The MOST important part of any story (it’s probably not what you think!) (5/5 in the story series)

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I put the CD into the player and felt my stomach fizz with excitement. After months of stillness, finally, I was going to bring the room to life! I pressed play and looked up, expecting to see all the seniors bopping along. Instead: nothing.

No movement. One old lady eventually looked at me and furrowed her brow.

“This is The Beatles?” she asked.
“Yes!” I replied.
“Huh.”
She went back to her newspaper.

I was volunteering at the day centre for seniors with dementia, and I wanted to move them with music. But they had other ideas…

That’s one way to begin this story. Here’s another:

This is a story about the power of music, and surprising yourself – about the time I made a CD for the seniors that I work with, thought they didn’t like it, and then got shocked by an old lady, who danced the jitterbug with me like she was 16 again.

It all started when I first put the CD on. After months of stillness, finally, I was going to bring the room to life…

me and betty dancing at WTSS

I ask people (during client calls or storytelling workshops), “Which is the most important part of any story?”
Here’s what they usually guess:

The narrative
The detail
The ending
The climax

In fact, the answer is: the beginning.

The first thirty seconds of your story can make the difference between someone continuing to read, or clicking away.

In a story told in-person, it’s the decider between whether a listener is engaged and with you, or drifting off and wondering whether if I leave at 8 I can make the 8.20 train…be home by 9… which means I’ll make it in time for Game of Thrones – without taking in a word you said.

Today, I’m going to tell you how to begin your stories so that people keep listening, are drawn in, and then become open to anything you tell them next.

In previous blogs from this series, we’ve already established that, when you’re telling a story, you’re making a movie inside someone’s head, and that most of that movie needs to be made up of action scenes. You bridge these scenes with voiceover and montage.

(Quick recap: voice-over = no pictures (“I travelled across Europe for a month”); montage = flashes of pictures, low-detail (“We drank wine in Paris, saw street art in Berlin, met the Queen in London”); action scenes = where it gets granular (“I’m standing on a bus in Rome, when this handsome, dark-haired man gets on. I feel myself start to flush as I realise he’s coming to talk to me”))

The number one mistake I see people doing when they begin a story?

They start in voice-over.

And what you should be doing?

 

Always start your stories in an action scene.

Where you start doesn’t need to be the climax of the whole story. In the first example I gave above, my putting on the CD (to no effect) was just the first scene. The idea is, that you throw them right into the action.

Here’s what’s wrong with starting in voice-over, as illustrated by the second example above.

 

(1) Starting in voice-over is boring

Think about any movies you’ve recently watched and enjoyed. Almost all of them don’t start with a voice-over. Instead, they throw you straight into the action.

Imagine going to see a Will Smith movie, that starts with him saying, “This is a movie about a cop with a dangerous side, who goes rogue and fights criminals. During it, I get in four fights – one with a guy who turns out to be a Russian spy. In another, it SUPER looks like I’m about to die, but then I don’t. Enjoy!”.

Compare that with a movie that opens on this scene:
Will is dangling from a cliff, alligators snapping at his feet below, Above, the bad guys run towards him, shouting and waving their guns.alligators

Which draws you in the quickest?

Which of the two beginnings I told you at the start of the blog, made you feel like you were WITH ME?

The action scene. Always the action scene.

 

(2) Starting in voice-over stops us from caring

Often, by starting in voice-over and telling our audience what the story is about, we’re throwing in spoilers. As we discussed in blog three of this series, throwing in spoilers ruins your stories. It stops your listeners or readers from caring. In my example, if you know that, eventually, one lady is going to dance with me, when at first no one reacts, you don’t feel my disappointment.

In the Will Smith example in point (1), if you know he survives the fight where he almost dies, there’s no tension as you watch. Building tension is what makes a story delightful. Don’t take that joy away from your audience!

 

(3) Starting in voice-over forces us to reverse engineer

When we know what’s coming, we start trying to guess how it’ll happen. In my example, if you know one old lady is going to start dancing, you begin trying to guess which one it is. With every old lady I speak to, you think, “Is it HER? What about HER?”
This takes you out of the story and into your own head. The magic connection is lost.

In the Will Smith example I gave in point (1), in every fight, you’ll wonder, “Is THIS guy the spy? Is THIS?”. And, again, the spell is broken.

Hang on, I can sense you want to ask something. Go ahead.

But, Marsha,

Yes?

In blog 3 of this series, you told us to always tell things in the chronological order that they happen. Surely, in your example above, the volunteering came before you put the CD into the player?

Excellent point. Thanks for making it.

There is one time it’s ok to mess with the chronology of your story, and that’s as you start an action scene. This is because you want to start in action, and then pull out and give context.

