A Story Teller's “Luck”

March 10th, 2012

My friend Claudia has a devout and loving following on Facebook (and in real life too, where she’s clearly adored by pretty much everyone who meets her–but real life is so 1990’s, don’t you think?).  Almost every day she posts an incredibly funny anecdote about her life, and people rush to comment in response, and usually at least one of them will write something like, “It’s amazing how funny things happen to you all the time. Nothing interesting ever happens to me.”

Now, I happen to know (from a many-decades-long friendship) that Claudia’s life, while filled with love and laughter and activities, is hardly a Life Lived on the Edge.  Like many of us, she trots a fairly well circumscribed path, from home to school to supermarket to various athletic events to social engagements.  She is, admittedly, a warm and outgoing person who likes to chat people up, so, yes, she may engage in more interactions in the course of her day than some of us, but still, there’s nothing unusual about the way she lives her life or the path she treads.

The humor, dear Brutus, lies not in the event but in the telling of it.

In other words, it’s not what’s happening in her life that’s so special–it’s how she takes the mundane and turns it into entertainment.

What makes some people better storytellers than others?

Well, for one thing, they recognize a good anecdote when they see one.  Things happen to all of us during the course of a day.  Some of them are worth retelling.  Some aren’t.  A good storyteller knows the difference.  A bad storyteller can’t discriminate and is as likely to tell you about the left turn he couldn’t make as he is about having been mistaken for Harrison Ford.

Secondly, good story tellers know how to make a good story great.  They leave in the details that add spice and humor and reject any that weigh it down. Recently I was at a gathering where someone told a story that should have been absolutely riveting, but, sadly, he just wasn’t a masterful story teller, and his wild adventure became a slow series of “and then I . . .”s.  My husband and I shook our heads over all that wasted good material.

Finally, good storytellers know how to exaggerate for comic and dramatic effect.  If your story is about wasted money, it may be more exciting to make it a hundred dollars on the line, not ten, and if it’s about people staring at you, it’s funnier if it’s an entire roomful of strangers, not just a couple.  This, by the way, is why it’s difficult to tell really great stories when your kids (and sometimes your spouse) are around: they have a way of correcting your exaggerations that can just kill your anecdote. “We weren’t waiting for half an hour, Mom.  More like three minutes.”  A really good story teller knows to leave the kids at home . . .

This all connects back to writing of course.  It’s easy to say, “I have nothing to write about,” or “Where do other people get their ideas?” or “My life is too boring to provide me with material.”  But that’s the literary equivalent of saying, “Funny things happen to Claudia, not to me.”  Recognize a good story, make it better with the right details, reject the boring, exaggerate and embellish, and find a world of adventure in every day life.