The $1.98 Storytelling Lecture

(From the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Story is probably the most fundamental and important element of entertainment in the world. It’s a basic building block. It comes into play in virtually every creative medium. Storytelling is the oldest profession. Don’t believe what you’ve heard. People were telling lies long before any other business was invented.

We’re in the same business as Homer was. This business has been around for a long time. I think it’s going to be around for a long time. It’s going to be here forever because it’s something that’s built into us and it’s something that we really like.

Okay, so what is a story? Well, in the simplest possible terms what a story is:

What it was, what changed it, how’d it come out.

Now a lot of people have probably been to seminars and read books that say, well there’s Act I, Act II, Act III. You may have heard a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, no kidding! What does that mean? How does that give you any tool by which to judge whether or not you’ve done it right? So forget those people. It’s what it was, what happened, how’d it come out. Is that a formula? No. It’s a definition. If it isn’t that, it’s not a story.

Sentences have definitions. A sentence is a complete thought. Shakespeare used sentences, so did the writers of Laverne and Shirley. Didn’t limit either of them. It’s just a tool. It’s just a building block. You’ve got to know what it is, then you can manipulate it, then you can play with it.

Think of it as a unit of language. The smallest unit of our language is a letter. The next unit up is called a morpheme. That’s the smallest group of letters that adds meaning, that holds meaning. For instance the `s’ on the end of a word that makes it plural, that’s a word, or `ing’, that’s a morpheme. Then of course there’s words, clauses, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and you build from there. Story is just a bigger unit. Just understand what we’re talking about here is just a piece of language. That’s the story. It should not limit you. It is simply a building block. Why is that a story? Not because somebody woke up one day and said, “That will be what a story is. We’re going to write this in Webster’s.” No. That’s a story because it’s built into our language. You cannot avoid what a story is. If someone tells you a story and it doesn’t have one of the pieces, you may not know the stuff I’m telling you, but you know it’s not right.

Let’s all go out and have a root beer someplace. We’ll go into a bar, all of us, and there’ll be a big guy sitting at the end of the bar, a big, huge guy and you just know the guy played football. So we’ll walk up to him and we’ll say, “Bronco, tell us about your biggest game.” He’ll say, “Well, it was the state championship, it’s late in the fourth quarter and we’re down by six points and we’re marching down the field. I’m the running back and we’re doing great. I’ve got this great quarterback handing off to me. On the other side there’s the biggest linebacker in the world, but we’re getting around him, we’re marching down the field, and then all of a sudden I fumble and they got the ball. So here we are we’re going to win and if we win, the head cheerleader promised me she’d go out with me. So I fumble. The coach takes me out and he’s yelling at me and stuff. The time’s running out and our team intercepts a pass on our own six yard line, and there’s a few seconds left. I say, ‘Coach put me in. I got to get in there.'”

So Coach Rolinski puts him in and then they hand Bronco the ball and he breaks through the lines, through the secondary, he’s running toward the goal line, and then the BIGGEST LINEBACKER IN THE UNIVERSE is standing at the goal line. Time has expired on the clock. He dives for the goal line, and the linebacker dives at him and…

We’re all wondering whether or not he scored…and whether or not he scored. You can’t help yourselves. It’s built into the language. Another thing you can’t help is if you ask Bronco to tell you a story he will tell you the situation, what happened to disrupt it, what happened, and then he’ll tell you how it came out. If he doesn’t you’ll be really upset. It’s built into the language. You will automatically tell a story in the correct order if you just let yourself. Keep that in mind. When you tell a story you’re telling what the situation was, what happened to change that situation, and how it came out.

All right, so you’ve got this concept that’s built into our language and therefore built into our brains. That’s why there is a definition of story. So why can’t everybody just sit down and be a writer? Well you can. Just let yourself. There’s a little more to it than that, which I’ll tell you in a minute, but basically I think for most of us, our problem is when we sit down to be a writer we get this big capital `W’ in front of that word and we think we have to be Hemingway. Probably you’d all be better off if you would just stand there, tell the story to yourself in a mirror or to someone small enough that you can force them to listen.

