5 places for finding great stories

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Have you resolved to buff up your writing by including more stories in it? Here, I give you five solid suggestions for places to find great stories.

I’ve written this newsletter for five years now, and while I’m always nervous when I send it out, I’m invariably thrilled by the emails I receive from readers. (I don’t even mind the odd snarky one — after all, I do need to be kept honest!)

Last week’s issue — on why we all should include more stories in our writing — filled my in-basket with comments. One of my faves came from a friend who noticed that I’d begun that column with a story.

Perhaps you’d realized this too. And maybe you’ve even noticed that I’ve just done it again. Started with a story, that is.

Story-telling is one of the most important tools a writer can use. I mention this at every speech and workshop I give, and to every client I coach, but it doesn’t always sink in. I think many of us had story-telling beaten out of us in school. “Don’t gossip,” we were told in the play yard. “Don’t be personal,” we were instructed on our essays. “Just stick to the facts.”

But, the fact is, story-telling works for all of the reasons I outlined in last week’s column. Assuming you accepted my argument, what you need now is some advice on exactly where to find those stories.

Here are five great spots:

1)   Look at your own life. I do this all the time. You can see it in my weekly newsletter (my kids, my husband, my house, my flute lessons) and if you saw my other bits of writing you’d find it there too. For example, I once was hired to write a speech for a big name CEO. I was excited but the man was so colourless, “beige” would be too exciting a word for him. We spoke for more than an hour and I couldn’t extract a single story or anecdote from him.

Knowing that speeches require stories, I simply inserted one of my own. The topic of the speech was on being “visionary” (yes, ironic for someone who was bland) so I told the story of an apple orchard I’d visited where growers put stencils on the apples while they ripened and could therefore have sunshine burnish company logos on the fruit. The CEO had never seen this orchard (and I didn’t claim that he had), but it still made a perfect little story for his speech.

In terms of using these stories, my best piece of advice is, if you can, start with the story and then figure out a way in which you can use it. Working the other way round (i.e.: having the topic and trying to find the story), is sometimes a recipe for frustration.

2)   Make up a story using “imaginary” people. I suggest this to writers when they (usually wrongly) feel their own life is bereft of stories. The only important trick here, is to be honest the story is made up. You could say something like, “Imagine being six years old and moving to a new city. It’s the first day of school and as you walk into the new classroom you don’t know a single person and you feel chomped alive by the butterflies in your stomach. What do you do to break the ice? How do you feel?” That imaginary anecdote might introduce an article on accepting change.

3)   Look to other people’s lives. Okay, let’s imagine I accept your crazy premise that nothing interesting ever happens to you. But surely it happens to other people you know. Talk to your family — your father, mother, brothers, sisters, your own kids — surely some of them have interesting stories. And what about your friends? Recycle and reuse the anecdotes from the people you know best.

4)   Check out popular culture.If you’re still striking out in your story-finding mission, then turn to places that cannot disappoint: Books, movies, TV programs, even cartoons. I began last week’s newsletter simply by recounting a cartoon from the New Yorker. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

5)   Finally, if you’re really lazy or super-strapped for time, check out the Internet. There are many great stories (some sad, some funny, some horrific) on fmylife (I’m not going to tell you what the F stands for, but you can guess). Or you can do a YouTube search on the word “stories.”

There are eight million stories in the naked city. Use one of them today.