Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Write stories

Every piece of writing - from a brief email to a volume-long business report- can tell a story. Stories are easy to remember and easy to talk about. They are a natural way of combining diverse information into meaningful patterns, and they create both interest and understanding. Stories work - they work in creative writing and they work (possibly even harder) in other kinds of writing.

How can you turn an email or memo into a story? Think about it. If you were telling a story about your subject, whose story would it be? Would you be the main character or would the main character be a team, a product, or a place? How is the main character related to your reader?

Your job in the rest of the story is to lay out what is expected - the friends who will help, the obstacles that will be encountered, the conflicts that might engage. It's also to add something unexpected - the thing that happens that turns it into a story. Sometimes something disappears - like support. Sometimes something appears out of nowhere - like a quest or a challenge. Whatever it is, it begins the story and creates a reason for the reader to engage with it and to talk about it.

Here are some things that stories are not: Stories are not usually ironic; irony plays well in some forms of creative writing and performance. It doesn't play well in business writing and it doesn't play wel in stories. Stories are not lessons - sometimes they contain lessons but that's not what makes them a story and if they don't have the good bits, the lessons are quickly recognized as manipulative. Stories are not static - things happen and keep happening. Otherwise the story stops.

If you conceive of everything you write as a story, you will begin to automatically include the structures that make writing easier to understand. You will know the difference between the beginning, the middle and the end, you will find criteria for knowing what to include and what to leave out, and you'll include the tangible details that "hook" a reader and allow them to see, hear or feel what you are describing or explaining.

Practice by being outrageous (don't send outrageous email unless you want outrageous responses). Pick the most routine piece of writing on your "to do" list and write it as if it were a really exciting story. Have fun with it. Play with it.

Then look at the story you have written and strip it down to its barebones. You'll find you have something that retains the quality of a story and yet still fits the conventions of whatever kind of writing you are doing. You'll have a piece of writing that works.

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