We know what the basic unit is, now let’s expand that definition. What it was. When I say what it was what I mean is who or what are we talking about, and what is their situation. What is their status quo? Where are they? What are they doing? What’s normal? What’s going on here if nothing else happened? What happened is something occurs to disrupt that normal status quo. I used to say a problem comes up, and sometimes I used to say a conflict, and then I said, “No, it’s not always that. Sometimes it’s an opportunity.” Something happens though, to kind of rock the boat. So what effects does it have? What develops? What issues are raised? What is at stake? What conflicts arise? What forces are our opposition?

That’s all part of that second piece–what happened. I’ll give you a memory device for this in a minute. How did it come out includes what decides the things that are at stake, the conflicts and so forth. How did that resolve? Once it does resolve, what is the new situation that’s different from the original status quo? And if it isn’t, you haven’t gone anywhere so it’s not a story. Let me give you the expanded definition more simply. A story, and we’re assuming characters here, I mean it could be about a car or something but for ease of discussing this let’s assume they’re characters, a story is the following pieces: you introduce your characters, you establish the status quo, you introduce something which disrupts that status quo–a disruptive element, you develop conflicts, you build suspense, you reach a climax in which the forces in opposition one wins, and then you have a resolution and that is you explain the new status quo.

Okay, how are you going to remember all of that stuff? I’ll tell you what, it’s all in a little poem called Little Miss Muffet.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey; along came a spider, who sat down beside her and scared poor Miss Muffet away.

It’s all there. It’s a story. Introduce the characters–Little Miss Muffet. Establish a status quo–sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. She’s having lunch. Introduce the element which disrupts that–along came a spider. Build suspense–sat down beside her. Now look this thing could be poisonous, you don’t know. It might bite her. Scared poor Miss Muffet–wow, that’s the moment where the situation you’ve created has reached that climax where something’s going to happen now. Scared poor Miss Muffet away. She gets away. If you can remember Little Miss Muffet, you can remember everything you need to know about the basic unit of entertainment which is a story.

Little Miss Muffet–introduce the character. Sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey–establish the status quo. Along came a spider–introduce the disruptive element. Sat down beside her–build suspense. Scared poor Miss Muffet–climax. Away–resolution. Now you know the basic building block of entertainment. Is that all you need? No. Little Miss Muffet is a story, it fits the basic building block, it is however a lousy story. You don’t know anything about this girl, you don’t know anything about the spider. It gets old pretty quick. But we can make it better.

Today I’m going to show you how to make the Little Miss Muffet example from yesterday better and then next week I’ll discuss some of the craft of being a writer.

How can we make it better? We could add some character. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get to know this little girl? All right, let’s do that. Let’s say Little Miss Muffet is a very lonely girl. She’s eating lunch alone every day. So she’s all alone, she’s sitting on her tuffet, she’s miserable and she’s a very lonely girl. We can infer from the story that she’s probably afraid of spiders. So all of a sudden Little Miss Muffet starts coming alive to us–she’s a lonely little girl who’s scared of spiders. So she’s having another lonely lunch, and then along came the spider. Now the spider happens to be a lonely guy too. The guy is ugly. He’s a spider. He can’t get a date. So he sees Little Miss Muffet and he approaches her. Now every instinct in the spider’s body is saying take a chunk out of this babe’s leg, and yet he’s lonely. He’d like to have a friend. On the other hand this is a high-risk operation, what if she steps on him? Little Miss Muffet is like, “Gee, he’s ugly. Gee, I’m really lonely and he seems nice.” She waffles around about it for a while and then finally she screams and runs away, proving that Little Miss Muffet is more afraid of spiders than she is afraid of being lonely. It’s a better story. You learn something about her, you learn something about the spider. It’s already better.

