How to Tell Stories. Part 3.
Monday, March 30, 2009 at 1:04PM
ZenBandit in how to tell a story, stories, story as a map, storytelling guide

I used to call today's storytelling technique Help Me Discover the Pattern, but a lot of people would come up after I'd speak & ask me what I meant by that. The conversation would usually go something like this:

CONFUSED PERSON: I don't see any pattern in the story I'm telling.

ME: How long have you been telling stories?

CP: Me? Oh, I don't tell stories. Basically, I just ramble until someone cuts me off.

ME: How often do people ask you to tell stories, then?

CP:  I was scheduled once for a sales conference in Omaha, but it snowed. (pauses) I think that was about it.

This kind of feedback is not useful & caused me to rethink my life's work more than once.

But, I did have one conversation not long ago that gave me another way of looking at it. A woman asked me to explain the whole pattern thing & since she was a fly fishing guide in Montana, we talked about how she would teach someone to fish. She began telling me the steps & I stopped her & said, There. That's helping your clients discover the pattern. You're leading them through the process of understanding how & why you fly fish, I said. You're giving them a pattern to make sense of the whole thing. She nodded & said, So, it's like a map that shows them how to get from not knowing anything, to knowing everything.

Exactly. It's like a map that shows them how to get from not knowing anything, to knowing everything.

It's been my experience that, in life, most everyone does this in reverse. We go from knowing everything to knowing a few things, to finally giving up & just going with whatever shows up. This is the point where I remind you: A STORY IS NOT LIFE. IT IS BETTER. 

Which is why, as of today,  I've renamed the third thing you need to know about storytelling.

Now I call it...

Walk Me Through It

We’re always looking for patterns & guidelines & maps to help us make sense of the world. It’s the way we’re built. A story is like one of those maps you make for friends on a back of an envelope when they come to visit. You give them the high points so they don't get lost. You add in things you think they'd be interested in. You give them little side jaunts if you think they have time. But you never lose sight of getting them from the start to the finish. 

(This is a bit like another technique we'll get into later that I call Never Forget the End.  Walk Me Through It is more important. It's not about the start to the finish. It's about making sure I don't miss a single step. Because if I can follow all your steps, I'm going to have the same epiphany you did. That's what makes a story so satisfying. I put together all the pieces you give me & suddenly, it all makes sense to me, too.)

You're going to start me at the beginning of your story, at the point when you didn't know anything. Then, you're going to take me all the way to the end, when it all made sense to you. You're going to walk me down your exact route, especially the parts that turned out to be a huge mistake. (Those are called the obstacles. We like those, especially if you survive. ) That shortcut through the alley where you ran across the two kids playing Star Wars light sabres with old fluorescent tubes & they decided you were a Stormtrooper & you didn't know you could run that fast in flip-flops. Or the hop, skip & FREAKIN' MAD DASH through the backyard of the neighbor's house who just happened to get a pit bull over the weekend & FORGOT TO SEND YOU THE MEMO!

Now, it's a fine line you walk here. I don't want to know everything from beginning to end. That is not a story. That is a personal journal. There is a reason a personal journal is kept under lock & key. It's because under no circumstances should anyone ever have to read it. Not even you, if you have a lick of sense. (The only exception is if you've given it sufficient time to marinate. Like about twenty years. Then you can get a good bottle of red wine & sit in a chair on the back porch & re-read it, with tears streaming down your face as you wonder at your lost innocence & when you're done, stand up & throw it in the Weber grill & let it burn to a fine ash. That is an acceptable use of a personal journal...)

I just want to know the parts that you used to figure out what it all meant. Oh, & here's one more key point: the parts don't have to be right, or even true. THEY JUST HAVE TO MAKE SENSE.

Like this: One summer, when I was 13, I read in Science News that cats had the intelligence of a four year old. Not long after that, I was reading a back issue of Reader's Digest & I ran across an article on the Suzuki method for teaching small children to play the violin. Usually they started this when they were around four years old.

I’ve always been about pure science. Here was an obvious theory waiting to be tested. So, I tried for the whole summer to teach our cat to play piano. (I still have the scars to prove it.) We even started with an easy song. It was 3 Blind Mice. My dad said it didn’t work because that cat had a tin ear.

But I think it was because she kept looking around the whole time for the blind mice & didn’t give it her full attention...

(The map doesn't always lead where you think, but it's half the fun of exploring a new story...)

with love, Brian


Article originally appeared on Zen Bandit: Brian Andreas. Art. Stories. Life (
See website for complete article licensing information.