How to tell great stories

Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life, tells us that there are three basic building blocks of the story – the anecdote, “bait” and moments of reflection (video here).  We improve a story by building up the central conflict, ensuring that the listeners can relate to one of the central characters and by adding surprise.


5 Step Story Structure

Here goes my 5 step process for telling good stories (I have been practicing it with my 3 year old daughter for her bedtime stories… and getting to the point that she wants one of my stories instead of one from the book).

  1. Begin stating the moment in time:
    1. “A week ago” or
    2. “Twenty years ago today”, or
    3. “Once upon a time”.
  2. Introduce the situation and key characters: 
    1. “I was sitting with my grandfather. My grandfather was a tall man, always impeccably dressed in a suit. He had been a country bank manager all of his working life. I was 13 years old.  As we did every Sunday, we were sat watching the horse racing on television on Sunday afternoon.” or
    2. “A girl lived in a small cabin by the lake. She lived with two friends – her dog Ruff and her horse See-Saw. Each morning she set off around the lake to collect mushrooms for food and wood for a fire.  Each day she would set off on the walk with Ruff leading ahead and See-Saw walking behind. Some days it rained, some days it was warm and sunny.”
  3. Something out of the ordinary occurs
    1. “but on this particular Sunday he turned to me and said ‘would you like to see something?’. Before waiting for an answer he got up from his chair and left the room”
    2. “Now on this particular day, the girl began her walk… but Ruff stopped in his tracks and would not move.  There was a noise in the forest and a cold wind blew across the surface of the lake”
  4. Allow the tension to build – pause, add detail to the complication
    1. “I sat there for a moment not knowing whether to follow him or to stay where I was.  I was surprised and I wondered what it was that my grandfather was going to show me.”
    2. “The girl asked herself ‘what can it be? what might be making that noise?’  A few moments later she heard the sound clearly again.  There was something in the forest”.
  5. Resolve the complication
    1. “It was ten minutes before he returned to the room.  He came in with a large bundle under his arms.  I could see colours, fabrics…  clothes or robes of some sort.  He carefully laid the bundle down and started to separate the pieces.  ‘These are my freemason robes.  I have been a free mason for 50 years.  I am the head of the Leinster region.  These robes mean a lot to me.  These badges mean a lot to me.'”
    2. …at this point my daughter demands that the noise be a fairy or Barbie or a Princess or a flying horse called Dina…  and takes control of the story.

Here is an example from Japanese folklore of a fable that shows the story steps put together into a longer flow:

The Stonecutter

The Stonecutter on Wikipedia.

Many years ago, a poor stonecutter spent day after day in the quarry. He chipped away at the rockface with his simple tools.  Hour after hour, day after day, the clink, clank noise of

his chisel and hammer rang through the quarry.  One day the man shouted out loud his frustration “why can I not be powerful like the rich man?”  A fairy heard his wish and appeared at his side and said “I will grant your wish.”

As a rich man, the stonecutter felt powerful.  He gave his servants orders.  One day the rich man was outside and the sun shone hotly upon him.  He said “The sun is more powerful than I.  I wish I were the sun”.  The fairy granted his wish.

Now he was the sun.  He shone down powerfully upon the earth.  One day a cloud passed in front of him.  “That cloud is more powerful than I.  I wish I were that cloud”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the cloud he blocked the sun day after day, causing darkness and cold.  But one day a wind blew up and pushed away the cloud.  “I wish I were the wind”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the wind he blew dust storms and hurricanes.  Nothing could stand in his way.  One day he came to the mountain and couldn’t move it.  “The mountain resists me.  I wish I were the mountain”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the mountain he was immovable.  Nothing could budge him.  But one day he felt something chipping away at him.  It was a poor stonecutter.  “The stonecutter is mightiest of all.  I wish I was the stonecutter”.  One last time, the fairy granted his wish.

What is the meaning of this story?  What does it represent?  What does it make you think about?

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

Exit mobile version