I was asked to teach a 10 hour class on "storytelling" at a district workshop. There's a story behind that. But since it's not much of one, I'll spare you. The first half of that workshop took place yesterday, the second half will take place next Saturday.
In preparation for the class, I started asking all everyone around me, "What makes for a bad storyteller?" The answers came pretty quickly: too boring, too many details, too few details, the story gets stuck in the middle and just goes in circles...
I began to think of a friend of mine from many years ago, an older man, who delighted in reminiscing about his past. Unfortunately, no one else delighted in his chronicles. He was a sweet guy, but just had no common sense when it came to storytelling. If he started to tell you about a trip he'd once taken, his mind would short-circuit and jump to
trip of his, which then reminded him of
and so on...and before long you were taking six trips down his memory lane...and you never arrived at the destination of
Worst storyteller ever...but a swell fellow.
So, I wondered, "How can such a swollen fellow gain so much swell-li-ness? (If the last word of the last sentence should actually become a
word someday, you will be able to tell the story of its origin. But you may have to fib a little if you want it to be an interesting story.)
As my readers know, I'll endure almost anything in order to get a good story. (My motto in life is this: "Let's do it, and if it doesn't work out, at least we'll come away with a good story.") And so I made an appointment to interview my old friend and have him tell me some stories. Everyone thought I was crazy.
My strategy for the interview as this: to have no compunction about interrupting him if I started to get bored,
even if he was in mid-sentence.
The strategy worked. The moment he started prating about this and that, I would break in, and ask him a question about himself that no one had ever asked him. I was pretty sure, the way he told stories, that few people had ever bothered to ask him
about himself. And that assumption was validated, as time after time: I would interrupt him with a personal question, watch his brow furrow, and hear him say, "Well...no one ever asked me that before."
And that was when I validated my suspicion: he really was a swell guy. He'd had enough adventures in his life to be a braggart, and enough tragedy to spend the rest of it clinically depressed. That he avoided both was a tribute to his strong character.
He and I were friends for many years prior to his death, and stayed in touch even after I moved away. Our conversations were holy: as long as I remained rude enough to interrupt him...repeatedly. Things I heard from him I have long distilled into my own spirit and wisdom...and those conversations guide me for the living of these days.
And so I approached the workshop determined to give folks a few pointers on storytelling, since most of them will not ever spend time with someone as rude as I.
The basic building block of storytelling is the "anecdote," just as a cell is the basic building block of a living organism.
An anecdote is a narrative that includes one or more characters involved in a sequence of events in a particular setting.
- sequential event(s)
An anecdote may be interesting, or not; may make sense, or not; may have a point to it, or not.
Here, for example, is a boring anecdote: "I drove my car down the road and it ran out of gas." So what? A pretty dull anecdote? Right?
But let's put my wife in the car...and let her express an opinion about the situation. Getting more interesting? Then let's throw in a factoid like...well...the car ran out of gas out in the country and the only building within ten miles was a "Gentlemen's Club." By this time, I'll bet you don't want me to get distracted and jump to telling you about a field trip to the tulip farm when I was in first grade.
Once you master the art of telling a good anecdote, you'll be able to tell a great
joke, illustrate an abstract concept, tear someone down with a piece of juicy gossip, talk a stranger into giving you $20, or convince someone to try a new restaurant you've just discovered.
The hardest thing for many of us about telling a good anecdote is to give the "setting." Depending on our listener(s) it is easy to give too much background to our anecdote...or too little. And setting all depends on the listener. If you find yourself saying at the end of your anecdote: "Well...I guess you had to be there," then maybe you should have selected a different anecdote. It's important to build a "nest" before you lay your egg, just don't make your listener wait while you build the whole henhouse.
Once we get the anecdote down, we are on the road to telling some great stories. Anecdotes can be developed and crafted into revealing deep and important things about the world, ourselves, and God. Good anecdotes attract others to us and become the material out of which relationships are created.
Good anecdotes take the listener (or reader) not just on an interesting journey, but a meaningful one. Anecdotes are the best way of becoming more transparent and authentic with others.
Of course, anecdotes are not always fun. One anecdote almost always leads to another one. Sometimes we cannot wait for the other person to finish their anecdote because we're itching to tell ours. Its a competition. And the last liar wins.
And if told with a mean spirit, anecdotes poison and destroy...sometimes whole communities. Such is the state of our present political discourse...and political commercials.
But the trouble with anecdotes (their poor telling...or their occasional nefarious uses) is no excuse for neglecting the craft of telling them. They are desperately needed in our lives to start and grow relationships, and console, encourage, rouse, and entertain one another.
Next week: the difference between an anecdote and a story...and how to tell and enjoy great stories.