Example – Story Structure
It was August 27th, 2001, and an 80 lb Irish Setter dog called Megan arrived at our home [IDENTIFY THE SPECIFIC LOCATION AS SOON AS POSSIBLE] from the Fort Worth Rescue Center. We had decided to accept her into our family even though we were told she had a history of Mast Cell Tumors (Cancer) and that if they came back, she would probably have to be put down.
I knew this was a big risk; if the dog had to be put down, my family, including two very young kids, would be devastated [IDENTIFY THE CHARACTERS AND DO NOT HAVE TOO MANY].
Three months later, Megan had settled into our home, her nervousness disappeared, and she was a. bundle of love. While rubbing her tummy one Saturday morning, I noticed a black spot under her thick red hair [DEVELOP A “HOOK” AND IDENTIFY CONFLICT]. Panic set in- I grabbed the family, and we drove to the local vet at high speed. As my kids held hands, the vet examined Megan while she lay quietly on the ground. The vet’s face became tense, tears welled up into her eyes, [BUILD TENSION] and she said, “You do realize, Mr. Hill, [STORY REACHES A CLIMAX]…. that dogs…. have teats“!!!!! [RELEASE OF TENSION] As the vet finished her examination, my wife stepped on my foot discreetly and whispered, “You are forbidden from telling anyone about this!”
At some stage, the vet’s assistant left the room. It appears that there is no Hippocratic Oath for assistants, because when I got to the reception, everyone knew that our dog Megan…had teats. Nobody was making eye contact, and there was an electric sense of suppressed laughter. I went to the cashier- she was young, pretty, and evil. She was clenching her teeth, and appeared to be holding her breath. She looked at me and snorted, “That… will be $80, Mr. Hill”.
They say that Irish Setters are not very intelligent dogs. This brings up a rather obvious question about a certain Irish owner… luckily, the school of hard knocks taught me a long time ago how important it is to be able to laugh at myself.
Success Strategies for Story Structural Development
1) Use your own stories (people may know other people’s stories, and the impact can be lost if they know the outcome).
2) The following story structure and components have been in effect for thousands of years:
• As soon as possible identify the location with vivid details. Be specific e.g. “It was July 10th, 2009, at 9:15 am in London, England”. Provide a “hook” to capture the audience’s attention, e.g. “I was stepping off the sidewalk on Mayhem Street when suddenly…”
• Identify the characters with visual details, e.g. “A weathered looking man dressed in rags holding a frayed rope with an attached dog collar looked at me with tears in his eyes...”
• Provide visual details of conflict- build the struggle step-by-step (some effective stories have someone overcoming an obstacle or many obstacles building to a climax. The story evolves which will be resolved by the end of the story) – e.g. “A weathered looking man dressed in rags holding a rope with an attached dog collar looked at me with tears in his eyes and asked me to help find his old dog”
• Bring the story step-by-step to an emotional peak, e.g. “No sooner were the words out of his mouth, I heard the screech of car tires, followed by the pitiful sound of a dog yelping. There was a thump as the car hit a fire hydrant and a jet of water shot 100 feet in the air. In the following moment of silence, a glow of happiness flowed through my body when out of the firewater downpour trotted a big, old, shaggy dog with a grin on his face...”
• Make sure the plot of the story is clear – how do all the details fit together, is there a clear roadmap from start to finish? A plot is the chain of events that moves the story towards a conclusion. The audience can get frustrated if they lose their way in the story when it is too complicated.
Ways audiences get confused during a story include too many characters, the story jumps all over the place in an illogical manner, or is too wordy and lacks visual detail.
This is the starting point for developing your story. After that, you can work with honing it to a masterpiece with visual details.
To illustrate this in action, I have included one of my favorite stories at the beginning, and embedded some CAPITALIZED and BOLDED comments to identify the structure and story components. I would like to be able to tell you this story is fictional- unfortunately it is true. I used this story several years ago to illustrate my point that humor can evolve from a stressful, traumatic situation- that it can be beneficial to laugh at your mistakes, and that audiences love humor where you are making fun of yourself.
The following link will take you to my Public Speaking Demo Video where you can see clips from two personal stories. The clips will give you a feel for the identification of characters, conflict and outcome.
21 points for developing stories and making them impactful
1. Gather your story ideas and memories on small post-it notes that you can keep in your wallet, car, kitchen counter etc. (or gather them on an audio recording device etc.).
2. Write out your stories to maximize effectiveness.
3. Minimize the amount of words, but provide the details – every word has value.
4. Open with impact (rhetorical questions, “imagine”, “visualize”, story).
5. Substitute words beginning with “Kuh” (e.g. Canadian) for humor impact – people laugh at “Kuh” sounding words when used in humorous context.
6. Create visual images.
7. Use dialogue to bring your audience into the story – into the “present”.
8. Use accents to make the dialogue more effective.
9. Dialogue – Face different ways to emphasize different characters.
10. Use the humor “rule of three” – set-up, set-up, twist.
11. Put the punch-word at the end of the sentence, so it is clear to the audience when to laugh.
12. Use crafted pauses to allow the audience to process the information.
13. Make sure your stories are credible so the audience can relate to them.
14. Use wordplay – take a scene from your story and apply “word relation” techniques.
15. Embellish your stories by examining each scene to see what could happen.
16. Embellish to the extent that is appropriate for the audience and the content (e.g. 100% truth, 80% fact).
17. Make your story impactful (e.g. to make a point during a training session).
18. Make your story humorous, yet still believable.
19. Make eye-contact and deliver your punch line to your “humor friend” in the audience (the person who has a great laugh).
20. Deliver your stories and make “honing” changes as you get to understand what is working and what is not.
21. Don’t “throw away humor” – you typically get more laughter with bigger audiences.