Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling
I first heard James N. Frey's book How to Write a Damn Good Novel recommended by champion speaker Craig Valentine for its tips on storytelling. I want to learn better storytelling and since I couldn't find that book at my local library I ended up grabbing this sequel on advanced storytelling techniques instead. I'm not particularly interested in writing fiction but much of the advice also applies to telling true stories to a written or spoken audience. Here are the key insights I gleaned:
Having skipped the first book, I don't know really what I missed (you know, we don't know what we don't know), but I could still follow much of what he was saying. The rules are there to be broken, but first you want to know what the rules are so you know when you're breaking them.
I was most interested to learn what Frey had to say about how to hook people in to a story and really grab their attention. If you don't hook them in early you'll lose them, and the way to do it is via their emotions. Well yes, I already knew that from what I'd learned at Toastmasters and acting class, but Frey breaks this down in terms of how the audience relate to the main characters in the story and particularly to the protagonist (the main dude). There is a certain order to follow here; you need to tell the story in a manner which makes the readers/listeners:
- Sympathise: You want the audience to start by feeling sorry for the character. Gaining the audience's sympathy gets them in involved emotionally in the story.
- Identify: Once emotionally involved, you want the audience to support the character's goals and aspirations and have a strong desire to see him or her achieve them.
- Empathise: Then you get the audience to feel what the character feels, by using sensuous emotion-provoking details in such a way that the audience can put themselves in the character's place.
- Hypnotise: Bring the audience to a point of complete absorbtion in the characters and their world, by revealing their inner-conflict.
This final step is the most profound thing I learned from this book: the way to complete the process of hooking your audience and transporting them hypnotically into your story is to reveal the conflict that's going on inside them. In what way are they being pulled in different directions at once, and how do they resolve this? This matches what I've learned at acting school that people are drawn towards drama, drama is all about conflict, and audiences are held in suspense because they want to know how the conflict will be resolved. The more personal the conflict, the more interesting it is. Inner-conflict is the most personal of all, so it is the most compelling element to keeping an audience engaged.
So here's the challenge: if you want to be a compelling story-teller, expose your inner conflict in your stories. After you've got your audience to sympathise, identify and empathise of course. This is the height of vulnerability. Frey points out that an audience may sympathise but not identify, or may identify but not empathise with a character. Break a step in the chain, and you'll lose them. Likewise, I'm guessing that exposing your inner conflict before you've already hooked them on the first three steps may just make you look like a jerk. That said, now you know the rules, you're free to break them if you want.
Good stories also need a premise, which means you can sum up what the story is about concisely. It's a little different from a moral or a theme, and is more along the lines of what Craig Valentine calls a foundational phrase. If you can't state the premise succinctly before writing the story, you're not ready to start yet. The same story can come across very differently when told with a different premise.
Some stories are worth telling, and some are not. Aside from conflict and drama, another key element necessary for a story to be worth telling is a change in the characters. Audiences want to see characters that change and grow; this is what makes the story interesting. If the characters make it through the whole story without being changed by it in some way, the story probably isn't worth telling.
Frey also talks about the use of first and third person narration, literary genres, deadly mistakes writers make, and the importance of being passionate. I found it a good read even though I'm not into fiction, since most of the lessons are just as relevant to writing non-fiction and storytelling while public speaking.