I got an email from a close friend the other day who is mere days away from finishing the MBA program at Stanford. He was preparing a talk for one of his classes and wanted me to recommend books, articles, or blog posts about how to tell a good story.
I couldn’t think of a single resource.
That puzzled me. After all, I’ve been telling stories on gu.e for a couple of years now, so shouldn’t I be an expert on the subject? Shouldn’t I have a library of rare First Editions and hard-to-find treatises stretching back to Euripides? Judging by the feedback, I have succeeded in telling some stories well, but no one has ever asked how I do it. I haven’t needed the library because I haven’t had the question to answer.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, without or without the impressive library, I do know how to tell a good story. That’s the secret that I want to share today.
Voyeurism of Failure & Technology-Induced A.D.D.
Aside from a general desire to entertain and to share some insight or revelation, I hadn’t analyzed how I put stories together. I write them in a way that “makes sense” to me. I suppose my process is intuitive. Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order—and so long as those parts showed up on the “page,” I trusted my instincts.
I make mistakes.
Context is important, but geez, Austin, people don’t need three pages of backstory. What are you, a disciple of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne?
The mistakes I sometimes make on gu.e, such as wordiness or random tangents, are reminiscent of a different style of storytelling. I remember reading three pages of description of a room in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne certainly painted a picture for me, but I just wanted him to get on with the story. He wrote for an audience that didn’t suffer from technology-induced ADD.
My successes on gu.e tend to be punchy posts about somebody, most often me, saying or doing something embarrassing. I’ve called it the voyeurism of failure in the past. Failblog.org has tapped into our obsession with other people’s mistakes. But identifying a leitmotif of my stories, and my life, still doesn’t explain what makes a good story a good story.
My most popular posts are often short. They get straight to the action and don’t dawdle with prologue. They leave out heaps of details. What you leave out and never say is as important as what you put in. The silence of a story is part of its cargo, just likes the pauses in a song. Hoity toity literature buffs call this the “theory of omission” or the “iceberg theory.” They associate it with Ernest Hemingway.
Read Hemingway’s short story “Hills like White Elephants” and then try to figure out the 95% of the narrative that Hemingway leaves unspoken, under the surface.
I would take the iceberg theory one step further: the narrative world must leave room for “curiosity space.” We’re creative, inquisitive creatures, and we love playing out possible scenarios and predicting likely outcomes.
We love to interact with the story. We love coming to the big reveal at the end of a movie and proclaiming, “I knew it!” We love it even more when a final twist takes us totally by surprise: “I never even saw that coming!”
A good story must have surprises: mistaken identities and unlikely survival; good fortune and divine intervention; unforeseen acts of heroism and treachery.
A good story must have the right pacing. If the plot moves to quickly, listeners, readers, or watchers experience disorientation and frustration. A hail of new names, deluge of dates, or swamp of extended dialogue, and you’ve lost them. You’re like the overeager dance instructor who causes his novice partner to stumble. No one likes feeling sluggish.
A good story runs the scale of human emotion and brings catharsis, that cleansing relief, that tossing overboard of anger or despair; that revival of hope.
But again, these are all plot contrivances and classic tropes—deus ex machine, foreshadowing, irony. They’re furniture in a room. What’s the feng sui? What’s the meaningful, intentional organization that creates a pleasing atmosphere? What’s the underlying design? How is a good story told?
How to Tell a Good Story
My answer is a term that I discovered in the realm of copywriting: “open loops.”
The single most important element for sustaining drama in a story is the strategic placement of “open loops.” Dickens perfected this technique while he was writing serial novels in the middle of the 19th century. Other novelists wrote entire novels and then divided them into short installments suitable for magazines. Dickens developed an unorthodox process, composing one episode at a time and ending each with a “cliffhanger.” “Cliffhanger” and “open loop” are synonyms. They turn up our curiosity to fever pitch. We have to find out what happens. We have to know. We have to satisfy that giant question mark hanging in the air.
What’s going to happen? Does he rescue her or not? Will they survive? Does she die?
Soap operas do it. Television dramas like Grey’s Anatomy do it. Perhaps the most enigmatic televison show of all time built a cult around a sophisticated tangle of open loops: Lost.
You’ve got to pique curiosity so that your audience will tune in again.
Or keep reading.
Or keep listening.
When people talk about a book that is a “page turner,” what they’re really saying is that the writer was deliberate about creating open loops that make the book difficult to put down. Why? Because you have to know what happens in the next chapter.
But as soon as you’ve satisfied your curiosity, that next chapter has embedded a new open loop in your imagination. You can’t stop thinking about it.
Stories that start in medias res—“in the middle of things—present the reader with an open loop on the macro level: “How did we get here?”
Movies of course do this all the time. And movie trailers, or teasers, operate solely on this premise. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne wakes up in the hold of a cargo ship. He doesn’t know who he is. He has numbers tattooed on his wrist.
My First Novel
Even narratives that progress chronologically use open loops. For example, I’ve started writing my first novel, that is, if you count writing the first sentence as “started. Here’s the first cryptic sentence: “The day of the first massacre began like any other.”
That’s all I’ve written, and it is enough to make me want to write the book to see what happens. Writers create open loops for themselves too. In On Writing, Stephen King compares writing to archaeology. What might be buried?
“The day of the first massacre began like any other.”
With those ten words—six of them with only one syllable—I created two open loops:
1) There’s a massacre about to happen! Who? Why? Where? How?
2) It’s the first one of several. What kind of terrible place is this?
Read The Hunger Games, and pay attention to what Suzanne Collins does at the end of each chapter. The open loops that she employs give the novel a cinematic quality. In fact, “cinematic” is often just the acknowledgement of open loops.
Biggest open loop ever? Jesus’ promise to come again. The Second Coming.
Thank you, Noah, for asking me a question and creating an open loop. I better understand now what I’ve been doing, which is as old as storytelling, which is to say older than humanity, and, thanks to our technology-induced ADD and short attention spans, more important than ever.
Good storytelling is elliptical, not linear. Leave your audience wanting more. Be full of surprises.