Communication / Writing / September 22, 2011

Telling Stories without Telling Stories

I am a lousy story teller. There are people who can regale us with tales of their humorous trips to the gas station or who can write inspiring essays about their children’s soccer games. I, on the other hand, couldn’t make a story about Barak Obama riding a unicorn down Michigan Avenue interesting. I don’t have that gift.
But there is a way to convey story without being a story-teller in the usual sense. There is a way to provide a sense of story, with characters and drama and tensions and resolutions, without actually telling a story.
Different communicators do it in different ways, just like different story tellers have different styles. There are those, like Tim Keller, who can build an argument piece by piece, and as they fit together a beautiful or enlightening whole appears. Each piece of the argument is like a character in their “story” and each plays a crucial role in the advancement of it. These communicators can grab an audience without volume in ther voices or exclamation points on their pages.
Sometimes it is in the language itself. A simple truth can be made full of “story” by the turn of a phrase or the picture drawn by the words chosen to describe it. Eloquence and a varied vocabulary are tools that can turn a blah statement into a rich reality full of meaning. A verbal flourish can take a platitude and give it life.
One of the most over-used illustration in Christian history is a perfect example of this: C.S. Lewis’s  “mud pies in the slum.” There is a reason it’s used and abused, and that is the eloquence and poignancy of the word picture. It’s not a story about children making mud pies; it’s a brief description that carries the reader to the crux of the message about joy in God.
Passion and energy can have the same effect. It can draw a reader or hearer into the narrative of non-fiction and make it feel like a ride instead of like work. Energy can transform the boring and banal into enjoyable and evocative. Tension and climactic power are brought to bear when statements and arguments are delivered with passion.
Standup Comics live on this method. If they don’t have good jokes they can make people laugh by saying bad jokes really loudly (see: Dane Cook). But in the end they accomplish their goal and people laugh. Preachers who aren’t scholars or word smiths can carry a congregation closer to God by their passion for simple truths and the verve with which they are expressed.  The passion of the expression tells a story that words themselves do not. (As an aside energy doesn’t carry writing. Writing depends on clarity and language to be “story.”)
So seek to find the balance of passionate, eloquent reasoned creativity as you espouse your truth. Any one of these can give “story” to declarative statements, but all three in unison can create a masterpiece.

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