Simplified Story System: Five steps to better stories

This is going to be a short post. I want to get into it straight away. Here is my simplified story system. Use these points to guide yourself to a better story.

The points are:

  1. Introductions
  2. Things go well
  3. Realisation
  4. Choice
  5. Aftermath

That’s the Simplified Story System. There you go. You can take the five points and stop reading now.

Do you want to know more?

Then you’re going to have to read on.

Before you and I get into it.

Some acknowledgements

First of all, I didn’t come up with this entirely on my own. This has come from years of research. Including reading books on writing. If I had to pick a small selection of those books, it would be The 7 Basic Plots, Save the Cat and Into the Woods (These are affiliate links).

If I had to pick the best storytelling resource that would be Lessons from the Screenplay.

To clarify, these are some examples off the top of my head. There is so much more material that I haven’t listed.

I’ve written a lot over the years. Screenplays, plays, books, blog posts. Much of it is bad and you won’t see the majority of it, ever.

I’ve absorbed tons of good and bad media too. I’ve listened to some fantastic storytellers. Heard many average storytellers and a couple of bad ones.

In short, I still haven’t a clue about what makes a story good.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ve put in years of work to be a better storyteller. I don’t know if I am better or ever will be but storytelling is something I love.

Now I want to pass on my findings to you.

You might be wondering what the catch is? No catch I just want better stories.

Still there?

Let’s go then.

Before you begin

Oh, one thing, story is something I could go on about forever. In efforts to keep this as short as possible, I’m not going to give examples of novels or films etc.

One final, final, final point before getting into the simplified story system.

You don’t have to be a writer to get something out of this post.

Anyone can make use of the system in other areas of life.

I’m listening to Helter Skelter on Audible. It’s a story about the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate murders as told by the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi.

Man, does he know how to tell a story? Then I thought, wait a minute, of course, he does. What is a criminal trial but a competition of who can tell the better story?

Stories are everywhere, advertisements board rooms, the dinner table. Once you realise everything is a form of story then all you got to do is get good at telling.

Story, what is it?

Simplified Story System
Turtles all the way down

You think that you know what a story is and that’s cool.

It’s something that happened to you. That’s a story, isn’t it?

Well not quite.

Do you ever find people’s eyes glaze over when you’re telling a story? You see their hands gliding across the table towards the phone? Endless fidgeting while you hold court?

Do you want to know something?

You’re not dull, it’s just that you can’t compellingly tell a story.

What is a story?

Let’s start off by working out what a story isn’t. A story isn’t a bunch of stuff that happened. That’s a shopping list.

Have you ever had someone take up your time with tales of how wonderful they are?

“Then we went to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then a photographer told me I should be a model. Then someone heard me singing and then I got a record contract.”

Was that as boring to read as it was to write?

Nobody wants to hear about how well your holiday went.

Tell me how you went to the wrong airport, tell me how your baggage went missing and the hotel double booked your room. Then tell me how you sorted it out or didn’t.

If you find yourself using the phrase “and then” frequently when telling a story, I have news for you. That’s not a story, that’s a shopping list. You may as well read from the phone book.

Here’s a quick list of things that seldom make for good stories:

  • Dreams (unless it reveals some latent desires you might have you, kinky devil)
  • Pets (unless it’s about you having to borrow Carlson’s Luger)
  • Babies (unless they do something, i.e. knock over an urn containing grandmas ashes)
  • Holidays (unless terrorists take over the villa I’m having a siesta)
  • Disgusting stuff* (it better happen to some snob who needs taking down a peg or two)

Things going well isn’t a story.

Story, in essence, is as follows:

Through overcoming or failing to overcome a challenge, you came to a more profound realisation about yourself and the world.

That is story, simplified.

*If you repeatedly tell disgusting stories people will think you’re a disgusting person.

Simplified Story System

Through trying and failing to tell stories better, I made a discovery.

What I’m about to share with you has been a game-changer for me.

Now I don’t expect you to convert to my way of thinking immediately. In fact, if anything, you’re more likely to reject my hypothesis and seek out exceptions to prove me wrong.

