A 30-Word Map Informs a Successful Story Journey
The secret of telling a great story is being able to describe it in a single sentence. Sarah Austin Jenness, executive producer for The Moth, refers to that single sentence as a story fingerprint. The sentence becomes the map for your story journey.
Advice abounds on storytelling. Much of it is sound. But between advice and a satisfying story is a large, scary abyss.
Jenness’ suggestion is a useful guide. She says a good six-minute Moth story takes listeners on a journey starting with a question or problem and ending with an answer or resolution. But six minutes can turn into a maze without a map. Plotting a story in a sentence of 20 to 30 words can be that map.
“Within six minutes, you have to transport us,” Jenness explains. “I like to say that storytelling is like driving a car. You’re behind the wheel and the audience is in the passenger seat. We are inside the journey with you. You’re not talking about it, you’re in it.”
You are not only in an original story, you are the only person with the experience to tell it, according to Jenness. “‘Why only I can tell that story ’is what makes it a fingerprint’ You have to ask yourself what makes your story stand out from others.”
“it’s much harder to tell a story in six minutes because you have to get to the heart of it very quickly,” Jenness says. “You must let us know what’s at stake. Why do we care? And if you don’t have that within the first couple of beats, you run the risk of losing an audience.”
Story length is a variable but not one that negates the formula suggested by Jenness. Shorter stories can be faster paced. Longer stories can contain more detail. But both need a throughline that holds audience attention. That’s the purpose of the story map – the single sentence summary.
Story maps are commonly used to teach children how to interact with stories. These educational story maps create boxes for characters, settings, problems and resolutions. The boxes deconstruct a story to help young students understand its meaning. Jenness’ story map is intended to do the opposite – to transform a story idea into a satisfying journey.
Jenness insists everyday events can transform into epic tales told by skillful storytelling. Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routines are basically a series of short stories about everyday oddities that he converts to comedy. Tina Fey is a master of making awkward situations funny and relatable. You don’t have to be a world-class comedian to dazzle people with your story.
Storytelling is a valuable skill because stories are an increasingly dominant form of communication, even in our contemporary digital world. Blogs, podcasts, even some TV ads rely on skillful storytelling, in formats ranging from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.
The story map can be developed on your mobile phone, a whiteboard, the back of a menu or toilet paper, wherever you are most creative.
Imagine the story fingerprint for Progressive Insurance’s ad series featuring Flo and actor Jon Hamm: Flo rekindles relationship with Jon from a blind date through dinner to Flo saying she is in love with insurance. An efficient 20-word story map of a multi-episode ad campaign. Or how about Love It or List It: Homeowners choose between a house Hillary resurrects from a trash heap and a dream house David finds that the homeowners can afford. Every episode follows the same map, with the audience left guessing which outcome the homeowners will choose.
Telling good stories is an art, not an art form. You don’t need to be an A-list comedian or famous novelist to spin a tale worth hearing to make an audience laugh, cry or think. It just takes care, patience, practice – and a story map. Anybody can draw a story map if you take the time to figure out where to start, what route to take and how you reach the final destination.
The story map can be developed on your mobile phone, a whiteboard, the back of a menu or toilet paper, wherever you are most creative. You can type it, scribble it or draw it with a crayon. How you create the map is less important than what you create in 30 words or less.
P.S. Story maps aren’t written in stone. They can change. But don’t let the detail of your story derail you from telling the story as economically and powerfully as possible. That’s the purpose of the story map. That’s why you should plot a story map before writing your story.