Here are some questions and bits of advice that might be helpful when writing a story to tell at The Story Collider. Two really important points first:

  • There’s a lot here. Don’t feel the need to hit every point or think about everything while writing. Glance through it, take what seems helpful and come back if you get stuck.
  • Like with all writing rules, there are plenty of good stories that break these. The point is not that these are universally true, but that they’re a good starting place. If you really want to break one, make sure you have a reason.

1) What’s the event?

The strongest stories usually focus on a specific event. One day everything went wrong, one night where it all came together, one diagnosis and the aftermath. Occasionally stories that try to cover an entire career can work spectacularly, but they tend to be much harder to write in a way the keeps the audience hooked.

2) What changed?

How did you, the storyteller, change from the beginning of the story to the end? What is your character arc? This can be a lot of things:

  • Did your relationship with someone else change? A parent, lover, adviser, child, a stranger?
  • Did you understand something completely new about the Universe?
  • Did you understand something new about yourself?
  • Did you make the world better for someone else? Or worse?
  • Or for yourself?

3) What are the stakes?

Why does this matter? Why should the audience care? What would go wrong if you don’t succeed at the challenge in the story? You don’t need to spell this out explicitly in the story (although that’s often the right move), but you should know the answer. Will you be humiliated? Fail a life-long goal? Not be able to help someone you care about? Note that the audience doesn’t have to have a personal stake in the story themselves to care. It’s enough that whatever’s happening matters to you, but it has to be clear to them why it matters to you. This is especially important when the stakes are about a particular research question. It’s probably clear to you why finding the right snp is crucial to getting your PhD and proving your grad school nemesis wrong, but it isn’t to us. [As a sign of how important stakes are, this is why medical and cop dramas are perennially popular on TV. It’s easy (comparatively) to create high-stakes situations week after week.]

4) What’s the ending?

Knowing where the story ends is key to a strong delivery. (If you’d like, here’s a post explaining why.) Once the plot is over, the audience tends to tune out. Annoyingly, finding the right ending is also one of the hardest part of writing a story. When do we know everything turned out ok? (Or horribly?) When does the central question get answered? That should be very close to the end, if not the end itself. When in doubt, go with the last action. What was the last thing that happened?

5) Begin in the action.

Generally it’s best to start with something going wrong, even if you have to go back and explain how you got there. A long build-up will often lose the audience.

6) Sound like yourself.

It’s actually very hard to write in the same voice you use in conversation. This is why we recommend not memorizing a script, but making an outline and then using that to tell a story the way you would to friends at a bar.

7) 10 minutes!

Each story should be about 10 minutes long. How many words that is depends on how fast you talk, but for most people it's around 1,500 words. And yes, most stories on the podcast are more than 10 minutes long— that’s because if you write and practice for 10, it tends to be longer in the actual performance.