It is cold, windy and dark. A few people are sitting around a fire. They are eating and drinking and talking when suddenly a young man gets up and speaks in a loud voice, “Do you know what happened to me today when I went hunting?” Everyone stop whatever they are doing and look at him. The young man doesn’t say till someone asks. “What? What happened to you?” Everyone is all ears wanting to know what happened.
Can you picture the scene in your mind?
It is happening 50,000 years ago, where a group of humans is sitting around a fire and a young man is about to tell a story and everyone wants to hear it.
The setting might be different, the people might be different but human desire to listen to stories hasn’t changed.
We, the humans, know how to tell a story since cave days. The art of telling a story is still the same since humans invented the language.
We all have the skill to tell stories. It is inbuilt in us.
The only problem is we have not been practicing them enough. That is because we don’t have campfires every night anymore.
But we have other means. We talk on phones, we interact on social media and we tell stories at the watercoolers and cafes. We are all proficient in telling stories orally.
Every time you are telling someone what happened when the fire came close to your property or how your son narrowly escaped a magpie attack, you are telling stories.
But when it comes to writing our stories, that we panic. We think we need special skills to write stories from our life.
The techniques of writing a good story are still the same as telling a good story and we learned it in the caves 50,000 years ago.
Let’s learn it from the young man in the cave who is going to tell a story.
1. Hook the audience
The first element of a good story is to hook the audience. If you are able to do that with your first sentence, you have them.
Let’s see what the young man did to hook his audience? He asked a question. Not just any question but a simple but clever question. His question was, “Do you know what happened to me today when I went hunting? ” In this question, he is promising two things – one I have a story to tell and it is going to be an interesting story because you can’t imagine what happened to me when I went hunting.
We, humans, are suckers for stories.
Of course, we want to hear your story, the cavemen must have felt, and it better be a good story now that you have our attention, young man.
So the first element is the hook the second element is the promise.
2. Make a promise
Very early in your story, you need to make a promise that your story is going to be worth their time. Even in cave days, the audience didn’t have time to listen to the worthless stories.
Imagine if the young man in the cave proceeded by telling them that he got lost and was tired, hungry and cold walking all the way back in the rain. Would anyone have kept listening?
He is breaking the ‘implied’ promise he made in his first line. This is going to be an interesting story guys, better listen. And he uses a special oral technique to make that promise. He pauses.
A pause in oral storytelling evokes interest. It brings involvement. When another caveman asked ‘What?’ it showed he is interested.
In written stories, it is achieved in the same way by arousing the questions in the reader’s mind. Look at some of the opening lines I picked randomly from the books around me.
Recently my twenty-two-year-old daughter asked me what message I would give to my own twenty-two-years old self if I could travel back in time. – Anna Quindlen – Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake
The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think. – Anne Morro Lindbergh – Gift From the Sea
In the country where I now live, there is no word for home. – Isabel Huggan in Belonging
Once you have made the promise you have to keep it. But you keep it in such a way that it keeps your audience interest. You do that by creating suspense.
3. Create Suspense
Suspense is the third element of a good story.
Let’s see how the young caveman achieved it.
I was standing behind a tree, ready with my bow and arrow, looking towards the river, at the point where the animals come to drink water when something towards me. You wouldn’t believe what it was?
Okay, you want to know what he saw. The caveman has used three techniques to create that suspense – by giving details (tree, river, bow, arrow), by adding in the wait factor ( standing behind a tree, ready) and by leaving it hanging (you wouldn’t believe what it was).
The suspense keeps readers wanting more. A story with suspense is never boring. Suspense takes the readers right inside the story and now they are ready for the journey.
4. Take them on a journey
That is right. Good storytelling is about taking your audience on a journey. They need to see what you are seeing. They need to smell what you are smelling. They need to be in the conflict with you and experience your
I couldn’t make out what it was. It was of the size and shape of a dear but its color was of the sun at mid-day and my eyes dazzled with its glow. I straightened my bow and pointed the arrow at him. He saw me. He knew I was hiding behind the tree. He looked straight at me but he wasn’t afraid. Instead, he signaled me with his head as if asking me to follow him. He then ran in the direction of the forest. I pushed my bow on my back and ran after him.
Now the rest of the cavemen are on the journey with the young guy. They are in the story anticipating what is going to unfold.
5. Give it a satisfactory ending
Nothing disappoints readers more than an unsatisfactory ending.
An unsatisfactory ending can make a good story go flat while a satisfactory ending can make a story memorable.
What is a satisfactory ending? One the deliver the promise you made at the beginning of the story. If you promised a suspenseful tale then a satisfactory ending would be that suspense is resolved. If you promised a romantic tale than then relationship issues are resolved and a happy state is reached. If you have promised an entertaining tale then humor is well-knitted in the story and the punch line delivers the surprise.
He disappeared in the forest. I couldn’t find him. But I found myself in a meadow full of lush grass where a lot of animals were grazing in the open. I took out my bow and aimed at a chamois. It lay dead at my feet. You are eating him right now. Fellow cavemen, I think I know how to get to that meadow. We don’t have to worry about food for years to come.
When we are writing stories from our life we are taking events from our lives and combining them with our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Then we tell them in such a way that it evokes readers’ interest, entertains or educates them, and delivers the intended message.
It is as simple as the caveman’s story.
Find some story from your life and try telling it to a friend incorporating all these rules. Don’t get disturbed if it doesn’t come out well in the first go. Most of the storytellers practice their craft over time. Keep in mind that a comedian tells the same joke multiple times before he perfects the timing, delivery and punch line.