In preparation for Halloween last week, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma. In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things. But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?
The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.
To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.” You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.
1. Foreshadow Future Events. Building tension starts shortly after your opening. Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image - in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror - that offers a clue about the events to come. If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.
2. Subvert Expectations. In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next. Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building. The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses. The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt. The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open. Unexpected, right? All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.
3. Add Comic Relief. As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release. The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle. Consider the earlier example of the snake. Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs. The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake. Entertaining, right? Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.
4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements. Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged. Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”). In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next. The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener). One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors. A good analogy will do wonders.
5. End with the Unexpected. In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story. The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief. At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor. The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.
Pretty tense, right?
As followers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show on AMC that wrapped its final season a few weeks ago. But I’m not here to praise the expert storytelling (ten Emmy awards), the suspenseful scenes (too many to name) or even the superb direction (Vince Gilligan is among the best in the business).
I’m here to talk about Saul Goodman.
Saul, played by the multi-talented Bob Odenkirk, is one of the funniest and fully developed secondary characters on television. After watching him for five seasons, I’ve fallen in love with Saul’s flagrant scheming and naked opportunism. But what exactly makes Saul so memorable?
It all comes down to character choices.
To help you tell stories with characters as colorful and rich as Saul, here are “3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters”. Follow these tips and you may have a spinoff show in your future.
1. Simplify Your Descriptions. In real life, people are complex. Unfortunately, when you tell a story, you only have a limited time to showcase secondary characters, so make your descriptions count. To do this, simply answer the question: Does the description paint a picture of the character for the audience? If the answer is no, make sure to add the necessary visuals to make the description pop out to a listener or reader.
2. Use Metaphors and Analogies. In some instances, it can difficult to reduce whole characters to simple descriptions. This is where the right metaphor or analogy can help. For example, maybe your brother-in-law is a police officer with a buzz cut who sings songs from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in public places (go with it). One possible analogy is that your brother-in-law is like the child of Joe Friday and Lady Gaga. Another possible metaphor is that he’s a mix of the Hardy Boys and Fallout Boy. The key to finding the right metaphor or analogy for a character is to identify the unusual or prominent thing about the character and then offer a truthful comparison. Even if the analogy doesn’t get a huge laugh, it will at least resonate with the audience. Just remember: analogies should be used to augment descriptions, not to replace them.
3. Serve The Plot. Once you’ve boiled down your characterizations and/or added an analogy, the final step in the process is to make sure that your character descriptions serve the story’s plot. For example, if you mention that your father used to shoot rabbits at the beginning of the story, the audience is expecting a reference to either guns or rabbits somewhere later in the story. If you don’t deliver on this promise, they’ll begin to wonder why you chose the original description. Once again, deliver what you promise! The upside of doing this is that it’s also an easy way to inject humor into your stories.
Feeling better about your characters?
A few weeks ago, This American Life (TAL) broadcast an episode entitled "How I Got Into College", which included a story told by a man in his 30’s about his early life. In the story, a 13 year-old boy escapes from war-torn Bosnia, only to face violence and isolation at an inner city high school. One day, the boy’s high school English teacher brings him to an exclusive private school and introduces him to an administrator. The boy impresses the administrator, is accepted into the private high school, graduates from Harvard and later becomes a professor at the University of Chicago.
Moving story, right? The only problem: the story isn’t entirely true.
To be fair, everyone is guilty of a little exaggeration for dramatic effect. That bully who beat you up in middle school probably wasn’t 6’7” tall (unless the bully was Lebron James). But TAL’s “too good to be true” story got me thinking: How do you tell a story that’s both honest and heartfelt at the same time?
The answer is actually pretty simple: ground your story in emotion.
To help you tell true tales that will move an audience, here are “3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories”. You’ll be amazed what happens.
1. Map Your Emotions. The first step in telling a good, true tale is to identify how your emotions changed as the events in the story played out. Did you start out feeling combative and end up feeling collaborative? Were you initially confused before you wound up feeling confident? One trick is to make an emotional flow chart to show your progression. Your emotional journey will eventually be the journey you’re going to take your audience on, so be as specific as possible.
2. Show Emotion Through Action. Stories often fail because the emotional content doesn’t match the physical actions, so once you know the emotions at play, ground your story in what happened. For example, instead of saying, “I was really sad,” tell us “I got a text message in midtown and cried until snot was dripping onto the floor of the D train as it pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station”. More interesting, right? The more specific you are about what happened, the more emotional the experience becomes for the audience.
3. Offer a Moment of Transformation. Stories aren’t just a series of events - they’re journeys of personal transformation. To do leave your audience moved, all you need is to provide a final moment that shows how far you’ve come. As I discussed in an earlier post on resolutions, the easiest way to do this is to return to the opening scene. Maybe you were evicted from your apartment of thirty years after a long fight, only to find an apartment directly across the street? Bring us full circle and we’ll see the impact directly.
