“Tell me a story about when you were a little girl,” my daughter asks after I tuck her into bed.
She’s asked this question so many times, I can’t think of any more stories to tell her. I’m dried out, like an empty well, and I just want to rub my feet and rest before the world turns to darkness and dream and sleep.
“I can’t think of any new stories to tell you tonight,” I say, my mind blank as a canvas, my body heavy with exhaustion from the day’s work. The box fan whirls in the hallway. The light of the hall reflects off her face, which is pressed against her satin pink pillowcase.
“But I want to hear a story about you as a little girl,” she says.
I rack my brain for an image, a memory. I’ve already told her about the neighbor girls who invited me to play on their slip-and-slide and then changed their minds after they got invited to a friend’s pool. And the time these same girls laughed at my new hairdo and I went home and told my mom to change back my hair. I told my daughter about wanting a horse and how I broke my arm falling off the swing set and riding our bikes to the ice cream stand on summer nights.
The stories were moments caught like fireflies in a mason jar, lit briefly, their light grows dimmer with time. But for the moment, I can see that light in her face, the light of how our stories allow us to see a little more clearly the people we love.
Telling a story is like opening a window to our past. Somehow in the telling, we open our hearts just a little wider. We learn what is buried deep, what is our treasure, what is our love.
My daughter’s fascination with stories shows we all crave the human connection that stories give us. We want to hear what makes others tick, what has shaped and molded them and ultimately, changed them for the better.
Years ago I took a graduate class on nonfiction writing. I read some terribly talented writers, like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Those books, and others I’ve read since then, have taught me a few key things about telling a story, things that might be helpful for those wishing to tell their story better.
4 Rules for Great Storytelling
- When choosing a story, start with one memory that is special to you and that has a specific time and date. Don’t try to tell your whole life story. That takes too long and long stories tend to ramble, making your point unclear. If you want your story to have impact, keep it succinct (under 1000 words). Also, it should be rooted in a specific time or day. Don’t give generalizations like “My friend Pete was the best friend a guy could ask for. He was just great.” Instead give a story about Pete, how he stood up for you on the playground or helped you make the winning shot on the basketball court. Stories that start in the middle of the action work well, like “I woke up to the sound of thunder shaking our house” or “My knees were shaking when I auditioned for the fifth grade play.”
- You need to show why this story matters. That means something should be at stake—your reputation, your life, your pride, your favorite toy. Be sure to tell us why it mattered to you. This helps give your story some emotions that connect with your reader. It makes the story matter to us.
- A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Be careful of going off on other tangents. A good way to know if your story has a clear beginning, middle and end is if someone else can repeat your story by highlighting the main points.
- Make sure the story has a point. Don’t just tell a story and leave us searching for a meaning. Help us understand what the story meant for you, what you learned from it, how you’ve grown. Share “this is what I learned” in a way that shows how you’ve changed.
My daughter doesn’t ask for stories very often at bedtime anymore. But sometimes she shares her own stories and I sit and listen quietly, like she did not so long ago, on the edge of her bed. Our stories are intertwined in a bigger story so that someday, when her child says, “Tell me a story about when you were a little girl,” she will have her own stories to share. She will tell her story while the stars in the sky emerge in the half-light, while the fireflies dance and glow, lighting her face for a moment, then quietly fading into the dark.