Is there a difference between telling a story and writing a story? I think there is.
When we tell a story, we’re usually in a friendly and familiar environment.
Imagine, for example, you’re telling a friend at work about something funny that happened on the weekend.
You might set up the story with a single sentence (“Hey, Bob, a funny thing happened to me on the weekend ….”) that immediately tells your listener what to expect (in this case, a laugh or two, depending on how well you tell funny stories). You then use your voice and gestures to animate the story. You may wander a bit in the narrative, but as long as you don’t drag it out for too long, you’ll likely get the laugh you`re hoping for.
Bob, of course, may only be listening politely so he can tell his story once you finish. Isn’t it an unspoken convention of friendship that we listen to each other’s stories?
But writing a story, possibly for an audience you’ve never met, is much trickier. Professional writers, fiction and non-fiction, do it all the time. Let’s look at how they do it.
In my last post I shared a very short story about my mother that illustrated certain aspects of her personality.
As she entered her nineties, my mother, like many people her age, began a kind of life review – looking back to assess her accomplishments and shortcomings. On one of my Sunday visits to the seniors condo where she lived, I asked her to think about the happiest times in her life. She agreed. Two weeks later I came back and asked what she’d come up with. “Stephen,” she said, “I’ve thought very carefully about your question.” She paused, then went on. “The happiest times of my life were the ten years before you and your sister were born, and the ten years after you both had left home.”
The structure of this story is straightforward.
The lead, or first sentence, sets up the story: it introduces my mother, states her age, puts her in a larger context (old people doing life review) and hints at what is to come. A lead like this promises something to the reader (as every topic sentence does) – to deliver some kind of payoff or punchline about life review. If I go off on a tangent and start talking about a different aspect of her life or personality, I’ve cheated on this promise.
My second sentence is more typically the lead of a personal story – it establishes a time and place (Sunday visit to her condo). Almost every feature article in the New Yorker magazine starts with a place and time. This is a tested and effective way of bringing the reader into any type of story, and affirms that it actually took place (as opposed to using “Once upon a time … ” as the lead sentence). I could have started the sentence with “A few years ago … ” to make the time frame a little more specific.
Maximum compression is another aspect of writing a story. I’ve pared this story right down to the essentials:
- I asked my mother a question.
- She agreed to answer it.
- I came back to get her answer.
- She delivered the answer.
Unless you are writing a novel or short story, you usually want to compress the story. Strip out unnecessary details and description. Get to the point of the story as efficiently as you can.
A killer punchline to end the story with maximum impact on the reader is probably the hardest part of the story to get right. In my story, I had the exact words spoken by my mother and I knew they would work perfectly to end the story. Dialog is almost always better than a comment from the writer because it does the showing – you don’t need to do any telling.
To be fair, I’m a professional writer with 40 years experience writing stories like this one. I have an ear for story because I’ve written so many. I’ve written dialog for real people and for imaginary characters and that changes the way I interact with people – every word, phrase and sentence they say becomes a potential piece of dialog.
But also be fair, in the story above when I returned to hear my mother’s answer, I was primed to memorize her response, knowing it would likely be memorable and knowing that I might at some point want to capture it in a written story.
Another story about my mother:
A few years before she died, I was visiting my mother in her condo in suburban Toronto. At one point in the conversation she stopped talking for a moment, looked at me and said, “Stephen, I think you should get a DNA test.”
I was speechless for a few seconds. Then I said, “Why would I do that?”
“Well,” she said, “after you were born I was sharing a room with another woman who was Jewish and I think the babies got switched.”
“Mother,” I said. “First of all, you usually get a DNA test to check paternity, not maternity. Second of all, I think I’d know if I were Jewish.”
She looked me straight in the eye and replied, “Ah, but would you?”