The Key to A Great Story is in the Details.

Whether you’re speaking to sell, telling a client story, or doing a keynote presentation – the key to making a good story great is in the details.

Here’s why. Good stories are a form of virtual reality. They allow your audience to step into the main character and feel what she feels. Anyone who has watched a great movie or TV show, or read a great book knows how captivating being immersed in a story can be.

That’s why being able to set a scene is really important, especially when your story involves a specific time and place.  One of the key principles of storytelling is you want to show, not tell. And details help you to do that.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say you were telling a dramatic true-life story about your relationship with your parents. Many people would write something like:  When my dad yelled at me like that I felt sad.

This is a classic example of telling. Instead, let’s look at how you could show that scene instead.

I turned to leave and my dad screamed,  “You’ll always be a loser!” By the time I reached my car, tears were running down my face.

Can you see how showing the scene has much more impact?

Be selective and don’t overdo it.

Now you don’t have to write a novel here. One of the things I learned when I was screen writing is that you don’t need a lot of words to set a scene.

If you do your job right, you can immediately set the time, place, tone, and feeling in just a few sentences. Here’s an example from a story that I share when I do one of my inspirational keynotes on living with chronic illness.

“It’s the evening of Christmas 1986. Most people are with their families and enjoying their Turkey dinner with cranberry sauce, and maybe even a bit of pumpkin pie. But for one young man the experience is quite different. He’s sick and alone in a small hospital room. And he’s scared because he’s not sure what’s wrong with him – and neither do the doctors. They don’t realize yet that he has a perforated intestine and that his body is a time bomb just waiting to go off.”

Now that’s only 30 seconds long, but I’ve given you the important information and set the scene. You’ll also notice that I use the present tense, (is instead of was). This makes the story feel both more real and more urgent.

Starting a story off this way is even more important if it’s at the beginning of your talk. Remember, you need to grab people’s attention right away or you may lose them.

Spice up Your Story with Time Travel


Typically, we tend to tell stories in chronological order. “First this happened, then this happened and then this other thing happened.”

What great storytellers often do is break that time barrier.

They’ll start with the most exciting or emotionally engaging scene they can. Then after they play that out, they flash back in time to the beginning of the story and fill the listener in on what led up to that point.

Starting in the middle of the story has a couple of advantages

If you start with the most dramatic part of your story, you can often grab your audience and really get them emotionally invested in the characters right off the bat. The second advantage is that you’re giving the audience a bit of variety. If you’re doing a long talk, or if you’re one of a number of speakers that day, people are probably going to hear more than one story from the stage. So if you can change up how you tell the story it keeps you from sounding just like everyone else.

Starting a story from the middle and doing the time travel routine is like adding a hot spice to a meal – use it sparingly.  If you start telling all of your stories this way the novelty will wear off quickly and your talk will be harder for the audience to follow.

Create Tension for Better Stories

The lifeblood of any great story is tension.

If you recounted a time where you woke up and everything was lovely, every person got along, and no problems presented themselves, it wouldn’t really be much of a story.

Of course the story doesn’t have to be negative to be effective. For instance,  you could tell a story about winning the lottery, but you’d still need to have some tension to make it work – even if that tension is internal. Let’s look at this example:


“As I read the winning number in the newspaper I realized I’d won the 2 million dollars that would pay for my mother’s open heart surgery. But the joy in my heart was tempered by a lingering thought. My divorce papers hadn’t been finalized. Was there any way I could keep my abusive husband from finding out about the win?”

 
That’s a good news story, but there’s a heck of a lot of tension set up there. There is a huge obstacle that still needs to be resolved.  If you heard a speaker start that story, wouldn’t you want to hear the end?

WHAT IS TENSION IN A STORY AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

The storyteller who understood tension the best was filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. He explained that tension is not a bomb exploding on a bus. Tension is the audience knowing the bomb is on the bus and not knowing exactly what will happen.

When you create a lot of tension in your story, your audience yearns for a release. Much like sex, the more you can prolong and build that tension, the greater and more satisfying the release will likely be.

Some speakers use tension as a way to keep the audience’s attention throughout their presentation. They begin their talk by setting up a story with a lot of tension and stop before the climax . This is called a cliffhanger. The speaker then leaves the story unresolved while they talk about something else. They will often refer back to the tense story throughout the talk with a promise to finish it. Then, at the end of the talk, they provide the climax which – if done well – leaves the audience satisfied and stimulated.

WHY YOUR STORY NEEDS A SATISFYING FINISH

Here’s the thing you need to keep in mind when building stories with a high amount of tension: You need the ending to be satisfying.


The story’s ending has to be dramatic or novel enough to have made the tension worthwhile It also means you aren’t holding back a key piece of information that factors into the resolution of the story.

If, in the lottery story, the heroine loses the two million dollars to her abusive husband, only to be given two million dollars from a rich aunt the audience never knew she had – you can be sure your listeners will feel cheated. They’ll also feel cheated if the mother ends up not needing the operation at all.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

One last thing to keep in mind… If the purpose of your talk is something more than simply entertainment – if you’re looking to inspire, or make a point, or connect to a theme – then that story has to serve a purpose. There has to be an obvious point to the story that connects it directly with the content in your talk.  If you can’t do that, maybe you should leave that story for your next novel or screenplay.