How we tell our own life stories has important implications for our happiness and outlook. Here’s how we can become good storytellers.
Starting from an early age, we are fascinated by stories. A good story inspires and delights us, evoking roars of laughter or tears of sympathy. Really good stories teach essential life lessons. Like how Little Red Riding Hood taught us that if grandma suddenly develops lots of facial hair, sharp teeth and a deep voice, it’s best to start running. Fast.
As our brains develop, we grow from simply listening to stories to telling our own:
‘No Mommy, it wasn’t me that ate the cookies. It was…. err… the dog!‘
From this starting principle, we can see how some people are better than others at storytelling. They are often the ones that hold to the theory of:
‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!’
These are the storytellers that do not hesitate to embellish facts in order to increase the entertainment value of a story. What was originally a quiet night out with two friends and a couple beers now sounds like the script for the next Hangover sequel. Yes, Mike Tyson still wants his tiger back.
Although some are better than others, we are all storytellers. And the stories we tell have an important impact on our happiness and outlook on life.
We Are All Storytellers
We all tell stories and the most important stories we tell are our own life stories. Our life stories are essentially our way of describing and explaining the events that happen to us. They include our successes and failures, enjoyable and disagreeable experiences, times of joy and sadness. They may not be stories we’ve ever told aloud, or even stories that we remember creating.
For example, one of your life stories is the one that summarizes your childhood. There may not be many events in this story, other than the time you ate all the cookies and blamed the dog, but you will have an overall theme. Your overall theme could be that you had a happy childhood. Or a neglected one.
Storytelling adds context and meaning to the events in our lives. They become a part of our identity, forming the basis for our attitudes, beliefs and outlook on life. Similar events happening to different people will result in different stories, depending on their style of storytelling.
Being able to tell a good story is important because it allows us to make sense of the events in our lives and find opportunities to learn and grow.
What Makes A Good Story?
Here are 5 key elements that make up good storytelling.
1) Stories that make it past the first draft
First drafts are rarely good ones
As any good author will tell you, their bestselling novel was not written in one draft. Why not? Because the first draft was a mess – a bunch of random thoughts and ideas, likely a series of inconsistencies in the storyline and not to mention a ton of typos and grammatical errors.
And as we all know, good grammar can be the difference between a story that makes sense and one that is just.. wrong. A good example:
‘My three favorite things are eating my family and not using commas.’😬😂
The final product, that great story that sold millions of copies, was not the first draft. It was the result of re-writing, editing, restructuring and re-doing hundreds and perhaps thousands of drafts.
So why is it that with the important stories of our lives we often leave them at the first (or close to first) draft? We may retell the story a thousand times, but we essentially retell the same first draft.
Here are some common “first draft” stories themes, along with some examples in the context of a long-term relationship that didn’t work out:
- Stories where you are the victim / innocent party: your partner was to blame for everything that went wrong, s/he was a bad person
- Stories where events happen to you: I have bad luck, I keep meeting the wrong kind of guy / girl, the world is an unfair place
- Stories where there is no explanation: we just didn’t get along, it just didn’t work out, I don’t know what went wrong
- Stories which are based on unbalanced or unrealistic concepts: love requires that I sacrifice myself, being unhappy is normal in a relationship, I can only get what I need by demanding it
Most first drafts miss a number of important points
Your first draft may well contains some essential truths. In your relationships, your partner may well have been awful and you are the better person. But by not going beyond the first draft, you’re also missing some additional important elements. For example, why you stayed in a relationship with someone that didn’t treat you well.
If we don’t review our first drafts with the advantage of time, perspective and greater clarity, we miss the opportunity to see the big picture, add context and learn from the experience.
Bad first drafts limit our ability to see the potential in ourselves or other
At times the first draft may contain far more falsehood than truth. For example, say you had a bad experience in your first singing class – perhaps the teacher embarrassed you, your friends made fun of you or your parents told you “Singing isn’t in the family genes. Now please be quiet so I can watch Cats in peace!”.
As a result, your first draft story is “I am a bad singer... even watching Cats is better than hearing my songs“.
This may have had no truth in it, but because you kept to the first draft you don’t sing anymore. A good story always leaves room for plot twists and character development – but you need to go beyond the first draft.
You’re likely still relying on first drafts from your childhood
Often a number of our important stories are based on concepts that we drafted in our childhoods, without being aware of doing so. We then continue to rely on these unconscious first drafts through our adulthood.
For example, perhaps as a child you “learned” that to be loved required always being well-behaved and requiring anything in order to please your parents. Your first draft was “Love requires that I don’t ask for anything“.
Or perhaps you were the child that “learned” that the best way to get attention was to throw a screaming tantrum. Your first draft was “Love requires that I call attention to myself“.
Now as an adult, your unbalanced concept of “love” is going to be reflected in your relationships. For example, if you are often not treated well in your relationships, this could reflect the fact that you do not set boundaries or ask for what you want, based on your concept of what “love” requires.
With the benefit of maturity, we need to revisit and re-draft the stories we have written in our childhoods.
2) Stories that are reflective
‘Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.’Confucius
An important part of storytelling is the opportunity to reflect on the events, as well as to express and process your emotions.
