“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” – Charles Baudelaire/Keyser Söze
Conventional wisdom says (spoiler alert!) if you want your story to have impact, the ending must be a surprise. But that’s not the whole story (pun unavoidable).
Once you’ve seen your favourite movie or read your favourite book, you know what happens – and yet you still go back to it repeatedly. The appeal can be any combination of things: characters, plot twists, cinematography, dialogue, writing style, etc.
But there’s one thing that’s common across all of your favourite stories: even without a big ‘reveal’ at the end, they parcel out information at the right time, and at the right speeds, in such a way as to keep the audience engaged.
Having a big plot twist or reveal at the end of a story isn’t necessary for good storytelling. It’s just one example of giving out the right information at the right time.
At the very end of The Usual Suspects, we learn that hapless cripple Verbal Kint is criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. The reveal changes our understanding of everything that happened before, and is one of the greatest plot twists in cinema.
And while that surprise packs a powerful punch, having a big plot twist or reveal at the end of a story isn’t necessary for good storytelling. It’s just one example of giving out the right information at the right time.
In fact, one way of describing storytelling is as “a process of selectively revealing information”.
Striking the balance
It’s a fine balancing act: include enough appropriate detail to allow people to visualise what you’re saying, yet keep the story itself pacey enough that the narrative keeps moving.
As an example, saying “the man in the room pulled a gun on the other man”, contains drama, but isn’t particularly interesting, whereas adding some detail – “the bank manager opened the safety deposit box, slipped his hand in, and grabbed the pistol hidden there. He pulled it out and held it in front of him as he turned to face his attacker”, does a much better job of creating the tension.
Those key pieces of information help to create the atmosphere and give the reader elements to hold on to.
But go too far on the detail side and you may end up with “the impeccably dressed bank manger smoothed his polka-dotted silk tie down beneath his tailored suit and, like an athletic panther, used the index finger and thumb of his piano player’s right hand to turn the small bejewelled key on the smooth metallic side of the CCRA-approved stainless steel safety deposit box numbered “1788” and, as the internal tumblers aligned, heard the satisfying click…” Way too much detail! Three times as many words and we still don’t know anything about the situation (or why we should care).
Striking an audience-pleasing blend of momentum and detail is something that many people really struggle with
I’m exaggerating, but only in order to make an important point: not only does the amount of detail and the pace of a story matter a great deal, but balancing momentum and detail is something that most people really struggle to apply in their own work.
Going from passive to active
I mean: we all understand this balance as audience members (passively), but when we need to apply an active understanding, such as when we’re giving a speech or telling an anecdote, our compasses stop working and we gloss over important details, or dwell on trivialities, or fail to mention crucial points.
This is why audiences get bored (too much detail) or can’t really follow along (too much momentum).
Think of your story like a train: if it is a steel skeleton on wheels hurtling down a track at 600 kilometres an hour, your audience is too busy hanging on to enjoy the ride. And if the train interior is too lavishly decorated and crowded with knick-knacks, then there’s no resources left to build the axles and wheels, and all you’ve got is a weirdly narrow living room. Neither extreme creates a train ride that people want to take 0uhkmnq.
The good news is that with some training and practice, people can develop a better sense of how to give their stories what they need.
Advance or expand
The easiest and most effective way to develop a better sense of when to add in detail, and when to move the narrative along, is the exercise Advance or Expand. When I teach this to groups I get them, in pairs, to take turns telling a personal story, either of their day, or of something significant that happened to them recently.
The partner listens and gives real time feedback in the form of saying “advance” if they’re ready for the narrative to progress, and “expand” if they need more information. It’s that easy.
Participants are usually surprised by how often their instincts mislead them on this. They often spend much more time on details then they anticipated, and
But with a little bit of practice, the improvements are huge. In the end they, like Keyser Söze himself, can spin a pretty captivating yarn.
On 20 November I’ll be co-facilitating a full-day workshop on storytelling at Mixtup in De Pijp. For more workshop information see <a href="https://www.ryanmillar official site.com” rel=”nofollow”>ryanmillar.com