What will happen is you’ll find is that you notice my simplified story system show up more and more. One day you might even message me to tell you that I was right. To be honest, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Even now, think about what I’m telling you and think back to some of your favourites stories. They could be movies, plays, books, even fairy tales.

I guarantee, on some level, the five-point simplified story system is at play.

Here it is again.

  1. Introductions
  2. Things go well
  3. Realisation
  4. Choice
  5. Aftermath

Now, I can hear your thoughts, “Kieran you’re going to have to provide a bit more detail”.

OK let’s get into it. First a quick story and then a breakdown.

A super short story: The Grandad

My grandad developed a cough. It drove my granny up the wall, she sent him to the doctor. The doctor gave him medicine and a check-up to be on the safe side.

After a few weeks, the cough disappeared. My granddad went back to the doctor to tell him he didn’t need to top up his prescription.

That was when the doctor told him there was a massive tumour in his brain. The surgery would be risky.

Grandad could either enjoy the time he had left or opt for the surgery. At his age, it might kill him. Grandad went for the surgery. It was touch and go but he pulled through.

Grandad has lost some of his mobility but he’s making a recovery.

Breakdown

  1. Introductions: This is where you set up everything relevant. The key players, the setting, tone. If someone gets shot in your story mention a gun in this section.
  2. Things go well: Everything goes according to plan. You’re having a ball, you didn’t know it would be this easy. This story is ending before it began.
  3. Realisation: Here you go, you get a flat tyre, you’ve been robbed. Things are going to get worse before they get better. The good news is you’ve stopped the coughing, the bad news is the scans show the cancer, and it’s spreading.
  4. Choice: There’s a choice to be made. Let’s continue our analogy of the patient. Do you perform risky surgery, or do you let the patient die? A good story will have a choice between two bad options. A choice between do you want to be a millionaire or have your limbs amputated isn’t a choice.
  5. Aftermath: The last point of your story deals with what happens after the choice has been made. This tends to be the shortest section of your story. Now that’s not always the case. There are some great stories which have extended aftermath (I’ll mention them in a different post). Most of the times they’re short. Let’s go with the patient again. “They died on the operating table” or “The surgery was long, but they removed the tumours, and the patient is making a full recovery”.

That’s my simplified story system.

Would you like to know more?

You can use the simplified story system to work out your scenes within the story. It’s a Russian Doll. The biggest doll is your overall story, the next one down is your scene and the next one down is your beat. It’s the five points repeated over and over.

This was the game-changer for me.

Here’s another beautiful thing about the simplified story system, it’s not just for stories. The more eagle-eyed of you will notice that I use this system to structure my blogs.

I’ve also used this in my limited forays into stand up.

Natural born storyteller

“I can’t tell a story to save my life” I hear you on the other side of the screen.

Here’s the thing, storytelling is genetic.

Now I don’t mean that in the way that you think. I don’t mean some people got it some people don’t. I mean storytelling is genetically in our collective conscious.

Think about it this way, you and I are descended from those who survived. They took their tale of survival and turned them into entertaining lessons for the rest of the tribe.

You’re a much better storyteller than you give yourself credit for.

The Simplified Story System is trying to assert itself even if you’re not entirely aware.

Even I wasn’t fully aware. I know I said no examples but listen to some Mental Deficiency songs. I wrote the lyrics and have only this year realised the simplified story system is present.

Apply the simplified story system and take your storytelling to the next level.

4 – Accept or reject?

Do you accept or reject the simplified story system?

Again it has been a game-changer for me. It has helped when structuring my own writing or even when talking to people. I know if I hit the five points, there’s a better chance of me engaging with people. I can maintain interest and hopefully strengthen the bond.

Please consider yourself warned that I have brainwashed myself into seeing this pattern.

You may think that I’m full of shit. You might be on to something.

5 – Conclusion

You want me to recap the simplified story system?

You don’t?

Tough luck cause here it comes again:

  1. Introductions
  2. Things go well
  3. Realisation
  4. Choice
  5. Aftermath

I hope that you take from this what you need and discard the rest. How a story is told is always changing. If you have an example of an outlier, I’m dying to know.

Again I hope you find this helpful. Whether you use this or not, may this guide you on your journey to becoming a better storyteller.

I can’t wait to hear your story someday.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Have a great day,

Kieran

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