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The Art Of Storytelling

Posted by on Apr 5, 2011

When I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago asking How Far Would I Go, I mentioned that I was in a story contest to try to win a free Kindle. Well, I didn’t win, and I can’t say I placed since I think there was only the main prize. Hey, that’s just how it goes sometimes.

However, I did get one critique on the story, which was a drastically cut down version my tale on meatloaf. The guy said he liked the story and laughed at it, but that I used the word “I” too many times and that if I’d tightened that up then the story might have been stronger.

Let’s talk about storytelling for a moment, if I may. Back when I wrote my series on book writing, I talked about the art of telling a story. People love stories, and the better you can tell your story, the more people love to hear it. My dad loved telling stories, and I think I got that from him. Our friends Charles, Allan and Jessica tell some wonderful true life stories. And of course there’s Hyperbole and a Half; ’nuff said.

If you’re telling a story in general, it’s often recommended that you try not to use one or two words over and over. For instance, if you’re writing fiction and your story’s main character is Henry, you shouldn’t always be writing “Harry said” or “Harry thought” or something like that all the time. The idea is to weave Harry’s name in there every once in awhile to make sure everyone knows when it’s Harry or someone else, but otherwise try to make one’s story flow better by not stopping on every sentence by saying “Harry”.

That explains writing other stories; what if you’re telling your own tale? Suddenly the rules change, at least in my mind. It’s would sound silly if you were trying to convey your thoughts and you said “there was this thought that” or “Johnny wondered” if your name was Johnny.

If you’re telling your story one would expect you to use “I” most of the time if you’re in it. For instance, I was the main protagonist in writing my stories on The Keys or the poker tournament I was in back in 2009. How else would I have told those stories without the word “I”? If it was fictionalized maybe one finds a different way, but if I, or you, are telling our own story, how ridiculous would it be without “I”?

There is an art to storytelling, though. Beginning, middle, end; that’s the script, just like the script for most songs follows a 1-4-5-1 chord progression. We want to be introduced to our hero, so to speak, early on, and then we want to see what happens to that character, and then we want to see how it’s resolved.

Stories can be short or long; in essence, they are what they are, as I stated in one of my posts on better blogging. Stories need to follow a progression; not everyone likes stories that suddenly go back in history, or take sidebars that don’t seem to have anything to do with the story.

We want it direct, in order, fleshed out as much as needed, and then concluded in a way that makes us feel something; happy, upset, or even laughing. And if it’s your story, we want to know how you felt, what you thought, and if you have to use “I” often then so be it.

Of course, I could be wrong on this, but I doubt it. As I was reading Traci Lords book Underneath It Allicon I was struck by this thought; how could she have told her story otherwise without the frequent use of the word “I”? She couldn’t; that’s the point. If you need to use it, use it as long as it’s about you.

If it’s not about you, or you’re telling a story about someone or something else, then it shouldn’t be an issue with that word, but you need to be careful in looking at the words you do use to see if maybe there’s another choice every once in awhile.
 

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19 Comments »

I could understand the abuse of any other word, but, well, “I”, it’s not even a real word. It’s kinda hard to judge an abuse of “I” at all, if there can be one in first place. Of course it’s all subjective but if the only critic you got is that one, I’d say you can sleep tight.

April 5th, 2011 | 11:18 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

I did sleep well, Gabriele… well, I slept as well as I normally do, which isn’t great. lol I kind of understood the criticism because I’m assuming the thought was that it was a piece of fiction.

April 5th, 2011 | 12:51 PM

So was the guy implying that readers relate to a story better if it’s told in the third person?

April 5th, 2011 | 10:05 PM
Mitch Mitchell:

I’m not really sure. All his comment said was that I used “I” too often. Hey, at least I had him laughing, right?

April 5th, 2011 | 11:47 PM

Hi Mitch,

I must have gone to the same writing school, or I picked up similar tips along the way.

I remember reading a story where the characters had no concept of the word “I”. I can’t remember the title now but at the time I was really impress with the authors ability to get around that word. It wasn’t easy, yet it made a compelling story.

