I want to try to be a better storyteller: emphasis on “teller”.
Because for me, part of growing in that all-important creative discipline is recognizing that I am not the author. In fact, I’ve begun to think of storytelling more like being an art gallery curator, hustling about, arranging, presenting, trying to get the most impact out of the artists’ work. Let me explain.
Author Scott McClellan believes that the most compelling stories share the following common elements: Truth, Beauty, and Conflict (check it out here). After reading a short blog he posted at Sunday Mag it sort of humbled me to admit, I hadn’t consciously pinpointed what makes a good story. I just sort of knew “it” when I saw it. And having spent the majority of my professional life helping people and organizations tell their stories, I’ve seen “it”: powerful, emotional stories that moved people to action.
I’ve also felt disappointed when “it” has failed to show up. What did I do wrong? What question did I forget to ask? Could I have been more patient or intentional? Maybe you’ve felt the same. Maybe, like me, you’ve blamed it on lack of inspiration or on circumstances or on a poor interview subject. Whatever the reason, sometimes a finished product doesn’t quite deliver in the way I had initially envisioned.
But lately, I’ve been examining the process that I’ve learned to do almost instinctually, trying to distill it into intentional practices that draw out the best stories on a consistent basis…to take my subconscious and make it conscious.
That starts with knowing how and why truth, beauty, and conflict contribute to making the best stories. Let’s look at that for minute.
Warning: it’s about to get nerdy up in here.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking.
If a story isn’t true or representative of some greater truth, why should I care about the outcome?
There’s a reason I find myself rooting for Elijah Woods’ character “Frodo” in the epic movies The Lord of the Rings. And it isn’t because Mordor is a real place or because Sauron is a real villain. It’s because I know what it’s like to struggle against real evil, both internally and externally. I know what it’s like to be tempted and to fight against giving in.
But for us to feel the emotion of a story, it needs more than just truth.
It also has to possess beauty.
Without beauty to protect, I don’t really care about the struggle. Imagine that Frodo isn’t fighting for the survival of all the good things in Middle Earth, but rather is fighting for a bunch of hideous, self-involved, cruel, slobbering, hate-filled creatures. Imagine he’s fighting for the survival of Orcs. And isn’t just fighting for them, but actually is one. And there’s nothing else in all of Middle Earth but a bunch of dumb Orcs. Suddenly, it becomes a pretty lame story, doesn’t it? In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m ready for Frodo to fall into the fires of Mount Doom. (I’m sorry, this analogy has gotten way out of hand.) But you get my point. There’s a reason those movies spend time highlighting the beautiful places, cultures, and people. It’s because beauty matters. And we only find ourselves caring about the story when beauty is threatened with destruction.
Which brings us to conflict.
The elements that make up a good story form a sort of circle, in which the absence of one leaves the whole incomplete. If a story existed where truth and beauty were allowed to flit about, unthreatened and unopposed, it wouldn’t ring true at all. That’s not real life. The world is filled with hardship and opposition. A story without conflict would be unauthentic and leave no place for heroes, no place for acts of courage or bravery. Without conflict, you’re only left with “happily ever after” and not the thrilling story that brought us there.
I mentioned earlier that I want to be a better curator of stories: to help highlight and draw out those themes of truth, beauty, and conflict. But there’s a bigger reason behind all of it than just being a better storyteller or more effective practitioner (though that is important to me). It’s because there is already an Author. There is already One who gives beauty and truth to the world, and He is the heroic Archetype who ultimately wins the conflict against evil.
And I see my role as one who helps others identify and share their story within the greater metanarrative that is being written. I want to help tell stories that are true, that are beautiful, and that point to Jesus as the Victor over sickness, hardship, poverty, abuse, addiction, sin. I want to tell stories that challenge, encourage, motivate, and ultimately inspire worship, and I want to do that in the best way I can in the power of His Spirit.
This is all in process. I’m still working out what intentional practices I can implement that will help me grow in that discipline. But for now, I’m beginning by equipping myself with the knowledge of what makes the best stories so that I can tell them in the way they deserve to be heard.
Here’s a recently completed project that I think contains all three elements in a powerful way.