How to Tell a Good Story, as Explained by George Saunders, Ira Glass, Ken Burns, Scott Simon, Catherine Burns & Others

All of us instinc­tive­ly respond to sto­ries. This has both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive effects, but if we don’t under­stand it about our­selves, we’ve won’t ful­ly under­stand why peo­ple believe what they believe and do what they do. Even giv­en the deep human attach­ment to nar­ra­tive, can we clear­ly explain what a sto­ry is, or how to tell one? Acclaimed author George Saun­ders has giv­en the sub­ject a great deal of thought, some of which he lets us in on in the short film above, which Josh Jones pre­vi­ous­ly wrote about here on Open Cul­ture. “A good sto­ry,” he tells us, says “at many dif­fer­ent lev­els, ‘We’re both human beings. We’re in this crazy sit­u­a­tion called life that we don’t real­ly under­stand. Can we put our heads togeth­er and con­fer about it at a very high, non-bull­shit­ty lev­el?’ ”

At this point in his career, Saun­ders has tried out that approach to sto­ry using numer­ous dif­fer­ent tech­niques and in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent con­texts, most recent­ly in his new nov­el Lin­coln in the Bar­do, which takes place in the after­math of the assas­si­na­tion of the tit­u­lar six­teenth Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. Few liv­ing cre­ators under­stand the appeal of Amer­i­can his­to­ry as a trove of sto­ry mate­r­i­al bet­ter than Ken Burns, author of long-form doc­u­men­taries like JazzBase­ball, and The Civ­il War, who finds that its “good guys have seri­ous flaws and the vil­lains are very com­pelling.”

And though he osten­si­bly works with only the facts, he acknowl­edges that “all sto­ry is manip­u­la­tion,” some of it desir­able manip­u­la­tion and some of it not so much, with the chal­lenge of telling the dif­fer­ence falling to the sto­ry­teller him­self.

“The com­mon sto­ry,” Burns says, “is ‘one plus one equals two.’ We get it. But all sto­ries — the real, gen­uine sto­ries — are about one and one equal­ing three.” Where his math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la for sto­ry­telling empha­sizes the impor­tance of the unex­pect­ed, the one offered by Andrew Stan­ton, direc­tor of Pixar films like Find­ing NemoWALL‑E, and John Carter, empha­sizes the impor­tance of a “well-orga­nized absence of infor­ma­tion.” In the TED Talk just above  (which opens with a poten­tial­ly NSFW joke), he sug­gests always giv­ing the audi­ence “two plus two” instead of four, encour­ag­ing the audi­ence to do the sat­is­fy­ing work of putting the details of the sto­ry togeth­er them­selves while nev­er let­ting them real­ize they’re doing any work at all.

“Dra­ma is antic­i­pa­tion min­gled with uncer­tain­ty,” said the play­wright William Archer. Stan­ton quotes it in his talk, and the notion also seems to under­lie the views on sto­ry­telling held by This Amer­i­can Life cre­ator Ira Glass. In the inter­view above, he describes the process of telling a sto­ry as recount­ing a sequence of actions, of course, but also con­tin­u­al­ly throw­ing out ques­tions and answer­ing them all along the way, oscil­lat­ing between actions in the sto­ry and moments of reflec­tion on those actions which cast a lit­tle light on their mean­ing — a form sure­ly famil­iar to any­one who’s heard so much as a seg­ment of his radio show. And how do you become as skilled as he and his team at telling sto­ries? Do what he did: tell a huge num­ber of them, telling and telling and telling until you devel­op the killer instinct to mer­ci­less­ly sep­a­rate the tru­ly com­pelling ones from the rest.

Glass illus­trates the ben­e­fits of his lessons by play­ing some tape of a news report he pro­duced ear­ly in his career, high­light­ing all the ways in which he failed to tell its sto­ry prop­er­ly. He turned out to be cut out for some­thing slight­ly dif­fer­ent than straight-up report­ing, a job of which reporters like Scott Simon of Nation­al Pub­lic Radio’s Week­end Edi­tion have made an art. Simon takes his sto­ry­telling process apart in three and a half min­utes in the video just above: beyond pro­vid­ing such essen­tials as a strong begin­ning, vivid details, and a point lis­ten­ers can take away, he says, you’ve also got to con­sid­er the way you deliv­er the whole pack­age. Ide­al­ly, you’ll tell your sto­ry in “short, breath­able sec­tions,” which cre­ates an over­all rhythm for the audi­ence to fol­low, whether they’re sit­ting on the barstool beside you or tuned in on the oth­er side of the world.

What else does a good sto­ry need? Con­flict. Ten­sion. The feel­ing of “see­ing two oppos­ing forces col­lide.” Hon­esty. Grace. The ring of truth. All these qual­i­ties and more come up in the Atlantic’s “Big Ques­tion” video above, which asks a vari­ety of nota­bles to name the most impor­tant ele­ment of a good sto­ry. Respon­ders include House of Cards writer and pro­duc­er Beau Willimon, The Moth artis­tic direc­tor Cather­ine Burns, PBS pres­i­dent Paula Kerg­er, and for­mer Dis­ney CEO Michael Eis­ner. Since humans have told sto­ries since we first began, as Saun­ders put it, con­fer­ring about this crazy sit­u­a­tion called life, all man­ner of sto­ry­telling rules, tips, and tricks have come and gone, but the core prin­ci­ples have remained the same. As to whether we now under­stand life any bet­ter… well, isn’t that one of those unan­swered ques­tions that keeps us on the edge of our seats?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Saun­ders Demys­ti­fies the Art of Sto­ry­telling in a Short Ani­mat­ed Doc­u­men­tary

Ira Glass, the Host of This Amer­i­can Life, Breaks Down the Fine Art of Sto­ry­telling

Ken Burns on the Art of Sto­ry­telling: “It’s Lying Twen­ty-Four Times a Sec­ond”

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Pixar & Khan Acad­e­my Offer a Free Online Course on Sto­ry­telling

John Berg­er (RIP) and Susan Son­tag Take Us Inside the Art of Sto­ry­telling (1983)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Anony Mouse says:

    “which takes place in the after­math of the assas­si­na­tion of the tit­u­lar six­teenth Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States”

    That’s not cor­rect — it takes place in the after­math of the death of Lin­col­n’s son.

  • Shaun says:

    This is such a great col­lec­tion. Thanks for this!

  • Mark says:

    The video URL’s are the wrong ones, and in the wrong order. The Ira Glass video is linked to twice, and the Atlantiv ‘big ques­tion’ video is only acces­si­ble via the link in the text.

  • Alice Simpson says:

    Deter­mined to learn how to be a sto­ry­teller, these videos were the BEST things on The Inter­nets. SWAK!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.