When your story is over, stop.
When people get to the end of their story, there’s a common impulse to say more – to explain what it means, to meditate on the success or failures, or to make clear the point that the story was trying to get across.
Resist that impulse. Resist it with everything you have.
This is far and away the most common note we give after seeing a first draft. Particularly in a stage show* the tension of “what will happen next?” is what drives the action forward. Once the story is over the audience tends to check out. The action is done, they can relax. Anything after that point feels like filler.
“The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it. The thing that had kept Joan going, the thing that had helped guide her hand at the last moment, was her faith in herself, despite all the doubters.”
At the end there is a moment, one chance that you have as a storyteller to hit the audience with everything you’ve put into the story. Done right, that moment is crystalized in the mind of everyone who saw it. That’s drained if you then take some time to explain what it was all about. After everyone is sure how it ends they’ll lean back in their chairs and whisper comments to their friends and you’ve lost them.
The flip side of that is that if you keep some suspense you can actually get quite a bit of material in.
“The dragon took a deep breath, and Joan flashed back to all the doubters – how they had questioned her and mocked her and told her she was a girl and could never kill a dragon. And she realized she didn’t care. She had never cared. That was true strength – not caring no matter what people said. And threw her sword with one strong motion, struck the dragon through the neck and killed it.”
Better, right? Now, don’t abuse that. You can’t keep the suspense up for a long dissertation, but you can get some really good stuff in there.
The best way, though, is to let the story carry the message on it’s own. To trust the audience to get the point:
“lots of great stuff showing doubters and mocking and they stole her lunch and we see her hurt by it and then start to ignore it and then the dragon comes and kills lots of people then…>. The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it.”
It’s fascinating how people’s desire to find the lesson can…. Oh… wait.
*I’m not an expert on written narrative nonfiction, so maybe it can work there – although Evan Ratliff and David Dobbs, among others, don’t think so.
Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He now writes and performs stories about science and being a scientist, and is a Moth StorySLAM champion. He is the co-founder and director of The Story Collider, where people are invited to tell stories of their personal experience of science, and is a former writer for TED.com.