The host of This American Life, for my money the most interesting hour of the week on the radio, Ira Glass once said (and he was quoting someone else but I heard it from him):
‘Great stories happen to people that can tell them.’
I find this to be a most interesting and utterly profound statement. Life is inherently interesting. The simplest day to day interactions can be so fascinating, and experiencing them firsthand you often find yourself in desperate need of sharing that moment with someone- anyone. In public, it’s easy- if there’s something strange happening on the subway car, there’s a Public Situation Teammate out there who you can make eye contact with and share a quiet smile a roll of the eyes, but in private, or when you didn’t capture that moment with someone else, you find yourself rushing to your destination or texting furiously to convey this incredible, this funny, this infuriating, this life altering, this single moment in time, this snapshot of the world through your eyes that must absolutely be shared- as soon as possible, shared over a beer next weekend, shared with that one friend you know will appreciate it.
Ours (humans) is a culture of storytelling. History was, for a long time just the words of an event’s observer well told. It’s the shared knowledge of humanity and the legacy of the past to live up to, and the beautiful, funny things to pass on down to the next generation. Stories told by strangers make them less strange, more human, let you see the person across from you and how they experience life. Stories by friends provide comfort and the chance to slip back and think of that particular summer night under the stars. Stories by your elders and betters give you a chance to see how things were, to appreciate what came before. Stories by those younger than you keep you young and give you the option to learn what new there is in the world.
I’ll never forget stories from my dad about him and his buddies making their own burgers at the bar at three a.m. or riding their bikes 50 miles to visit my Aunt Betty. And my history teacher, Mr. McMinnimon, telling me how Stephen Decatur bluffed out a British ship of the line (‘Boys, light your matches!’). Mr. O’toole’s friend telling me how a fireman came into his bar covered in dust and bleeding from the head on 9/11. Tom holding a busted and engulfed Tiki Torch to an empty handle stuffed full of bottle rockets. Some stories stick with you, but stories well told- those ones you never forget.
So, I’ll give you a few of my personal tips, and then let someone else finish it off for me-
- Don’t put the punch line of the story in the title.
- When you’re sitting around telling tales, it’s not a pissing contest that the quality of the stories and their likelihood of having happened plummet equally as each of you can barely wait for the other to finish before you jump in. Stories on occasion are meant to outdo one another, but that is rare- so listen to the other person. Your story should compliment theirs, not shut the light of on it.
- Never finish with, ‘I guess you had to be there.’ They didn’t. Just tell it better next time.
- Never say in more words what you could’ve said in less.
- Read the crowd. Some stories are better left unsaid, or at least unsaid in front of your buddy’s recently divorced mother.
At any rate, the great director, Billy Wilder gave an interview to pretty great director Cameron Crowe, and he came up with a list of tips for screenwriters, and they are much better advice than mine. So here:
1: The audience is fickle.
2: Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4: Know where you’re going.
5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.