Storytellers Make Stuff Up (and that’s OK)



Storytelling works because our brains are in a perpetual state of assessing whether or not something makes sense to us. If we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something that defies our expectations, our brains churn until we somehow rectify the differences. The good news is that humans have an uncanny ability to fill this meaning-gap. The bad news is that they can fill it with ANYTHING–from pure logic to pure lunacy–because the meaning-gap is a breeding ground for things like superstitions and old wive’s tales.

Great storytellers anticipate and fill potential meaning-gaps before they form. For example, the movie Men in Black is based on a premise that aliens from outer space have not only been living among us secretly, but they’ve also been policed by a top-secret government organization. While this is a great premise to build a movie upon, it carries a potential flaw. Would an audience willingly believe that this huge secret could be kept from the public? To address this potential distraction, the script writers had to make something up.

Enter the memory eraser. With the ability to erase people’s memories, the government could then selectively remove an alien encounter from someone’s mind. Even though memory erasers don’t exist in real life, audiences were willing to suspend their beliefs for the duration of the movie.

But making stuff up isn’t limited to fiction. Storytellers in nonfiction communities like math and science make stuff up all the time. Consider the mathematical concept of the square root. To find the square root of 4, we ask ourselves, “What number, multiplied by itself, is 4?” The answer of course is 2, just as the square root of 9 is 3; square root of 16 is 4, and the square root of 10 is 3.162278…

So, what’s the square root of negative 4?  Wait. That’s impossible, right? Didn’t we learn in grade school that a negative times a negative is ALWAYS a positive? Well. yes and no. Although it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the situation occurring in the physical world, some mathematical equations require us to calculate square roots of negative numbers.

So, how did the mathematicians rectify the logical inconsistency? They not only made something up, but didn’t even try to hide the fact by calling the fictional device an “imaginary number.” No joke. They invented the number “i,” which when multiplied by itself is negative one (-1). Therefore, if you’re ever asked, the square root if negative 4 is “2i.”

“C’mon, Ron,” you might be saying, “That’s nonsense. They just made something up that has no bearing in the real world.”

Think so? Without imaginary numbers, communications engineers could have never designed things like cellular telephone networks.

Do you have a complicated concept to convey–one that may create more confusion than clarity? If so, consider making something up, like a memory eraser or an imaginary number. What device can you invent that conveys meaning while simultaneously filling a potential meaning-gap?


Photo Credit: Bunny, Rupert, Artist. Vaudvilles and other things by Bunny. , None. [New york: isaac h. blanchard co., between 1900 and 1910] Photograph.

Character Development isn’t just for Fiction Writers


Novice storytellers spend more time focusing on story-structure than developing their characters for two reasons. First, they think that character-development is only for fiction writers. Second, it’s infinitely easier to partition a sequence of events into beginning, middle, and end than it is to uncover the motivations of people who participate in those events.

People are the wildcards of any story because two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. One person can react in such a way that’s totally consistent with their personality, while a third-party observer can see those reactions as odd. For example, if a child is presented with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies, more likely than not, he or she will swipe a cookie or three. However, if the child does something unexpected, like cry, toss the plate on the floor, or pour barbecue sauce on them, the storyteller has now put a question in the listener’s mind. “Why did the child do that?”

Character development starts with studying everyday people. How do they react when they’re happy, sad, or under pressure? What are their belief systems? What gets them out of bed in the morning? The more you study, the more opportunity you have to find something unique enough to build a story around it.

Today, I wanted to share a little character development exercise. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to create the next Han Solo or Wonder Woman. Instead, I want you to think of the most influential people in your life. Perhaps it’s a family member, a sports legend, an author, or a leader.

Start by creating a table with three columns. Put the name of someone that you admire in the first column, followed by the role they played in your life in the second, and a lesson that you learned from them in the final column.

I’ve created the following one as an example.

  Name Role Lesson
1 Art Father Healthy skepticism produces a healthy outlook
2 Ralph Grandfather The best way to understand human nature is to study the actions of others
3 Flora Grandmother You only feel as old as the people you hang around with
4 Stan Grandfather Chess is life
5 Fred Uncle Creativity is seeing something in an object that others can’t
6 Richard Feynman Physicist If you can’t explain it to someone with a high school education, you don’t understand it yourself
7 Arthur Billionaire friend Good management is better than good luck
8 Mr. Reich Neighbor There are always two sides to every story
9 Mother Antonia Nun Don’t own too many things because they eventually own you
10 Wally Shirrah Astronaut Pushing the envelope is relative

Finally, think about that next story, presentation, or talk that you need to make. What do you need to accomplish with it? Go one-by-one through your table and see if there is something that you can use from the ten characters that you just listed.


Photo Credit: Characters in the new piece now poforming [sic] at the Theatre Royal Cotten Garden. England, 1820. London: Pub by John Marshall Junr. 24 Little St. Martins Lane, Nov. 6. Photograph.

The Story You Start is Rarely the Story You Tell


This morning I started writing a piece about President Lincoln’s use of language in the Gettysburg address. Instead, as happens frequently, I ended up writing something totally different.

You see, my muse is fickle. She arrives when she wants, and while I can’t predict her arrivals, I’ve learned that I can attract her through a simple act: writing…ANYTHING. She loves the rhythmic sound of fingertips striking a keyboard and if she’s in the mood, we start dancing.

But that’s when all bets are off. Any thoughts of continuing down the original story path are futile, as my suddenly invigorated fingertips struggle to keep up with a barrage of wild new ideas. Some are good and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. The thought-train is barreling downhill and my job is get out of its way.

That’s what happened when I started writing about the Gettysburg Address. As I studied an old photograph from the actual event, I wondered what the people in it were thinking. That’s when she arrived and steered me away from a linquistic story to a more historical one. The resulting rough draft wasn’t quite StoryHowish, yet, it still lead me to think more deeply about my own process.

Writing, as in storytelling, is not a linear process. No matter how hard you try to maintain a strait line from point A to point B, the muse forces course-corrections to F, then through W, and finally concluding at Z. Resisting such deviations leads only to frustration. Therefore, the measure of any skilled storyteller is the ability to put one’s ego aside to find the right story.

Have you set out to tell a story but find yourself blocked? Woo the muse with the call of the keyboard. Perhaps she’ll help you find a better path.

Now, let’s see if I can finish that piece on the Gettysburg address.


Photo Credit: Williams, Sophus, photographer. Woman Looking at Book as Another Woman Points to Something in the Book. , None. [Berlin: loescher & petsch ; verl. e. linde & comp. sophus williams between 1867 and 1873] Photograph.