Better Writing: Turning the Gist into a Good Story

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We love stories and the people who tell them. Artificial intelligence researcher, Roger Schank, thinks we may even assume good storytellers are smarter. Here’s how he put it.

“Wisdom is often ascribed to those who can tell just the right story at the right moment and who often have a large number of stories to tell.”

Every story starts with a gist. The dictionary defines gist as the essence of a story. The gist is the raw material of a story. It can be the raw material for more than one story. Gists are basic facts, events, or insights. Turning a gist into a good story starts with capturing the gist.

Capture the Gists That Grab You

Your memory is a frail and fickle thing. If you want to be sure to remember something so that you can turn it into a story, you must do a little work.

As soon as possible after you identify the makings of a story, take notes that will remind you of the gist. You don’t need much. Sometimes, a single word or phrase will do the trick. Try to spot memorable or exciting things and note them down. Describe an image that reminds you of the gist. Your brain finds pictures easy to remember.

The notes you make can go into your journal or idea file with any details you want to add. But before you can use that material, you must make it your own.

Retelling Makes It Yours

Different people can work with the same gist and come up with very different stories. That’s because a gist is only the raw material of a story.

To make it yours, you need to tell the story several times. Retelling adds details. As you retell a story, you’ll develop gestures and postures that support the story you want to tell. You’ll settle on a few key phrases and use them use over and over. Each time you tell the story, it changes, but the gist remains the same.

How many times should you retell a story to really make it your own? I suggest somewhere between a dozen and 20 times. That may sound like a lot, but if you’re excited about the story, you’ll probably want to share it.

Writing Sharpens Your Thinking

Once you’ve got the story down through several retellings, try writing it out. Writing is the tool for turning your refined raw material into something more precise. You’ll find yourself thinking about which particular words and phrases to use. While you’re writing, you may think of other things you should add to the story.

Telling your story first helps you get a natural flow. You’re more likely to use a conversational style, too. Writing your story helps you sharpen the wording and check your facts. If you’re writing a book, blog, or article, speak your story first, then write it. Then read it aloud before you hit publish or send the piece off.

Add Structure

Human beings have been telling stories for millions of years. Naturally, we developed effective story structures. Many people have heard about “the hero’s journey,” but there are many other structures. I prefer a simple outline I call the fairytale structure.

This is the structure of all fairytales. It goes like this:

Start with a story alert. In the fairytales, that’s “Once upon a time…” Another version is “This ain’t no lie…” You don’t have to use anything like that. All you have to say is “That reminds me of a story.”

If you’re going to tell a story, you need a hero. You’ll get better results from your stories if you’re not the hero of your own story. If you’re telling a business story, make your customer the hero. If you’re telling a story to your child, you can make the child the hero.

The basic structure goes like this: Every day… Then, one day… Because of that, the hero did (you can repeat this as many times as you need to) … Finally… And everything was wonderful.

Takeaways

A gist is the raw material of one or more stories.

Capture the gists that grab you by using simple notes.

Save your notes in a journal or idea file.

Retelling a story makes that story different and more your own.

Writing sharpens your thinking.

Standard structures make a story more effective.

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