. session.

So the next time someone asks, “What’s the magic word?” Tell them it’s ‘What if?’

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Sharpen the plot

My dad was always careful with his tools. When he finished using them he would clean them, oil them if necessary and store them carefully until next time.  If I used a tool I’d just chuck it back on the bench somewhere and he would come along later and clean it ready for use. When I asked him why he looked after tools so carefully he replied, “Why would I bother trying to chop wood with a blunt axe?”

Good point. When it comes to deciding on a plot it’s easy enough to state a plot using the formula outlined in “Dem Bones”:

(Character) wants (goal) because (motive) but (obstacle)

But with a little extra thought you can sharpen it into something even better.  By better I mean more interesting, more gripping, more intense, more emotional. Choose the adjective you would like to see enhanced in your story.

One way to state Jack and the Beanstalk’s plot might be “Jack wants the giant’s treasure because he is very poor but ….

In a lot of plots the character wants to achieve his goal for the simple reason that he isn’t like that now. Jack wants riches because he is poor, an addict wants to be clean just because she is addicted and knows it’s a rotten way to live. The goal is implicit in the way the character is at the start of the story. Good enough. It’s much better though if you up the ante. If Jack’s mother is ill and needs expensive medicine. If the addict will lose her child if she can’t get clean.

It’s better still if Jack’s mother will die without the medicine or the addict has this one last chance to keep her child.

And even better if Jack’s mother will die tonight without the medicine or the addict’s child has been pleading in tears to stay with her mother.

Each time you up the stakes you sharpen the axe; you cut right to the emotion of the story. You pull your audience in, you make your story memorable. Check your stories, anecdotes and examples to see if you can sharpen them, sharpen them again, then sharpen them some more.

It’s another tool in your story tellers toolbox.

You have a thousand stories. You just need to find them.

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Each day I walk past a new housing development and each day there is something new to see. Today I watched a master mason laying stones to form an elegant entrance to the project. The work he had already done spoke of an eye for detail and an instinct for which piece of stone would fit perfectly into each place in his wall. He has several pallet-boards of stone to choose from and each stone looks much the same to me – but not to him. His skill is knowing stone.

The story tellers’ skill is knowing words. Myself, I have three fat dictionaries and two thesauruses (thesauri?), all full of words. When I write a story I can choose any words I want. If I plan to impress you I can say I observed a peripatetic mendicant. If I’d like you to understand what I’m talking about I’ll tell you I saw a hobo or a tramp.

Just as the mason senses the differences between two similar stones as they relate to a space in his wall the story teller will sense the difference between words as they serve the story. If his story is for business leaders, for example, he will chose the vocabulary of today’s business world and probably throw in a few of the latest buzz words. For children’s stories the vocabulary is simple – mostly one syllable words.

But what about all the ordinary people in between? When in doubt, choose a simple word rather than a longer one. You could say ‘silly’ or you could say ‘unintelligent’. Which fits your meaning best? If it doesn’t really matter, choose the simple word. You could say ‘fat’ or ‘corpulent’, or choose one of many other words with approximately the same meaning. Use your thesaurus to check out all the options and select the one that fits precisely what you mean to say. Once in a while ‘corpulent’ may be your best choice but as a rule ‘fat’ nails your meaning accurately and briefly.

Personally I use my thesaurus often. My favourite one sits right beside my desk within easy reach and is comfortably dog-eared and tatty. I value it because it helps me select the word that expresses exactly what I mean. I try not to ignore the thesaurus and get by with whatever word slips into my mind and is pretty much what I mean. If I build a story or a speech with words that are pretty close, but not exact, guess what? I end up with a story that is pretty good, but just misses the mark for my audience or readership.

If a wall isn’t built with exactly the right stone in the right place it will look amateurish and awkward and it might fall down. Similarly, your story is built from individual words, each one selected by you to carry a tiny fraction of the burden of that story. Take time to choose carefully.

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Want to see the eyes of your audience glaze over? Try saying “Studies have shown…”

Leaving aside issues of who paid for the survey, size of sample and other inconvenient details, studies are just plain boring. Serious researchers have other means of finding them; your audience or reader just doesn’t care – it isn’t the time or place for data.

You could say, ” 27% of men will go bald before the age of 40″ (I’m making this up.)

Or you could share an example: “Pete, who lives down the street from me, went bald not long after his kids were born. He’s one of the 27% of men who go bald before the age of 40.”

Or you could extend it into an anecdote, “I was at a barbecue the other night and Pete was telling me how he hated losing his hair while he was still a young man. ‘It seemed like every time I looked in the mirror,’ he said, ‘That bald patch got bigger. I worried about what my wife would think. I worried about my kids – if they would always think of me as an old man. It got so bad I even thought about getting a toupee. But my dad was bald as far back as I can remember….”

Spinning a story around it gives people a frame of reference with which to connect to the issue. We hear about so many issues today that it is hard to pay attention and give thought to any one of them. If you want an audience to spend a little of their mental effort on a topic you have to go that extra mile to draw them in. Facts and statistics won’t do that. An example or anecdote will give you the personal connection you need.

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If you use a lot of description you run the danger of either putting people to sleep if you’re a speaker or having them skip a few paragraphs if you’re writer.

If you feel you can’t do without a goodly dose of description then write it in your first draft, then edit it with a firm hand, till you are left with a terse and vivid minimum.

One way to brighten any description that makes it into your later drafts is to use similes and metaphors.

Briefly, metaphors show how two things – often quite dissimilar things – are similar. “John was a hog”, “Mary was a princess”. They quite firmly state that something or someone is something else.

Similes are gentler. They often include the words ‘like’ or ‘as…as’. “John ate like a hog”, “Mary was as demanding as a princess”.

The trick to keeping people interested in your story is to keep your metaphors and similes unusual, unexpected and, with luck, even humorous.

So, let’s suppose I’m putting together a story about my grandmother and the point I want to make is that she walked very slowly. I could just say “She walked very slowly.’ How interesting is that? Press the snooze button.

I could go with something well known: ‘She was as slow as a tortoise’. That’s not going to brighten the day for many people.

I had a friend once who described someone who walked slowly as ‘Slower than a crab going to Ireland.’ A phrase like that will get attention. Now the audience will point their ears forward, and the readers will stop skimming.

It could just as easily have0 been ‘AS slow AS a crab going to Ireland.’ but the element of comparison is stronger with the use of an ‘er’ word.

Old timers sometimes said ‘Slower than molasses in January’ but that has limited meaning these days and it has been used often. Find yourself an original phrase if you can, and one with relevance to your audience.

Another way to do it is ‘She was so slow that… Use your imagination. What is slow? A caterpillar? The hour hand of Big Ben? Keep going until you have a word that works for you and will be evocative for your audience or readers.

Beware of causing offence with your simile. We used to say ‘Slower than the Second Coming’ but I wouldn’t use that in public.

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