You’re ruining your best stories. Here’s how to stop (3/5 in the story series)

Kneeling on the floor next to her armchair, I lay my head in my Granny’s lap. As the thick wool of her skirt skritched against my cheek, she stroked my hair, and sang to me in Russian.

“Mne nekuda bolshe speshut!
Mne nekovo bolshe lyubit!
M’sheek, ni gani, loshadey”

(if you’d rather listen to me reading this blog – and, yes, singing in Russian – click here)

Three years earlier, when I was 18, my Grandpa had died. Ever since, my Granny had gently been losing her marbles to senile dementia. She couldn’t dress herself or cook anymore. She could hold a conversation, as long as you didn’t mind that half of her facts were imaginary. She forgot simple words.

But her songs – she remembered every single word of the songs she loved to sing.

“Proshchai i mechti i pokoi!
A bol ni zakribshixsya rahn…”

My Russian was patchy at best, but I recognised some words in there. “Mechti” means “dream”. And “bol”, I knew from getting grazed knees as a kid – “pain”.

I lifted my face and looked up at her. “Granny?” I asked. “Will you tell me what the words to this song are in English, please?”

In her thick, Russian accent, she began to translate the chorus.

“Coachman, do not ready the horses,
I have nowhere to rush anymore!
I have nobody to love anymore!
Coachman, do not ready horses”

I smiled, and squeezed her hand.

“Next verse!” she announced.

“Coachmen, do not ready the horses,
I have nowhere to rush anymore!
I have nobody to love anymore!
Coachman, do not ready horses”

I smiled again and lay my head back down. While she was able to sing the entire song, word-for-word in Russian, once it came to speaking it in English? The record in her mind was scratched.

She went on to repeat the same four lines, over and over and over again – each time, punctuated with a cheery, “Next verse!”. In a gap, I lifted my head and got up from the floor to sit next to her. I took her hand, looked her in the eyes and said, “Thank you.” She beamed at me.

Then, the cat appeared. With a cheerful “mwrrrrrrr!” Charlie began snaking himself around her legs.

She looked down at him. “Pushok!” she shouted – which was her previous cat’s name. “Come here!” – and Charlie dutifully leapt up onto her lap. As she stroked him she said, “Pushok! You are a good cat!”

Then she stopped, confusion shrouding her face, and looked at me.

“But I do not understand.” She said. “Why, have I never before seen a horse as small as this?”

Once I stopped laughing, I squeaked out, “Because…he’s a cat, Granny,” carried on laughing and hugged her. She laughed and hugged me back.

marshaGranny copy
When you’re telling a story, there’s something very important that you must do. I often hear people butchering what would otherwise be great stories, because they don’t follow this important rule:

Always tell things in the chronological order that they happened to you.

Remember (from blog 1 of this series) how, when you’re telling a story, you’re making a movie in your listener’s head?

And remember (from blog 2), that you want most of that movie to be action scenes?

Sticking with that framework, there are two reasons why you need to tell things in the chronological order that they happened to you:

(1) Don’t make your listener have to rewind and fast-forward the movie.

In the example above, when I told you that I lay my head in my granny’s lap, did you assume I was a little kid? Then, as soon I said I was 21, you pictured me being that old?

Imagine if I’d waited until the tail end of the story to mention my age. You’d have spent the entire thing imagining me as a little kid. Then, once you realised I wasn’t, you’d have had to mentally rewind back to the beginning of the story, re-imagine the story with me as a grownup, run through all the facts to check that my not being a kid wasn’t important, and then come back to where you were.

At this point, as a storyteller, I’ve lost you.

When you’re telling a story, the magic is in the connection between storyteller and reader or listener. We’re on this journey together. Don’t break that spell by making them have to stop, think about what happened, and rerun scenes with different pictures.

Reason number two is VERY important:

(2) Don’t throw in spoilers.

How fun do you think that story would have been to read if I’d started with this:

“One time, my granny got confused and thought that her cat was a horse”.

Spoilers are a bummer when something funny’s going to happen. Nobody loves a ruined punchline. But they also diffuse any tension before you get the chance to build it.

If I were to say in a story, “Of course, at this point, I had no idea that they’d already given the job to someone else” – suddenly, you don’t care how the rest of my interview goes. You know it won’t make any difference.

Our addiction to TV shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad wouldn’t exist if there were spoilers at the beginning of each plot line. It’s the tension built – and the deliciousness of not knowing what’s going to happen next – that keeps us watching. Use this to keep people gripped in your stories, by NOT announcing what happens, before it happens.

“Don’t throw spoilers into your story.
Tell things in the chronological order they happened to you”

(TWEET THIS HERE!)

In order to elicit that magical connection between you, the storyteller, and them, the reader or listener, your main objective when telling a story is to elicit a Freaky-Friday-style body-swap between the person reading or listening, and you as this story was happening.

Only ever reveal things that you knew in that moment, at that point of the story. At the beginning of the above stories, I didn’t yet know my granny would mistake the cat for a horse. I didn’t yet know they’d give the job to someone else. So the listener shouldn’t either.

In your stories:

Always tell things in the chronological order that they happened to you at the time.

In the next blog, I’m going to give you some tips on editing your stories down – and some elements you must cut out.

Do you have a story that’s never gone down as well as you feel it should have? Could it be that you weren’t following this rule? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading. If you know someone who really wants to tell better stories, you can share this blog with them using one of the buttons below – or click HERE to share it on Twitter, or HERE to share it on Facebook.

And if you’d like some one-on-one help with your story – figuring out what needs to stay and go, as well as discovering even more tips and rules like this – I’d LOVE to help. Come and see how that works, at yesyesmarsha.com/storycoaching.

You RULE!

xx (Yes Yes) Marsha

 

PS want even more tips like this, plus secrets and stories that I won’t put on the internet? Come and join the Yes Yes Family (for free). I’ll also throw in my FREE training on the MAGIC BULLET for powerful storytelling!. Just pop your details in below:

Photo Credits: Nationalmuseet via Compfight cc and me!

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