Pretty moving, right?
Earlier this year, I attended a pitch event for young entrepreneurs seeking funding for their start-ups. The room was packed with over 200 business people and there was a buzz in the air. But two minutes into the first powerpoint presentation, things began to shift. Spectators started to squirm. A few of the panelists sank back in their chairs and checked their watches. Within ten minutes, eyes were glazing over as the unlucky presenter droned on.
Does this situation sound familiar?
Luckily, there’s an easy fix for a dull pitch: tell a story.
To help you pitch a product or sell an idea more effectively, here are “5 Rules for Telling Stories with Your Pitch”. Follow these guidelines and you’ll have investors throwing money at you before you know it.
1. Make Your Opening Count. It’s important to start your presentation off with a a bang, so make your first few lines memorable. Your first lines should establish (a) the problem you intend to address with your idea or product; (b) the characters, or players, in your world; and (c) a hint at the solution, or where you’re going. Paint a picture for your audience!
2. Be Vulnerable. Investors are not expecting everything to be perfect - if everything was perfect, you wouldn’t need help - so be open to sharing challenges. The easiest way to do this is to talk about what happened in the process of growing your business. What obstacles did you face? Remember: don’t pass judgement on yourself or your customers. It’s better to open up about that something didn’t work during your pitch than have it come out in a Q&A. Your audience will thank you for it.
3. Build Tension. As I’ve discussed before, the way to build tension in a pitch is by identifying the emotional arc of the talk. Pitches, like stories, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy). What happened to you along the way? Did you start the business confused and wind up feeling excited? Maybe you felt confident and now feel frustrated? Once you know the emotional arc of the pitch, your job is to take the audience on the journey. Show us what happened and your audience will begin to care about you and the product or idea.
4. Revisit Your Value Proposition. The best pitches are organized around a central idea, or theme. In business, the central idea is known as the value proposition. One quick way to identify the value proposition is the answer to the question: why should a customer buy this product or service? Use the answer to this question (i.e. to have easy access to the world’s information online), to segue into your vision for the future.Show people how things will change in the world you’re creating with your product or idea.
5. Have a Clear Call To Action. Once you’ve taken your audience on an emotional journey and they know your value proposition, the last piece is having a call to action. A good call to action will give your audience something to do with the information you’re imparting. Do you need $1.725 million for capital equipment? Six additional staffers for a new team? The key here is to be specific about what you want and ask for it. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for investors to understand your needs and give you what you want.
Not so bad after all, right? Now you’ll just have to figure out how to deal with Aaron Sorkin when he wants to make a movie about your life.
(image courtesy of CoCreate)
A few months ago, I read an amazing story about Megan Amram, a comedian who tweeted her way into a job as a writer for the hit NBC show Parks and Recreation. I opened up her Twitter feed to see what the buzz was about and started reading. That’s when something unusual happened.
I couldn’t stop laughing.
Most of the posts I read were irreverent (ex: “I hardly buy things, but when I do it’s PRODUCTS ™ (SPONSORED TWEET)”) - pretty standard stuff for a comedian. But a few dozen tweets in, I noticed something unusual: a series of tongue-in-cheek posts about a lost roll of masking tape (Spoiler Alert: The tape was on her wrist the entire time). I found myself looking at photos, reading her blog entries about the tape, and even retweeting from her feed.
This got me thinking: apart from funny one-liners, how does Amram engage so effectively with her 370K followers?
The answer, once again, is storytelling.
To help you tell great stories on Twitter and social media in general, here are “5 Tips for Telling Stories on Social Media”. You may not gain millions of followers overnight, but you’ll at least be able to find the masking tape on your wrist.
1. Start with a problem. I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but it bares repeating: all good stories need a problem. The problem doesn’t have to be life or death, but it should be specific and easy to understand. Maybe you were stuck on a train home from the beach with a preacher who wouldn’t leave you alone. Maybe you couldn’t find an open restaurant in midtown at 10 PM. Maybe you lost your masking tape. Whatever the issue, just remember that you only have a limited amount of space on social media, so keep the post short and simple. If you absolutely need more space, one workaround is to link to a blog that illuminates the problem in more detail.
2. Find your character. Amram is so successful on Twitter because she tweets and responds completely in character. Whether you’re telling a personal story or using social media to tell a larger company saga, it’s important to maintain a consistent voice. One way to find your voice on social media is to answer the question: What does your character want in this situation? Once you know what the character wants (i.e. a good meal late at night), play around with the tone of the posts until it feels honest.
3. Build tension. After you’ve discovered the character’s voice, heighten the tension with each successive post. Use short posts to keep your audience on their toes. Introduce new pieces of information. In Amram’s case, she uses photos of her posters and daily entries to keep people updated on the tape saga. Photos are an easy way to build tension and add specificity without losing your audience.
