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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Hints on How to Tell a Story

“Let me tell you a story!”

This idea draws people in, makes them instinctively lean forward and pay attention to what comes next. Storytelling is probably the oldest professional form of entertainment and strongest way to bond with others.

I’m frequently asked what books I’ve read lately. The answer is J.D. Vance’s "Hillbilly Elegy." The follow up question is “Did you read it because of the election?” 

I could say No and leave it there. Instead I add a personal touch through a small story or vignette.

My dad came from West Virginia. At the dinner table he and my mom would tell stories about growing up in the Depression and their childhood homes.

When I heard about "Hillbilly Elegy," it made me want to read more about that culture he grew up in and talked about. 

One day as a teenager I was with him at Cottage Hospital where he worked. Another doctor and he got into a conversation about where Dad was from. His follow up comment was ‘Oh, so you must be a hillbilly.’

Dad shook his head. “I’m not a hillbilly but a Mountain William!” 

Over the eons, storytelling has passed on history and legends, given new light to topics and issues. They help us learn about one another, even serving as a psychiatrist’s couch long before Freud or Jung came onto the scene.

Whether we tell or listen, stories offer a way to deal with our confusing world and connect on deeper levels with each other. It is something we all can do.

Peter Gruber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, sums it up: “Story telling is not frivolous entertainment. It’s an inspirational…tool that can bring life into focus.”

Stories, like gossip, fascinate us. We would rather hear a good story than a dull factual discussion, drama rather than lackluster information.

The key to making a story interesting comes through human conflict, questions, dilemmas, tension, humor and the ability to tell a story from the heart. 

How many times have you listened to a storyteller who rambles on? Have you cringed or become antsy when he or she misses the point or fails to engage you?

Where did that person go wrong? How can you do better? Here are a few hints about creating your stories.

Know what you want to say. Understand your message before uttering the first word. Are you highlighting conversational points, revealing a truth if not an epiphany, or sharing to become closer to a friend? The list goes on.

Keep your story simple and short. Our minds instinctively sort and organize, so think bullet points. Our culture often deals in 3’s: 3-act plays, 1-2-3 Go! Trinity. Past, present, future. Come up with two or three points and stick to them.

Shakespeare’s quote “Brevity is the soul of wit” does not just refer to humor but also to knowledge and intelligence. Don’t blather on or add bits of story that have little or nothing to do with the topic. Take the Shakespearian advice and keep it short.

Frame your story with beginning, middle and end. This is true whether you tell an anecdote (a brief, true incident) or a story (true or fictitious with depth). 

Begin with an introduction to grab the audience’s attention. Writers call this the Hook. It puts the story on the runway so it is ready to fly. 

The middle takes your story into flight, the time when ideas and happenings take place. 

The conclusion makes the story land and ends the flight. At this point, you can reflect on the message and leave questions to be discussed.

Doris Kearns Goodwin discovered early on the importance of telling her stories and finishing with some drama.  

“When I was six, my father and I would go to Brooklyn Dodger games. I became a fan and found it a way to relate with my father. On the game day when he’d go to work, I’d listen to the radio and make my report when he came home. I learned early on not to blurt out ‘The Dodgers won!’ or ‘They lost.’ I learned the art of drama with a beginning, middle and end.”

George Burns also offers a guide to the beginning, middle and end: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”

Show, don’t tell! This is one of the most common clichés in writing, but for good reason. Here is an example of the difference between stating facts and telling a story. 

Take a conversation about the invention of Velcro. There are two ways to present it. 

State the facts. A Swiss engineer named George del Mastral discovered Velcro mid-twentieth century and it became a popular device to connect materials. 

Or make it a story.  

One summer day in 1941 George del Mastral, a Swiss engineer/hiker, took his dog for a walk in the woods. Back home he noticed his cotton pants and the dog were covered in burrs. Being a typical engineer, he plucked them off and studied them under a microscope. The burrs were loaded with tiny hooks attached to the equally tiny loops of the fur and pants material. 

After several years of effort, he came up with two synthetic materials, one made of minuscule hooks and the other with matching loops. He patented his find in 1955 under the name of Velcro, a portmanteau word combining “velour” and “crochet.” The term has become generic like Kleenex or cellophane. 

During his lifetime Mastral’s company sold an average of 60 million yards of Velcro per year. And all it took was a walk in the woods.

Showing is drama; telling is summarizing. Facts appeal to the intellect; stories appeal to the emotions. Combine them and you have something powerful. 

Sharing stories adds richness to our daily lives that arguably no other bonding can match. Research has shown that people who tell stories with thought-out messages and from the heart have better mental and physical health. Stories help us from feeling alone and alienated in this world.

Above all, they add to our lives.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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