How to Tell a Great Story
How to Tell a Great Story
The purposes of the beginning, middle, and end
To tell stories well (biblical stories or otherwise), make sure they have a beginning, middle, and end. This is especially true of the lean stories, lasting from one to five minutes, that we normally use in sermons. Each part — beginning, middle, and end — is essential, each different in purpose.
The beginnings of lean stories have three fundamental purposes.
1. Orient hearers. We must provide a minimum of information that sets the story in time and place. Who are the people that begin the story? Where and when is the story happening?
When hearers get insufficient information, they are distracted and often frustrated. They won't fully follow the story or appreciate the story's resolution (Ever see the first Mission Impossible movie?).
However, too much information bogs the story, diminishes interest, and frustrates hearers. Give no more information than necessary. From beginning to end, a story needs movement.
"Jesus said: 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.' "
In the two-sentence beginning of this lean story, Jesus gives the minimum information hearers need. How many children "the man" had, what his name was, what he looked like — none of that affects the point of the story, so Jesus omits it.
Audiences like to know whether a story is fact or fiction, so with true stories include specific names and dates, conveying authenticity. With imagined stories tip off hearers with a phrase like "The story is told of..." or "In a certain town, a man lived with his elderly mother. We'll call him Bill..."
2. Establish the complication. Complication (also variously called conflict, disequilibrium, tension, problem) is what makes a story a story. A mere chronicle of events is not a story: "I went to the store. I bought some eggs. I came home. I watched TV. I went to bed."
A story has plot, and a plot has dramatic tension. "Yesterday morning I went to the store, and when I walked into the fruit section I realized I had forgotten what my wife asked me to pick up for her. Uh oh, I thought. She's away from the phone all day, and tonight we're having her parents over for dinner."
We must establish the complication in the beginning of the story, because that is what gets attention and interest, and that is where the significance of the story begins.
When possible, though, we precede the complicating event with a brief description of what was happening before things got sticky. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..." This sets up a dramatic contrast. Disequilibrium feels more jarring if listeners have had at least a brief sense of equilibrium. Stories go the full cycle: from normal circumstances to problematic, then to reversal and resolution, and then back to normal.
Be careful, though, to keep this setup brief, without telling some of the ending in the beginning and thereby letting all the tension out of the story. "Yesterday we had my wife's parents over for dinner, and my neighbor, who always has what I need, saved my neck. I went to the store in the morning, and when I walked into the fruit section..."
3. Show what motivates the key person. This adds interest and depth to a story. When hearers know why the main person in the story dearly wants to resolve the complication, it increases the tension and the sympathies of the hearer for that person. In other words, hearers care more about what happens.
"Yesterday morning I went to the store, and when I walked into the fruit section I realized I had forgotten what my wife asked me to buy for her. Uh oh, I thought. She's away from the phone all day, and tonight we're having her parents over for dinner. Now, my wife's parents have not spoken to me in four years, ever since I made a sarcastic remark about their perfectionist tendencies at a Thanksgiving dinner."
When presenting characters, remember that no one is all good or all bad, perfect in faith or doubt. Real-world ambiguity adds authenticity to the story and keeps it interesting.
"Now, my wife's parents have not spoken to me in four years, ever since I made a sarcastic remark about their perfectionist tendencies at a Thanksgiving dinnerÂ—ironically, they had forgotten to bring the apple pie."
One exception to this is when you turn the tables on what hearers expect. "A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him."
The middle of a lean story has two basic purposes, which I will discuss together.
(1) Prepare for and (2) present a strong reversal. The reversal is the action, insight, decision, or event that triggers the climax. In some stories, the reversal is the climax; in others the reversal leads directly into the climaxing scene that releases the tension of the story.
"But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him."
As the word reversal implies, it should have an element of the unexpected. Usually, the stronger the surprise, the stronger the story. But, a reversal should not be a complete surprise or entirely incongruous with what has come before; otherwise the story seems unreal. When needed, subtle foreshadowing can make for a more satisfying reversal and climax.
To prepare for the reversal, an effective middle narrates one or more failed attempts to resolve the complication.
"A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side."
If there are no failed attempts, the story ends with a whimper.
In addition, the middle prepares for the reversal by adding important information: chronicling the necessary chain of events leading to the reversal, adding necessary information about people, elaborating on the complication, introducing new people, foreshadowing the reversal. In terms of drama, the best preparation of all are elements that make the complication progressively worse.
"This dinner was so important I decided to do whatever it takes. I filled my shopping cart with salad items, fruits, meats, breads, desserts. Somehow we would be able to put a decent meal on the table with this mountain of food! But when I got to the checkout counter and reached for my wallet, my heart stopped: my pockets were empty. Had I dropped my wallet in the parking lot? Had I left it at home?"
The best stories prepare for and present the reversal and climax in a way that makes them understandable, believable, satisfying, moving. For that reason, the reversal and climax will usually be the most fully developed elements in the story. Here you often use the most dialogue, a fuller description of the setting, a prop that symbolizes an important element of the story, the most detailed chronicling of action (without going overboard and killing the pace). Fuller development conveys the message that this is the most important part of the story.
"He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "
The ending of a lean story has three basic purposes.
1. Present the climactic scene. The climax resolves the complication. If the reversal is not the actual climax, then the climax follows immediately on its heels and begins the end of the story.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the actions of the Samaritan are both reversal and climax.
2. Show consequences of the reversal and climax. In story parlance, this is called the denouement. Briefly show that the reversal and climax did result in a return to equilibrium. In addition, although the story has come full circle, show how people or circumstances have changed.
"That family dinner was a fiasco. Who would have thought it would end up with my father-in-law and me becoming great friends. Hardly a week goes by that he and I aren't on the phone about something."
3. Give a sense of closure. Make sure no loose ends hang from the story that leave people wondering. They will feel the story isn't over. But be careful not to touch the airplane down on the runway and then take off and land a few more times. Everything in the ending should be brief. The story has been told, the tension resolved, the consequences shown. End the story with one strong sentence that has a feeling of finality, and then bridge back into the flow of the sermon in one or two sentences.
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
Effective storytellers select from myriad available details which to include in a story and which to omit. Understanding the unique roles of the beginning, middle, and end will help you purposefully select the data that make for life-changing stories.
Does the beginning of my story
Does the middle of the story
Does the end of the story
To respond to the editor, click here.
Craig Brian Larson is editor of PreachingToday.com and Preaching Today audio, as well as pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago. He is co-author of Preaching That Connects (Zondervan, 1994).