1. A Story fulfills its purpose, and that purpose is relevant for the audience.

When you tell a story, the audience’s expectation is that there is a reason you are telling it.  There is relevance for the listener.  The story, by its nature, suggests a problem that it answers, and this action fulfills the compact of the story. The problem is always a variation of “this story is important for you to know.” You don’t have to convince the reader of this truth, since it is the nature of the story itself. This compact simply exists.

You may not explicitly know this relevance as you are developing your story, you may act on intuition, and some might say the story should archive the discovery process itself, but once you present the work, you know explicitly that the story fulfills its purpose, it is relevant, and it is important somehow that an audience reads it.

As the reader begins, the reader understands the story’s compact.  She might not know the explicit purpose, but she feels secure that eventually she will. This feeling of security remains so long as the reader discovers that each piece of information accrues and continues to be relevant to the story. Finally the reader arrives at the end, and feels the sense of completion of the tale.

This idea of story holds regardless of the nature of our story and whether we are dealing with characters or ideas.  For example, In Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Gladwell suggests that we don’t understand how the spread of viruses informs the spread of social trends and that there is something important to be gained from knowing this. At the end, we do understand the connection and see how it is important.  We feel satisfied that the compact has been fulfilled. That the story answers its problem is the story’s unity, and the sense of unity is meaning.

2. In a story, you are not relating an experience, you are creating an experience.

In writing there isn’t a more important concept than this one.  We must create an experience for the reader.

The past is the past, but the story exists in the telling (or reading) in the here and now as an act of language, a living bridge between teller and listener.  You create something on the page that the reader experiences when reading, as she moves from beginning through middle to end. It is this present experience that the reader wants. T.S. Elliot wrote that the poem was an “objective correlative,” which was his way of saying that the poem (or any piece of writing )is the object that creates the emotion in the reader.  The emotion in the reader, or as I’d term it, the experience for the reader, is the “objective.”

A little complicated and philosophical coming from Eliot, but we’ve all had this experience.  It is the feeling we have when we get to that last line, that last word.  We read it and we go “Ah!” When we, as authors, realize that this is the intention of our work, a lot changes.  No longer to we get to tell the reader what to think.  We have to make them feel, and you don’t do that through content, but through design.

As an example, we might tell a joke but we cannot tell our audience that it is funny.  That’s up to them. We know we want the audience to laugh.  We create the context and prime our audience by saying, “OK, OK. Get this.” We design a set up.  We set a pace and rhythm.  And then after a complex equivalency of anticipation and pay-off, we deliver the punch-line (notice beginning, middle, and end).  The joke is the concrete thing that correlates to our abstract objective, to create the emotion, in this case joy expressed through laughter.  If we tell the joke well, we achieve this objective.

How we choose, structure, and shape our words as we move from beginning to end creates the experience of reading.  We order and emphasize certain things in the story and deemphasize others, structuring what comes first and second—not for the purpose of relating the facts of history, but for the purpose of creating a pleasurable experience in reading, giving information to readers when they need it in order to fulfill the purpose of the story.  This purpose is the feeling of satisfying emotional and intellectual fulfillment the reader has as they read the last word.

3. When we produce an emotional response in our audience, we suggest the universality of humankind.  

Ok this is big, but stick with me.  The tale is the concrete manifestation for the abstract emotion we wish to evoke within our audience. The way a story works is that we provide the reader with a designed experience in the from of structured information.  The reader comes to conclusions based on this experience and those might be intellectual, emotional, or both—these might be the feelings of satisfaction, wholeness, meaning that we’ve mentioned before.  It might be something else, but it must be something.  We have control over the information and structure of the tale but we cannot dictate the emotion that is drawn from it. We produce it through skillful story-telling.

The reader’s satisfaction comes partly through the act of reading itself and partly through the accrual of information as it develops into meaning. At the end of our story, the reader learns something, feels something, and that suggests to us that events accrue into meaning, and even suggests that life might accrue into meaning, and this allays our anxiety and that seemingly persistent suggestion that life might not.  This is why we will read happy or sad stories, what Aristotle would call Comedies or Tragedies, and why either can be an enjoyable experience for us—and why books that simply inform us of truth, happily or sadly, also essentially leave us feeling satisfied.

While we might evoke any emotion we wish in our reader, the medium is the message, and stories confirm that human beings are emotional instruments who behave and respond in knowable ways.  We can choose the specifics of our work—that reflects our individuality, but a well told story works not just with one person but with everyone because we’re all human and our base of emotional response is the same. The story-telling act confirms our universal connection.

4. We know stories in our bones. 

We need to become good story-tellers if we want to be listened to or read. If the experience of reading our tale is not enjoyable, if it is not compelling and dynamic, if it is confusing, irrelevant, annoying, or condescending our audience will gladly seek other things to do with their time, and who can blame them?

That said, we all know a good story when we hear it, and stories have been around for a long time.  They spring from us naturally and respond to truths we all know. Learning to write well, to effectively win over an audience, to do work of importance and relevance, even to achieve great personal growth—that’s all possible, and possible for everyone. We were born to tell stories. Good story-telling comes first from loving ourselves and then loving others—it is the desire, I feel, to connect with humanity and the world that drives the story.  Keep that in mind. Our intentions are the very best. I believe it.