4. Provide a resolution. Once you’ve built the tension to it’s highest point, provide some resolution. This could be a tweet or Facebook post that references a blog entry, a video or even a series of photos. It’s important to resolve the problem defnitively. If you don’t satisfy your followers, they may turn on you and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a Twiiter war.
5. Hint at a future problem. One way to keep the conversation after the story is resolved is to hint at a future problem with a final joke or suggestive line. In comedy, this is known as a tag. This is a chance for your followers to continue the conversation with you, so make sure to keep it brief. You’ll followers will thank you for it.
Feeling a little more social?
(image courtesy of Netflix)
A few nights ago, as I was drifting off to sleep, I started watching the first season of the hit show Orange is the New Black from Emmy-award winning producer Jenji Kohan. As the credits began to roll, I heard the opening song (“I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Sisters), and then something unusual happened.
I was glued to the screen. For hours.
When I was done watching (my internet connection abruptly died, or I would have binge watched all night), I started thinking: How does Kohan tell such a compelling story?
The answer, I quickly realized, is pretty straightforward: it comes down to a few simple rules.
To help you tell your own stories as well as Kohan, here are “3 Storytelling Rules to Follow.” Keep these in mind when developing your own stories and you may have the Emmy committee calling you before you know it.
1. Start with a big opening. I’ve mentioned this point in previous posts, but it bares repeating again. The audience has a short attention span, which means that it’s the job of the storyteller to draw the audience in right away. The easiest way to do this is to raise questions in the opening of the story. In the first scene of Orange is the New Black, for example, we see a series of shots of people bathing, followed by a shot of two women caressing in a warm shower. The camera then abruptly cuts to a scene of the protagonist, a pretty young blonde woman, shivering under a prison shower while another woman yells at her to finish. Gripping and a bit confusing, right? Start your story with a splash (sorry!) and your audience will follow you wherever you go.
2. Make sure every scene serves a purpose. Each scene in your story should serve a purpose. There are a number of different functions for scenes: demonstrating the setting, showing character, establishing the problem, showing the stakes, developing tension, heightening conflict, and providing comic/dramatic relief. The best scenes do at least one of these things, if not more. The more layered the scenes, the richer the story will become.
3. Deliver on what you promise. A good story is a promise: in exchange for the audience’s attention, you (the storyteller) promise to answer the following question: How does the main character resolve the central problem he/she confronts in the story? If the opening of a story raises questions and sets the audience’s expectations about what’s going to happen (see #1), the ending should answer these same questions. In Orange is the New Black, for example, the opening raises the questions: Why is the main character in prison? How did she get there? And what happens to her in the shower? We find out all of these things in the course of the pilot (SPOILER ALERT: smuggling drugs, turned herself in, and not getting clean). By the end of the episode, the audience feels satisfied because the questions have been answered and new, more nuanced questions have been raised for the next episode. That’s why audiences keep tuning in season after season and year after year.
As anyone who’s taken my classes will tell you, I’m a huge fan of Nick Kroll. Kroll is a funny guy: he’s regular on Parks and Recreation, he’s toured as a stand-up with Aziz Ansari, and he has a recurring role on Children’s Hospital on Adult Swim. But aside from his character and stand-up work, Kroll is an amazing storyteller. How does he make his stories both funny and poignant?
It all comes down to authenticity.
To help you tell more genuine and compelling tales on stage or on the page, here are "3 Tips for Telling More Authentic Stories". Follow these tips and you’ll be wowing crowds before you know it. You may even get your own TV show in the process.
1. Make it personal. All great stories are personal, meaning that you (the storyteller) have a stake in telling the story. The stakes don’t need to be big (i.e. life and death) in order for the story to be significant. However, the higher the stakes, the more invested the audience will be in the outcome. One quick way to uncover stakes in a story is to answer the question: What does the central character stand to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the problem? If the answer is “nothing,” or “not much,” you probably need to investigate further. High stakes don’t automatically make for a story good, but they’ll help you capture your audience right away.
2. Use lots of details. Specificity is the essential to making your story resonate, so be generous with detail. The first time you tell or write a story, be overly specific. Use visual language to paint a picture of the setting, characters, and problem for the audience. Once you’ve done this, it’ll be easy to edit the piece down to a more manageable length. The more generous you are with yourself, the more generous the audience will be with both you and your story.
3. Be honest. Part of Nick Kroll’s appeal as a performer is his willingness to be honest with both himself and his audience. Honesty goes a long way in storytelling: if people sense that you’re revealing something true about yourself, they’ll support you as a performer. On the other hand, if you try to manipulate or lie to your audience, you’ll quickly find yourself at the mercy of an angry mob. It may seem convenient to lie in the moment, but it’s always better to be truthful in the long run. You’ll feel better about yourself in the moment and you’ll avoid nasty encounters with fans down the line.