Often the first draft of a story will only contain the initial raw reactions – hurt, anger, confusion, fear, loss of confidence. However with time and reflection, as well as the ability to process the resulting emotions, greater meaning can be drawn from the experience.
Sharing your story
Sharing your story with people you trust can be an important part of reflection. When you share your story, you can get outside feedback and highlight gaps and inconsistencies. Sharing with others helps you create a more comprehensive and balanced story.
Choosing the right audience for your stories is important. They need to be trustworthy, non-judgmental and capable of providing objective and compassionate feedback. If you don’t have someone to talk to, that’s ok – writing down your story can also be very beneficial.
The important element of sharing your story is to be able to reflect on the events that happened to you and learn from them. It is also an opportunity to express and process the related emotions. Doing this can be extremely beneficial for your health.*
It is important to note that sharing does not mean complaining / venting. If you are just repeating the events (for the umpteenth time), if you are drinking, swearing and / or shouting, chances are you are just venting.
*James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist, has devoted years to researching the positive impacts of writing and sharing stories. You can find out more in his book “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions“.
3) Stories that are balanced
No-one is perfect, including you
‘By not admitting your mistakes, you are admitting you will repeat them in the future.’
When things don’t work out, it is normal to want to blame other people or events. However if your stories tend to be overbalanced in blaming others (“I don’t have problems, it is all my ex’s that have problems!”), you miss the chance to work on something that is improvable – your own mistakes and shortcomings.
It is difficult to admit one’s mistakes and contribution to a problem. However, mistakes provide valuable information as to what does not work for you. Only by recognizing them can you gain experience to make better decisions in the future.
Likewise, your story should not be overbalanced in allocating blame to you. This does not provide you with a fair or realistic base to improve on. It’s one thing to realize some things you did wrong and work on changing them, it’s another to say that you as a person are a failure.
There is more than one side to every story
Balanced stories acknowledge the different perspectives of different characters.
Recognizing the difficulties and emotions of the other parties adds a better understanding of the larger picture. This does not mean you need to make excuses or justify bad behavior. It is simply the recognition that there are very few evil villains in life, but there are many imperfect humans.
Don’t focus only on the negative
There are going to be times when life is difficult and unfair. It’s natural to be unhappy during this times. However, telling a story that only focuses in the negative means you are less likely to find anything useful from those experiences. It may also sabotage your chance to move on to better experiences.
Common styles of overly negative storytelling include:
- (i) Exaggerating: my entire life is awful, my ex was a completely terrible person
- (ii) Overgeneralizing: I always make the worst choices
- (iii) Catastrophizing: I will never recover from this
- (iv) Personalization: this is all because of me
One of the greatest dangers of a negative style of storytelling is that it often becomes self-fulfilling. If you only see and expect the worst from life, most likely you will find it.
It is important to try and provide balance in your story, rather than focus only on the negative.
4) Stories that provide a “why”
‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’Nietzsche
The best stories allow you to make sense of the important events in your life and provide a “why”.
It can be challenging to find meaning from the difficult events in your life, particularly when you have no control over them. Life can be unfair and at times bad things happen that make no sense. Therefore the important question is not “Why did this happen to me?” (although this can be useful, particularly if you notice a pattern in your life).
The “why” of your story is best described as “Why I want to keep going” and “What I have learned from this experience“
For example – you’ve come out of a bad relationship in which you tried your best but your partner didn’t appreciate you (you could also substitute “relation” for “job” and “partner” for “boss”). What is the “why”?
By knowing your capacity to be a great partner, even in a difficult relationship, your “why” could be the desire to find someone that appreciates you and that can likewise be a great partner to you. That is, “To find someone better next time because I am worthy of better”.
The “why” also includes what you have learned and how you’ve grown from the relationship. This could be the importance of choosing someone that appreciates you and the necessity of ending a relationship if they do not.
5) Stories that allow change & growth
We tend to want to tell stories that are consistent. That is, we like our stories to agree with our earlier stories and pre-existing views of ourselves. This avoids the discomfort of needing to confront conflicting views of ourselves.
For example, if I see myself as a good person, but one day I do a bad thing (such as eat all the cookies), I will tell myself a story that excuses my behavior (the dog would have eaten the cookies if I hadn’t), allowing me to keep seeing myself as a good person.*
The problem with maintaining consistency in our stories is that it can limit our ability to change, try new things, grow and accept all of the parts of ourselves (including the not so good parts of us). For examples, stories such as “I am a shy person and could never speak in public” or “I’m just not the sort of person who could do that“.
By telling ourselves stories that limit our ability to change, we convert reflections of the past into self-fulfilling prophecies for the future.
Our stories should not limit our potential for growth or rigidly define the person we are.
*In psychology this is called cognitive dissonance and explains why people can always reasons to justify their actions.
Be A Good Storyteller
Whether you knew it or not, you’re a storyteller and the stories you tell are important. Taking the time and effort to tell our stories well is not easy but is incredibly beneficial.
A good story does not need to have a happy ending, but should be one that helps you to move forward and find the story that will. 💛
‘You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.’C.S. Lewis