Storytelling lessons can come from the most unlikely places. I learned one of mine while attending my first National Football League game as a fourteen-year-old boy.

I remember the game as if it were yesterday. The Seattle Seahawks played the New England Patriots in the pouring rain. So much water had pooled on the astroturf that the groundskeepers used snowplows on pickup trucks as massive squeegees. I remember standing there at the end of the game, soaking wet, but rather than feeling miserable, I felt joy. The final score didn’t hurt, either. The Patriots won, 31-0.

My storytelling lesson came when Dad explained how he watched football games differently in a stadium.

“Television makes you watch what the camera is pointed at,” Dad said. “The action follows the football in the hands of skilled players like the quarterback, running back, or receivers.”

He handed me his binoculars and pointed to the line of scrimmage. “On this play, watch the linemen instead of the ball.”

The powerful lenses transported me into the middle of an amazing scene where 300-pound men collided with other 300-pound men, pitting strength against strength and will against will.

“Games are won and lost in the trenches,” Dad said. “Without their blocking and tackling, the skilled players can’t do their jobs.”

Beginner storytellers tend to craft their stories like television broadcasts, focusing on major characters as opposed to minor characters. And while a story’s excitement follows the major characters, master storytellers understand that the backbone of that excitement is set by those who battle in the trenches.

Minor characters make the story possible. They enhance major character’s traits. For example:

  • While we all loved listening to a charismatic Steve Jobs, he never would have become the leader of Apple without the support of the quiet and geeky Steve Wozniak.
  • Just as the game of football needs a field to play on, stories need settings (StoryHow PitchDeck #12). For example, the Cold War played an important role in NASA’s attempt to put an astronaut on the moon.
  • And just as a football game would be silly without a football, stories need props, like sacred cows (StoryHow PitchDeck #15), catalysts (StoryHow PitchDeck Card # 9) or pawns (StoryHow PitchDeck Card #10) to make the story that much more impactful.

Without minor characters, stories fall flat and their messages lack punch. If you want your audience to empathize with your customer hero, place her in danger by revealing a fatal flaw (SHPD Card # 11). If you want listeners to hate your antagonist, have him kick a puppy.

But be careful. Minor characters can also become distractions. While exchanging the binoculars with my Dad, my teenage brain found a particular group of minor characters infinitely more interesting than the linemen. I think they were called cheerleaders.


Photo: Library of Congress