(that’s what she said)

In the movie analogy, think of it as the camera panning out.

So, imagine: a movie begins, and you see a guy eating a sandwich. It pans out, and you see he’s with a woman, also eating a sandwich. It pans out further, it’s now clear they’re on a picnic. It pans way out, and you see there are fifty couples – it’s a giant, Mormon picnic.

Because the job of the beginning is to grab your listener, you want to throw them straight into the action, and, ideally, intrigue them a little. “What’s going on?” they’ll think. Or “What’s going to happen next?”
Why is Marsha trying to excite old ladies with music?
How is Will Smith going to escape his dangling predicament?

And: they’re hooked in.

 

Remember:

Want people to listen to your stories?
Always start in action.

(TWEET THIS HERE!)

Have you tried this out? Or do you notice this technique in your favourite blogs or stories? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading! If you know someone who’s trying to tell more compelling stories – or who has a talk or workshop coming up – you can share this post with them, using one of the round buttons below. Or share it on Facebook by clicking HERE, or Twitter by clicking HERE.

And if you’d like some one-on-one help making your story AMAZING, I would love – LOVE! – to help. I even gushed in a video last week about how much I love doing this. To find out how it works, go to yesyesmarsha.com/storycoaching.

You rule!

xx (Yes Yes) Marsha

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Photo Credits: me, and dno1967b via Compfight cc

6 Comments

  • Jessica Barrett Halcom

    Reply Reply November 2, 2016

    “Giant, Mormon picnic” made me laugh out loud!

  • Jim Mondry

    Reply Reply April 9, 2017

    Marsha – I love what you’re pointing towards. I always think of Pulp Fiction as the perfect example of this, where it starts at the climax (and then spends the next 60 minutes in flashbacks explaining how the story got here). But, an interesting counter-point to consider is “people enjoy a story more if they know the ending” (and here’s the research http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/soc/2011_08spoilers.asp). Just think of Romeo and Juliet–it begins with a spoiler.
    When I read your two openings, I thought they were both intended as legit options, because the way YOU framed the second, you offered enough intrigue that I was hooked. Even though you started in voice-over, I was fascinated to find out “how” the woman went from not dancing, to doing the jitterbug. In the way you used language, you created enough action that I wanted to read more.
    So, my take-away isn’t that voice-over is necessarily bad. But, the voice-over (if used) has to surprise, create intrigue, offer a little tension that I want resolved. Obviously starting with Action is a much simpler way to create that feeling (I want to know how Will Smith is going to get out without being eaten by alligators, or killed by the bad guys), but the key is to hook the audience in the fastest way possible. And they are hooked by an interesting question they want answered.

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Thanks for all of this, Jim!

      Some interesting points. And some of it is personal preference, in terms of what you want people to get out of a story.

      For me, what’s most important is that the person reading feels like they’re INSIDE the story. It’s that powerful connection that I find most magical about stories. In order to elicit this feeling – called “transportation” – a story needs to have tension (SCIENCE here!). If your opening is full of spoilers, you might enjoy the story more – you might increase curiosity but you lose the tension.

      Also, while that alt ending might have asked a question you wanted to answer, to me, the pre-amble before the question came was boring. But, more crucially, it sets you up to start reverse engineering at each stage whether THIS was the old lady, or THIS was her, who was going to start dancing. While that might hold your interest through curiosity, it pulls you out from being inside the story (by reminding you that you’re reading a story, and putting you in your own head instead of mine).

      Having said all of this, as a final point, I 100% agree with that study: plot is overrated. For me, it’s all about sensory images and emotion – THAT’S what makes us feel magical (and makes our brains behave as if we were INSIDE THE STORY!)

  • Matt Kowald

    Reply Reply December 19, 2017

    Thank you so much for the amazing 5 blog series!

    You’re incredible to be able to talk about your grandmother’s death in a way that touch’s the audience, while teaching how you are involving us in the story!

    Also love the part of you deciding to start your own marathon, and then raising those funds! That is incredible 😮

    I hope to be able to express my life stories, and brand stories in such a way in the future!

    (starting with an incredible beginning, using emotions and descriptive language to engage the audience, taking them through the full story without rewinding, fast forwarding and no spoilers! moving from a narrow beginning to a panned scene, and cutting out the unimportant clutter to keep it short and sweet)!

    I’m sorry for your losses, but am truly grateful that you’ve been able to use them to share invaluable information!

    You are an incredible! Love love love your work, and the personality that you bring!!!

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Reply Reply December 20, 2017

      What lovely words, thanks Matt! I’m so glad you found it so helpful 🙂

      Thrilled to have you in the Yes Yes Family!

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