Musings on Storytelling

Have you ever noticed a pattern where lots of things you read, watch, or discuss keep coming back to the same theme or concept? Almost as if the universe (or your preferred deity) is trying to make you sit up and pay attention?

That’s been happening to me a lot over the past few weeks. Whether it’s TV shows we’re watching, the books I’ve read, or conversations I’ve had, the subject of storytelling keeps cropping up.

Storytelling is, in my opinion, a little like pornography. It’s hard as hell to define to someone unfamiliar with the concept. But you know good (or bad) storytelling when you encounter it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes someone a good storyteller. What does a good storyteller do to keep the audience’s attention? What skills are needed to tell a story? And what makes something a good or bad story?

I still don’t have a theory that I’m 100% happy with. But I think I’ve identified a few key elements in effective storytelling.

I think a good storyteller is similar to someone who knows how to tell jokes.

Perhaps the first requirement is a good sense of timing. Storytelling, like telling a joke, is knowing when to make the audience work and when to satisfy their curiosity. Timing, or pacing if you prefer, is the rhythm of the story. Knowing when to slow down over certain moments and when to cut to another scene to heighten the tension.

Like a jokester, a good storyteller can also read the room. It’s knowing what your audience likes to hear and what they expect must happen given the kind of story you’re telling. It’s also knowing when (or if) you can confound their expectations and break the rules of your genre.

Another key element is knowing what to cut. And, as a writer, I think this is what I struggle with the most. The audience doesn’t want or need to know about the minutiae of your characters’ days. They just want to see the most interesting, important bits. The stuff that reveals character, drives the plot, or adds conflict and complexity.

Some great examples of good storytelling I’ve encountered recently are the web series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.” I’d also point to the novel “City of Brass” by S.A. Chakraborty.

I’m curious, what do you think are keys to storytelling? What do you think are the critical skills writers need? What great examples of storytelling have you encountered recently? Please drop me a note and let me know.

And happy holidays!

(Photo by Catherine Zaidova on Unsplash)

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