A Tale of Two Storytellers

“I have an idea for a book I want to write.”

It was Thanksgiving, and the family was all together. My dad and brother were in the room – both writers like me – and I wanted to share my great story idea.

“A boy grows up with an inventive father. The dad’s always creating new contraptions – kind of like a wacky Willy Wonka character. But one day, the dad finds out his father died. He’s thrust into a depression, and the boy has to figure out how to relate to his dad. All seems lost until one day the dad discovers a treasure map…”

“Hold on,” my brother interrupted. “What’s the inciting incident in this story?”

My frustration manifested tight lips and a red face. “Just. Uh. Just listen to the story.”

“Every good story has an inciting incident, Jonathan. Something needs to happen that thrusts the main character into the struggle,” my brother explained.

That’s my brother. He can master any skill through study. So he’s all about proper form. Me, I tend to only do things that come naturally. I’m more into the magic of creativity and less into the structure and rules.

Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? Are you a structure person? Or a magic person?

The thing is: The rules do matter. As much as I’m tempted to reject it, structure is important, especially in storytelling. It helps the listener follow along. We all know there will be reversals of situations, it’ll go from bad to worse, from worse to better, from horrible to resolved. Or foreshadowing – it helps us prepare for what otherwise might have come out of left field and lost us somewhere along the way.

Structure keeps your audience in the story.

At the same time, structure doesn’t make the story memorable. I’ve heard thousands of stories that follow structure beautifully. But I don’t remember them. Instead, I remember the stories that include a little magic in them. They’re the ones that deviate from the norm. They take an unexpected turn at just the right time. I’m following…following…when suddenly it grabs me and I find myself in a completely unexpected space. It’s the intentional break from convention that makes it stick in my head.

The break from convention makes a story memorable.

Again, I ask you, which side of the spectrum do you identify with?

Are you a little over-obsessed with structure? Let me encourage you to be intentional about breaking free from the structure every now and then. Put aside the rules and experience the magic of a great story. Don’t pick apart the arc, the inciting incident, or the three acts. Just sit in awe of the emotions you’re experiencing. Let that influence your own stories. Let the magic touch your audience with the unexpected.

Or maybe you’re a little over obsessed with the magic. You instead, need to start looking for the cues in the stories you love. Examine the structure. There’s beauty and magic even in the order. Effective storytelling doesn’t have to be such a complete mystery. There are universal structures that help us follow along. Don’t be afraid of the restrictions of good storytelling.

I’ve found great art happens within the tension of two extremes. It’s the confluence of science and faith. It’s in the collision of rules and magic. It’s in the rubber-band tautness of following and breaking rules simultaneously.

That’s when the story will grip your audience and stick with them beyond the final frame.

Jonathan Malm is a creative entrepreneur and writer. He is the author of "Created for More", a 30-day devotional to help you develop a more creative mind. He's also the editor of Sunday| Magazine, an online magazine for creatives in the church. Visit his website or follow Jonathan on Twitter.