I try to remain conscious of how often I use “I” but I can tell you it’s hard when you are writing something about yourself. I just don’t want it to sound like it’s all about me…but when it is a story all about you…what choice do you have?

I think I will just shut up now before I get myself in far too deep.

You are always a stimulating read.

Nick

April 6th, 2011 | 12:04 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

I remember reading a story like that, probably the same story Nick, and it drove me nuts! lol To me, if you’re writing or telling a story about yourself, as in you’re in it, you’re going to sound really silly without “I”. “Mitch said” instead of “I said’ sounds, well, strangely elitist, as if I don’t exist. At least that’s how I see it. Obviously I won’t be writing for Associated Press any time soon. lol

April 6th, 2011 | 12:27 AM

It’s kind of hard to avoid such repetitions. Being a casual style I would say that this is not a problem, it sounds ok to me.

April 6th, 2011 | 4:43 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

Thanks Mia, and truthfully, I couldn’t have thought of another way of telling the tale without making it all fictional.

April 6th, 2011 | 9:04 AM
Carl:

Never thing about story telling in details, for sure you are write that it is like chord and the rules are like in the music theory, however I don’t think that many people can be good story tellers. It is a gift.

April 6th, 2011 | 9:57 AM
GIochi Winx:

Story telling as an art ? wow it may sound funny at first but after reading our article (post) I totally understand you ))

I think stories are one of the most motivational thing for our clients !

thanks !

April 7th, 2011 | 7:31 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

Well Giochi, stories work for many people in many areas, including business I suppose. And it is an art; just listen to someone trying to tell a story that goes off on tangents or can’t quite close and you’ll see what I mean.

April 7th, 2011 | 10:30 AM

Hi, Mitch.

If a story is an autobiography, how can you not say I? 😉

I think you are one of the best storytellers I have seen online, even if you did not get that Kindle. And I believe being a great storyteller is a great plus in engaging your audience, no matter what industry you are working in. Now, all the rest of us need to do is hone our skills if we have them. 😉

April 9th, 2011 | 4:22 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

Thanks Wes; makes not winning the thing feel okay. I can’t say I specifically work on my storytelling, but I had a very good teacher in my dad.

April 9th, 2011 | 8:51 AM
Jessica Sighart:

Wow! Thank you for the compliment, Mitch. It’s much appreciated. I try not to let any rules get in the way of my writing, although now I’ll have to wonder if I use “I” too much for a few minutes. 😉 I don’t think I do, but I suppose it’s possible. I don’t believe in moderating the lengths of my stories or the words I use. when reading the work of others, I often think that what they wrote should have been longer. If people don’t care to read long posts, then they don’t have to read it.

April 9th, 2011 | 8:34 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

Jessica, don’t change a thing about your writing because it’s fun and entertaining. I think if I were writing a book I might work on changing how I write certain things, but in general if it’s about me, I’m using “I”, otherwise it really makes little sense.

April 9th, 2011 | 9:12 AM
Melinda:

It is so hard not to say “I” a million times. I usually write and then go back and restructure the sentences to try to avoid that so it is at least not at the beginning of every sentence.

April 12th, 2011 | 7:53 AM
Mitch Mitchell:

Melinda, I won’t do it if I’m telling my own story, which I do most of the time here. Heck, I’m spending time looking for links to older articles that fit the content I just wrote, and you see how much I write; I almost never go back and change my content, although I do take a quick look to see if I spelled everything correctly. But I never claim perfection; I just want to be better than Sire! lol

April 12th, 2011 | 5:52 PM

I read this post back when you posted it but coudn’t think of anything interesting to say. But, the other day someone required a brief bio from me. After writing it and going back over it, the fact that the dreaded “I” had just peppered the thing was obvious. Remembering this post motivated me to go back and rewrite it to minimize that personal pronoun. The revised version was much more interesting. See what kind of far reaching effects you have on folks!

April 30th, 2011 | 3:43 PM
Mitch Mitchell:

I’ll take credit where I can, Allan. 🙂 Actually, I think it would be interesting to see both versions of what you wrote. Did you go 3rd person?

April 30th, 2011 | 8:52 PM