Pretty real, right?
Ok, I admit it: Mad Men is fun to watch. Like most of America, I get a kick out of watching Don Draper and his crew toss aside rivals while seducing everyone in sight. But Mad Men, which has won countless Emmy awards, clearly has something else going for it. In each of the six seasons, creator Matthew Weiner has added dimension to the characters and taken the audience on a journey through the tumultuous world of the 1960s. How does Weiner cover so much ground while remaining true to his characters?
It all comes down to staying on theme.
As I’ve discussed on the blog before, a story’s theme tends to emerge after you’ve told it a number of times. However, there are ways to shortcut the storytelling process. To help you shape your own stories faster and make your themes more apparent, here are “3 Tricks to Staying On Theme." You may not come out looking like Don Draper, but you’ll at least be able to show the audience the meaning behind your own stories.
1. Boil it down to a big idea . The most basic definition of theme is “what the story is about”. In other words, themes are big ideas that reference the transformation that the central character undergoes. When thinking about themes in your own stories, look at who you were at the beginning of the story and who you are at the end. Did you start off as a kid who used to get bullied and end up as a bully? A class clown who ended up as the valedictorian? One trick is to identify the transformation in one word (i.e. Loss, Betrayal, Reinvention, Hope, Power, etc). Simplifying the theme will help you stay focused.
2. Identify the emotional arc. Behind every big idea is a big emotion. All stories, big and small, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy). Use the emotional roller coaster of the story told to guide you to a new place. Do you start out happy and end up despondent? Do you start confused and wind up feeling confident? Be clear and honest with yourself because this is the journey you’re going to take your audience on when you tell your story again.
3. Edit. Once you know the emotional punch of the story, make sure that each scene works in service of the big idea. Every scene should reveal something new, so when editing it’s important to ask yourself two questions. First, is this scene critical to understanding the character’s transformation? Second, does the scene contain anything that doesn’t serve the theme? If the answers are yes and no, then you’re ready to go. Otherwise, re-examine and rework.
Feeling more like a Mad Man now?
Image courtesy of AMC
For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure. Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*. Or maybe you’re like David Brent from The Office (see above) and you’re a tone deaf dancer. Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life.
This past week, I read a wonderful article in the New Yorker by Walter Kirn about how he was duped by one of the most famous impostors of the 20th century. The article is alternatively funny and heart breaking, but got me thinking: How does Kirn keep his readers rapt without launching into a tirade?
You’ll be happy to know: it all comes down to a few simple storytelling tricks.
To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, here are "3 Tricks for Telling Stories About Failure." Follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.
1. Don’t pass judgment. The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story. The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible. Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18 - 22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.
2. Avoid complex explanations. If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens. Don’t do this. People love stories about a good flop (see my previous post), so don’t cheat them of the experience. One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story. Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important.
3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions. Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience. Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling. When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.
It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”
*All of these things happened to me
While browsing Tumblr earlier today, I came across Megan Amram, one of the writers for the hit NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation (see above). The first few posts I read made me chuckle. By the fifth or sixth entry, I had to stop reading just to keep myself from crying with laughter.
Amram has a clear gift for finding funny stuff in everyday life and has a following (361K Twitter followers and a feature in Fast Company) to prove it . Here’s one of her sketches:
Hilarious, right? But what makes Amram’s sketches and jokes so spot-on?
One word: timing.
Regardless of whether your material is funny or sad, the success or failure of stories (and jokes, for that matter) hinges on timing things correctly. So to help your stories take off and land smoothly, here are "3 Tools for Masterful Timing". Timing is everything.
1. Arrive late and leave early. The golden rule for writing is conveniently the same rule that applies for attending parties. The key here is to not waste your audience’s time; enter into scenes as late as possible and exit as early as possible. Once you’ve broken the story into scenes, look at each scene and ask: “Is every piece of information important?” If the answer is ‘no’, re-examine the scene and see what you can eliminate. Don’t waste your audience’s time!
2. Create build-up. Each scene should build on the previous one, adding new information and helping shape the audience’s understanding of both the central problem and the characters. In comedy, we see this in the form of ‘heightening’, which gradually makes each sequence more intense. In more dramatic stories, we see this in terms of an escalation of stakes, which in turn generates tension. The further along we go in the story, the more important each scene becomes.
3. Pay it off. Every story needs to “pay off” or answer the central question posed in the beginning. If you’ve timed the story correctly, all information will build to a climactic moment when it gets paid off. Practice telling stories in a social setting and see if your audience fully feels the ‘payoff’ built into the story’s climax. If not, don’t immediately scrap the story. Go back and how you can fix each scene to create build-up that feels organic to an audience. You’ll get a laugh and you’ll satisfy your audience every time.
How’s that for a payoff?