'Build it Backwards' - Storytelling Tips From a Master

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"People always say with stories: There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I disagree slightly. I feel like there just has to be an end... and it has to be definitive, and you need to indicate to the audience that eventually you'll get there. Because if it doesn't end, people will be furious. They want to go home, they have plans, they have parking arrangements. They just want some ballpark indicator of how long this is going to be. The key thing is starting with your ending and then building it backwards from there."

That's from the brilliant storyteller Mike Birbiglia (courtesy of a Fast Company article), and it reminds me when the author John Irving told us the exact same thing at a reading. I think it was to answer a question about his novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. He just said he pictured his main character in a certain place and then started determining how that character ended up there—600 or so pages later.

Although these are two longer storytellers than the stories we need to tell in our marketing and editorial content, there is a moral—the idea of picturing where we want our reader to be at the end of our content. Have we brought them to a place to subscribe, buy, join, or at the least, further engage? Is there a sufficient call to action?

"Map out your website and business goals and work backwards to how you're going to get there," a publisher once told me. The famous playwright Harold Pinter wrote a love triangle play called Betrayal—it's on Broadway now—that begins at the end of the story and works its way "back" to the beginning. What's interesting is you can see where communication broke down between the initial couple and things went bad.

Here are four more tips from the Birbiglia article plus a recent performance I saw him give at the National Theater here in Washington. (That excellent show, The New One, is now available on Netflix. Or try to catch him in person if you ever get a chance.)

Be as inclusive as possible. In The New One—which centers on he and his wife wanting a baby—started out to be just about that and nothing more. Birbiglia said that was fine for audiences his age but drew silence at a college. "So I needed to come up with a metaphor of something that people can all relate to. And I started thinking about what I was like when I was in college and about how me and my roommates brought home a couch from the street, and then I was like, 'Oh, that's sounds like a great metaphor for the whole thing.'"

Be careful of your detours. "With any digression, it's really about whether it serves the purpose of your central story." Don't get too far from your main point, he advises. You might lose people. "Ultimately, you want people to be invested in your central story... If you go too far from that, you can lose people's investment in the equity you've built up..."

Establish eye contact (so to speak). I'm adding this one from a talk on Monday I saw by Brian Grazer, the Hollywood producer (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). Birbiglia said to imagine that you are talking to someone one-on-one at a party. If you digress too much in your story, you might lose them. Grazer, whose new book is titled Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, agrees and is very big on making eye contact. The editorial equivalent of that is to engage someone early and stay on point. Don't let them turn away.

Be as authentic as can be. Let your passions and foibles come through. "In comedy or storytelling, it's amazing when you figure out how to be yourself," Birbiglia said." It's so hard to do, and it takes years and years. I still struggle with it. To this day, I'm always trying to be more myself."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…