Some of the best storytelling can be found on public radio, and Ira Glass is one of the best at his craft. He can make a seemingly insignificant series of events into something dramatic and meaningful.
I stumbled upon a series of four videos today on YouTube in which he provides some great storytelling pointers. They’re oriented toward oral storytelling, but they work for written storytelling, as well. I’ll summarize the main points for you, but to get the meat of them, I highly recommend that you listen to them.
1. There are two parts to great stories — anecdotes and reflection. Most stories work best by just starting at the beginning of a timeline and telling what happened first, then move on to the next anecdote, then the next, then the next. At the end, you need to incorporate a reflection about what it all means — what was the point of the story? You can have great anecdotes, but if they don’t mean anything, then they all fall apart.
2. Be willing to — as my professors in my MFA program always told us — to “kill your darlings.” You might spend a lot of time hunting stories and even — in his case — chasing stories and doing interviews, but you have to be willing to kill them if they aren’t great stories. Put out great stuff, even if you spent a lot of time gathering stories that don’t pan out.
3. You have to do a lot of work for a long time to get really good at your craft. You may have good taste and know that you’re work isn’t as good as it should be, and you may even spend years at that level, but don’t stop. Push through. Close the gap. Fight your way through it. You’ll get there if you keep working at it.
4. Beginners make mistakes, and here are ways to avoid two common ones. Don’t try to sound like somebody else — be yourself. Don’t imitate your favorite TV announcer. Second, your story needs characters to be dramatic, so talk about other people — even when the story is about you. You’ll come through as more authentic and interesting.
So here are the videos. Watch them. They’re terrific.