Well there’s more you can do to a story. You can add jokes, and bits of business, interesting little events that happen. You can build more suspense. You could actually have the spider creeping a little closer to her on her tuffet. You could do a lot of things. You could add a car chase. So you could take that basic building block and that’s where you start being creative. Throw your creativity at this and come up with something really cool. Better still, you could make it relate to me, the reader. Let’s face it, that’s the kind of stories we like to read when you can say, “Yeah, I felt that way.” You could try to figure out something that means something to whomever is reading it. Try to get that across.



(From the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

I like Mark Twain. He was good. Take Huckleberry Finn for example. That’s a great piece of writing. It’s about this boy, Huck, who has been taught since birth that certain people are property, they have no rights, no worth except as slaves, and if you help one of them run away or you let one of them escape, you’re going to hell because it’s evil to do so. In the story, Twain makes this clear, so we understand the situation, the status quo, and of course he introduces the characters. We read about the disruptive element that sends this story into motion—both Jim the slave and Huck are driven by circumstances to run away.  They fall in together, and travel down the Mississippi on a raft. The conflicts that are raised are wonderfully interesting, and Twain brings the characters alive so well, that we really relate to them.

If you think about Huckleberry Finn, as Huck and Jim travel down the river, everything that they encounter brings the problem into focus. The evidence of Huck’s eyes tells him that this guy Jim is the best man he ever met, like a father to him. Everything he was taught says the guy’s property and should be turned in. Every single event further underscores the folly of what Huck was taught.

It’s never heavy-handed.  The events that happen along the way are dramatic, funny and sometimes poignant.  But, think about it, every single one relates to Huck’s dilemma, and Twain’s insight.

And, oh, by the way, think about this.  Jim, alone, would be an obvious runaway,  would be caught and harshly dealt with.  With Huck, presumably his “owner,” he’s safer.  On the other hand, the river is carrying them ever deeper south—not the best plan for escapee Jim. Tension builds….

Down the river a ways they run into the Duke and the Dauphin. Now, they didn’t run into a rodeo cowboy and a hooker, they ran into the “Duke” and the “Dauphin”—two guys who were ostensibly superior beings to Huck, just as Huck is ostensibly superior to Jim the slave. The Duke and the Dauphin are royalty. And we have a whole adventure with the Duke and the Dauphin. We find out that it’s nonsense—that these guys are phonies, driving again home the point to Huck to forget what you’ve been told about people, there is a dignity in man that transcends the station that we assign to him. That a person’s true worth is not determined by a title, be it king or slave.

Remember what happens to the Duke and the Dauphin? They get tarred, turned black.

So Huck and Jim get down to New Orleans and Huck finally has to decide what to do because there’s a problem. There’s Jim and he’s found a way out, a way to freedom.  He’s heading for a boat will take him away. Huck knows that if he doesn’t yell to a nearby cop, “Get this guy, he’s a runaway slave!” that he, Huck, is going to hell. This is the watershed moment in his life. He has that moment and he says, “So be it. I’ll go to hell.” That’s the climax folks. The resolution is that Jim gets away, just like Little Miss Muffet.

So, back to Miss Muffet—you could add all kinds of stuff to a story to make it better. Action, humor, car chases, whatever. But, if you have some insight, something to say, an observation on the human condition—If you really have what Mark Twain had and you can bring some new light to the world, then it makes it a great story.

Ask a hundred people what Huckleberry Finn is about, and at least 99 will say it’s about two guys floating down a river on a raft. But that’s not it. It’s about human dignity and equality. Its insights are so subtly implanted, its wisdom so deeply imbued that it communicates them almost by stealth, while entertaining brilliantly. Huckleberry Finn will live forever and stealthily bring home its point to people for thousands of years.

That’s where we’re trying to go if we are writers. That’s what you want to do. I’ve been trying to find something worth saying for 29 years. I’m no Mark Twain and I haven’t done it yet, but that’s what we should all strive for. That’s what you got to go for. If you aim high you might hit it.

it raises in Huck is really what makes this interesting, and really what relates to us. It brings that insight that makes this story live forever.