The most gripping story the world ever heard probably came about when our Neanderthal ancestor wanted to tell his mates that he had discovered a huge animal just south of their cave. He probably drew a misshapen picture and jabbered nineteen to a dozen, describing how he saved his life from it. The story also had a moral.
If one were sitting by that eventide fire, one would know what essential ingredients a compelling story must possess.
You need a medium of communication. It could be pictures—each of which could tell a thousand-word story. It could be animated hand-gestures or it might be sounds—guttural gibberish or formal language.
Every stage of refinement in the means of communication made the story more powerful. It added colour, depth and emotion to the narrative. It provoked, recreated, and transported. The more visceral the experience of a story, the longer it would stay in the consciousness of a reader/listener. And longevity is the sole criterion of a story’s success.
When a story consumes an author and fills up all the space in her consciousness, the flow of her words will convey her passion. She will want to tell it in the most effective way. She will want her reader to be as moved and compelled by it as she is herself. Why else do we love spinning tales? To make another feel as we do; to give them a glimpse of our world.
The experience of encountering that large animal deeply moved our cave dweller ancestor. It was probably just a mammoth out to graze—one who was as petrified of a two-legged human as the human was of him—which is rather hilarious.
Be that as it may, he was excited, thrilled and more than a little upset. This made the experience a compelling one for him. Nothing would do but for him to have his mates feel his thrill and fear exactly as he felt them. To do that, he would have to recreate his experience as vividly as he could—a performance made powerful with excited sound, feverish animation and glittering eyes.
The cave dweller, intent upon thrilling his buddies, had his work cut out for him. Imagine him weaving a story of how he came upon a beast and how, thanks to his presence of mind, he managed to avoid the beast and slunk off before the beast saw him.
Despite his passion and animation, he would have failed to grip his audience. One wouldn’t be surprised if his mates sniggered at him and told him he must have imagined it all. In other words, his fellows were not half as thrilled as he wanted them to be. One can imagine the dismay.
Instead, if he had told them…
… that the beast spied him when he was trying to slink away and pursued him across a forest, compelling him to step into a deeply roiling body of water, which threw him down a 50-metre waterfall!!
To his horror, he found that the beast had jumped down the fall too and did not give up the pursuit. Dense vegetation made rapid escape impossible. Thus, he had no option but to fight the beast, standing in the neck-deep water of a chilly river. In a moment of epiphany, he figured out how he could overpower the beast. The idea was a combination of cheek, skill and cunning.
He nimbly grabbed a low branch and propelled himself high into the tree that overhung the pool at the base of the waterfall. There, away from immediate danger, he rested a while and got his breath back. Then he pulled out his knife and chopping off a branch, fashioning a pointed spear with it. Pulling out the pouch of paralysing powder he carried on his waistband, he dipped the end of the spear into it, coating it liberally. Then he positioned himself while the beast stood below helplessly, snorting with rage. With perfect aim, our ancestor jumped from his perch and impaled the beast’s eye with his spear. Once the beast was paralysed, he jumped down and used his knife.
Told like this, surely the reaction would be a lot different, right?
Stories need a punch. The punch brings the story together and justifies its telling. Without a climax and a resolution, you don’t have a story—you have an anecdote that may or may not grip your audience. It is surprising how many people miss this part when crafting their stories.
As for truth, here’s the thing.
If you want to be strictly factual, write essays, not stories. Stories need a bit of spice and an occasional, harmless wandering from the true truth. A pinch of salt you add to food, just a pinch.
When embarking upon his story, if our cave dweller had drawn a monkey, crow and a jackal too apart from the large beast he had encountered, I doubt if his story would have been as impactful as he wanted it to be. His audience would have been distracted and confused, wondering what part the other animals played in the saga.
It is best to remain true to a single narrative—particularly in a short story.
When retrospect meets vivid imagination, you have the perfect anvil on which to forge a gripping story.
The more stirring your experience, the less you’re amused by it at the moment it is happening. The event turns into a story, even an excellent story, only in recollection. When you revisit your memory of the event, you recall the other elements which add layers to the story and make it come alive.
When creating a story from imagination, you delve into your memory and find gems to string together in novel ways, to create a new story. What would make such a story memorable and powerful?
Ask yourself if you would like to witness the story. Would you like to meet the characters? If you were the proverbial fly on the wall as the story unfolds, would it inspire you to be a better person? Would it answer a question you never thought you had, giving you insights into life? In other words, does the story justify its existence? Does it provide value—beauty, understanding, clarity, inspiration—to the reader in you?
If yes, you have a good story. It will be powerful and compelling. Otherwise, otherwise.
Do you want to polish your storytelling skills? Contact me!
What other elements must be present in a story? Let me know in the comments.