Work on the first sentence the way you work on the headline/title
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Writing stories makes you want to get better at the process.
I’ve been writing stories for seven years and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. A book called “The Moth” was recently recommended to me.
I went to buy the kindle version of the book and something strange happened: I had already bought the book and never read it. I started reading the first chapter. I was instantly hooked. It’s not the book that grabs you. It’s the way the stories are told.
You literally can’t put the book down. What if, as writers, there is a format to telling stories that can cause this same sensation to happen to readers who devour your writing? Well, it can.
Brief backstory of The Moth
I first heard of “The Moth” when my friend suggested we go along and watch a few storytellers. She secretly wanted to tell her story. The idea is you attend a live open mic event based around a theme. If you want to tell your story, then you put your name in a hat before the show. If your name gets drawn, then you tell your story.
I never got to go with my friend. Getting into The Moth is incredibly hard. You need tickets and they sell out fast.
When I googled what The Moth was I was intrigued. They’re a non-profit organization seeking to teach others how to tell stories. They curate the best storytellers in the world to knock you flat on your face.
If you’re familiar with the photography project called “Humans of New York” then you’ll love The Moth. They tell stories that would otherwise be lost. That’s where the magic lies. It’s not another celebrity using a PR company to tell a B.S. story they can profit from. (God I hate PR.)
After years of operating, The Moth got into books. They took the best live stories and turned them into a book. The one I suggest you read is called “The Moth: Occasional Magic: 50 Stories of Defying the Impossible.”
Storytelling lessons from The Moth book
The first sentence changes everything
I know what happens after you die.
This is the first sentence of one of my favorite Moth stories. What you learn from Moth storytellers is how powerful that first sentence is. If you get hooked on the first sentence, you’re likely to keep reading.
I’m dying to know what happens after we die. Do we become another animal? Do we become the opposite type of human? For example, if you were rich in this life do you become homeless in the next life to teach you a lesson? Who knows.
Lesson: Work on the first sentence the way you work on the headline/title.
Start out with an unsuspecting narrative
Every single story in the book starts out the way many stories do. You think you’re going to be able to predict roughly what happens. It’s never the case. The book teaches you real magic — sleight of hand.
A good story is one you don’t expect. When you expect a story you’re unlikely to stick around and read it. Sleight of hand is fine in storytelling as long as you deliver a powerful story or lesson to the reader.
Take advantage of the goldfish tendency
Each story is short. The stories are highly edited.
Short stories require a low attention span. Humans are the new low-attention span goldfishes, thanks to smartphones. I found that I could snack on the book. I didn’t have to dedicate an entire week to the book. I could read one story a day. Think about how you can tell stories in less time. Does the reader really need chapters and chapters of content to get to the meat of the sandwich?
Books face a decline in popularity because they require so much time and attention to consume.
Short stories are more likely to be read from start to finish.
Make a bad situation good
Don’t. I’m okay with you being away and alive. It’s better than you being close and always in danger.
This is a quote from the story “Leave Baghdad” told by Abbas Mousa. His mother says this to him. It seems like an impossible situation no good can come from. Abbas leaves his hometown to live on the safer side of Baghdad during the Iraq War. After missing home, he returns to see his family.
One night he gets on a perfectly normal bus. This sentence scares the reader:
“Where are we going?”
And that’s when he gave me the evil face and said, “You’ll know once we get there.”
His mother was right. He should have been far away and safe rather than at home and risk being kidnapped. The bad situation becomes good. You’re not left thinking the world is evil. You’re left thinking bad things happen, but how we see them determines if they can be good. Abbas manages to use a bad story to create good instead of more evil.
This is the art of storytelling. Anybody can point out the bad. Not every person can be a storyteller who finds the good in every situation. The good is what helps the reader push through their own life challenges.
Organize sections with energy in mind
When you read an in-depth blog post or a book, your energy goes up and down. The Moth book shows another way.
The book is laid out with energy in mind.
The book starts with a high-energy story that will take your breath away. Then as the book progresses the energy of the stories goes up and down. Some stories make you quietly inspired. Some stories make you feel like you’ve just reached the top of Mt Everest.
Think about your story with energy in mind. A good song doesn’t stay at 100% volume the whole way through. Vary the volume of stories. Insert pockets of silence. Allow the reader time to reflect on their thoughts.
Add a subtle twist
Predictability is the death of a good story. It’s why the 4 Habits To Have A Happy Life articles rarely get read anymore. You already know what they’re going to list.
The Moth teaches the art of twists. Every story has a twist. Often, the storyteller will begin to explain a reality one way, and then take the opposite view. I do this in my writing. I convince a reader of a particular way to look at the world and then take the opposite side for a moment to provide context.
A twist in your story acts like a pattern interrupt. A story that interrupts a person’s natural way of thinking is remembered long after it is read. Twists are how lessons are taken away to be actioned later.
A twist enables the memory function of the brain.
Read “The Moth” to change how you tell stories
Stories inspire. Stories help people take action. Storytellers make more money from their content. Storytellers do better in their careers because they can captivate an audience and hold their attention. Storytelling is a life skill you can use to create hidden opportunities.
You can experiment with telling stories. Or you can read The Moth and see everyday people tell powerful stories you can learn from.
The purpose of a good story is to leave a reader better than they were before. You too can tell a story like that. Your stories have a lot of value. Storytellers are the real billionaires of life.