It’s Sunday morning. Two churchgoers sit in two different services. They sing many of the same songs and here a very similar offering appeal. Even the sermon theme is the same—the story of Esther. Yet one churchgoer leaves ready for a nap and the other exits the sanctuary with his head full of thoughts, questions and new insights, eager to read the story for himself. What is the difference? The craft of storytelling.
Is storytelling really so vital?
Why does my non-fiction book need to include storytelling?
As writers, we can make the mistake of believing that our message alone is enough to attract an audience and keep their interest. Yet without the craft of storytelling, even the most researched, theologically-sound, perfectly-edited book can sit unread on the nightstand, or worse, un-purchased in the first place.
Still not convinced that storytelling is a crucial skill to acquire as a non-fiction writer? Think of the person who carried the most life-changing non-fiction message to have ever existed… Jesus. And yet, even He used stories—”parables”—to communicate this message to the masses.
How do I incorporate storytelling into non-fiction?
The next time you listen to a TED talk or sermon, pay closer attention to what grabs your attention. We’ll bet that there is one oratory tool that universally makes the audience pay attention: the personal story. When the speaker says, “Let me give you an example,” or “Let me tell you a story,” everyone in the audience perks up. In fact, when the talk is over, we’ll bet that what you remember most about it are the personal stories you heard.
This is absolutely the same for your writing. Facts, research and exposition are great, but using a story to apply that information will instantly breathe life into your message. The author who employs this technique with expert skill is Max Lucado. Consider this example from his book God Came Near:
Wide awake is Mary. My, how young she looks! Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph’s saddle. The pain has been eclipsed by wonder. She looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His Majesty. At this point in history, the human being who best understands who God is and what he is doing is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. She can’t take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she is holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel,
“His kingdom will never end.”
Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.
She touches the face of the infant-God. How long was your journey!
Mr. Lucado could have simply stated the facts: Mary gave birth to a baby in a stable. Instead, he uses his incredible storytelling ability to transport the reader and illustrate the scene as vividly as if it were a movie.
The basics of storytelling
Most of us are not born with Max Lucado’s gift for storytelling, however, like any skill, it can be learned. Let’s begin with the basics of a good story:
A story arc
If you look closely, all engaging stories follow a story arc, even the animated ones that parents and grandparents may find on repeat in their homes. Recently Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared her 22 rules of storytelling on Twitter. Rule number four stood out to us:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Whether your entire work is a story, or you are just including a one-paragraph testimony, take the time to follow the above story arc. Doing so helps your story flow from beginning to end, keeping the audience captive all along.
Essentials of a good story
Now that you’ve established a story arc, you can begin to improve the story through these simple adjustments:
Pay attention to setting. Just as in the Christmas story example above, the reader needs context for your narrative. Even though your focus may be on the spiritual side of a topic, don’t neglect providing a setting for your message. Consider these two examples of writing about volunteering in end-of-life care:
I sat and prayed with Mrs. Glendale, knowing that she was in her final days. I read her favorite Psalms and played the hymn playlist that I’d made for her on my Spotify account.
As I entered Mrs. Glendale’s room for my daily visit, I couldn’t help but notice all the photos set around—some more than 50 years old and others from just this year. Grandsons in baseball photos, a niece at her flute recital, and a gorgeous family reunion photo with four generations included. I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Did they not know that their beloved Gigi was living her last days? Why should I, a practical stranger, be the one to read her favorite Psalms? Wouldn’t she rather hear her niece play her favorite hymns on the flute, than listen to them through Spotify on my phone?
Both paragraphs give the same facts, yet the second draws you into the room, feeling what the author is feeling, and understanding the undercurrent to the situation.
Be transparent. No one wants to read a story about a flawless subject. People without imperfection come off as either intimidating or inauthentic. Show us all sides of your characters, whether they be real or fictional. The above example gives us a peek into the author’s struggle: I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Your writing doesn’t have to condone or glorify the character’s flaws, but it shouldn’t ignore them either. Being transparent allows your reader to identify with your writing and see themselves within the pages.
By creating a story arc and incorporating setting and character transparency, you will be on your way to becoming a better storyteller. At Certa Publishing, we appreciate the power of storytelling and are here to help you grow in this skill. Contact us today to see how we can partner with you.