How to tell a story.
Here’s some stolen advice. (The larceny makes it taste sweeter.)
The answer is yes.
That’s the whole story.
I learned how to tell stories from Nick. Not the Nick you’re thinking of, though. I never talked about this Nick before. The Nick you’re thinking of endears himself to women by offending them. That’s the Nick you’re thinking of. Unless you’re thinking of the Nick who you always forget, because that’s the other Nick.
This Nick never said, “Context is bullshit. Buildup is bullshit. Punchlines are whole stories. There is no burying the lead: there is the lead. Lead with the lead, like a punch to the gut, then you work them over. Then work them over till they never forget it.”
Nick never said that.
By never saying it, he made it clear.
Nick taught me how to learn in a workspace environment. He did it by asking me, “Ready?” The answer was never, “What for?” Because the answer was always, “Yes,” even when it was a lie, because stories require audience consent to work. They don’t require audience understanding — not at first. The function of a story is, in part, to create understanding, but that comes at the end.
The beginning is about trust.
I need to agree to the parameters of the story. I need to be willing to be carried along. Stories work because the audience trusts the story.
Creating trust is about establishing parameters as firmly and, where appropriate, as quickly as possible.
Nick’s story was about competence in the work place. I wasn’t ready, but I needed to be ready. By forming it as a question, he forced me to ask myself if I was ready, creating a sense that I ought to be ready — ready to learn the next thing as soon as it was demonstrated. With one word, he started a narrative that began in my ignorance, continued through the (albeit brief) trials of my continuing education in the next step in food construction at the café, and created a context where the inquiry at the beginning became an assertion. It was a story about gaining readiness.
With one word, Nick established the opening scene and emotional stakes of a life-changing story.
It was the most efficient establishing of parameters I’ve ever had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of.
So just don’t bury the lead. Don’t worry if the thing sounds too non sequitur. It probably is. Befuddlement, though, is a tool. People find it uncomfortable to be destabilized. If the beginning of your story feels like it lacks context that’s a good thing. If it feels unbalanced, that’s to your advantage. An audience, once wobbly, wants to find a solid place to stand again.
That’s what the rest of the story needs to do. Context shouldn’t come first. The surprising thing comes first, because the story is about establishing context. Stories start in discomfort, they start in weirdness, because they’re about growing comfortable by the end.
Nick destabilized my peace of mind. Then he led me to a place of ease.
Well, that’s how stories work.