Updated: Sep 4
Have you ever tried to tell a story and found that the chain of events you were trying to describe was so full of zig zags and dead ends that, instead of a coherent narrative, you ended up with a confusing anecdote? Did anyone ever ask you to tell them how you accomplished something only to realize that you didn’t even know?
When our own life events have been so confusing that even we are not sure how they unfolded, it’s natural to fear that people won’t understand the stories we try to tell, that they’ll be disinterested, or even that they’ll judge us for trying to tell them in the first place.
Most of us don’t automatically think in terms of character, objective, obstacle, and resolution, but just because life’s important moments don’t arrive with clearly labeled story elements, that doesn’t mean we can’t find our stories when we try. Finding a story within the chaos just requires we become familiar with the essential elements and learn how to apply them.
Story crafting is a lot like therapy. When we gain clarity about our experiences by looking at them through the lens of story structure, we gain clarity about ourselves. With our newfound awareness, we can walk through the world with greater confidence, and even develop a greater acceptance of what’s happened in our lives — our successes and our failures.
Here are some prompts to practice crafting a story from what might otherwise seem like a series of confusing and random events.
1) Pick a year in your life when something happened. Regardless of how tempting it is to cluster a series of events, it’s important that you start by limiting yourself to one.
2) How old were you? Age gives your listeners a sense of what stage in life you were at. People inherently understand the issues most people face at different stages of life and they bring this background knowledge with them as they list. If you were dealing with something unusual for your age, that unexpected juxtaposition can add to the drama and stimulate your listeners’ interest.
3) Where were you? When you share a physical location, listeners can more easily imagine an urban, rural or suburban setting and can also get a feel for whether the culture is familiar or foreign to them. People bring lifetimes of background knowledge to location and by being aware of how you share it, you can rely on or subvert what they already know.
4) What did you want more than anything? Could you admit what you really wanted? Was it okay to want it? Did you have to hide what you wanted? Cultures place limits on acceptable desires and a culturally unacceptable (or even unusual) desire automatically creates a whole world of drama.
5) What was in the way of you getting it? Being specific is key to hooking your listeners. So, though it may have felt like everything was in the way of getting what you wanted, pick one important thing, big or little.
6) If you got what you wanted, what is one key thing you did to achieve it? It probably took a lot of separate actions to get what you wanted, and even a lot of learning. So, again, just pick one thing you did, big or little. And be specific.
7) If you didn’t get what you wanted, what happened instead? If you didn’t succeed, did you maintain the status quo? Did you change your desire? Did you give up?
8) What did you learn from the experience? This is the resolution of the story. This is why you’ve held onto this event all this time. This is why you want to share about it. Because you did learn something even if you weren’t aware of it at the time, and even if you’re not aware of it yet.
When we pay attention and inquire deeply into our own lives, we can discover a seemingly infinite number of lessons, some empowering, some bittersweet.