A story begins when the world of a central character is thrown out of alignment. This triggers a call to action. The central character takes action in pursuit of the goal that will bring his/her world back into alignment. Without a story, we the audience could not connect to the central character nor to the storyteller. Which brings me to an important point: there is a specific structure to a well-told or well-crafted story. It begins with creating empathy for the central character. In fiction as well in life, can you skip this essential ingredient and have a story be as compelling without it? A writer once asked me this question. He was referring to the way we tell our true stories in order to give people a sense of who we are. He asked if he could tell his story by focusing on his strengths instead of his weaknesses.
As most of you know, I am a story/career consultant for writers. As if in support of his question, he brought up stories that I’ve shared at my seminars related to my two pivotal life moments: the end of a long relationship in a short marriage and the end of a career as a studio executive after fifteen years. To his question I answered this: in your pain lives your truth. When you allow your audience to see the wound that drives you, then you connect to your truth. Others may not directly relate with the specifics of your story but they do respond to the idea of pain and having to do the work to move past it. This makes them root for your success because they know what it’s like to be there.
I recently attended a seminar where the speaker announced, “Now, people say that when you share your story, you should open up about your weaknesses. I don’t believe this. I believe that you should share your unique abilities with the audience.” He went on to share all of the things that make him great. In my opinion, he lost the audience. Personally speaking, he lost me. I left the event half way through the first day and I did not return. The reason was because I did not identify with the speaker. He came from a place that did not allow me to truly see him. By doing this, he taught me a lot about the significance of positioning our stories. Luckily, there was a gift in the experience.
In fiction, a story starts by giving us a sense of what the “old world” looked like before the trigger incident turned the central character’s world upside down. When we know where a character was, we have a better understanding of what has to be done to bring their life back into alignment. This makes us feel empathy for their plight. It also makes us as an audience root for their success. By having a picture of what life was like before, we have a fuller view of the transformation that needs to happen on the path to bringing life back into alignment. This set up is crucial to the success of a well-told story.
In the 2011 film Warrior, we learn the story of two estranged brothers torn apart earlier in their lives. The brother who stayed with his mother was with her until her death. The brother who stayed with the father felt robbed of this moment. We clearly understand the wound that is driving each man. We feel empathy for both sides. While competing in a mixed martial arts tournament where the stakes are incredibly high, the underdog brother must confront the moment that tore him apart from his brother and do what needs to be done to close the rift. This story works in an incredible way because of how the writers – Gavin O’Connor and Anthony Tambakis – take the time to create empathy for both characters so that we understand the stakes that are driving them. This way, we root for their success.
I use this movie to illustrate the significance of creating empathy for central character(s) at the start of a story. When you do this in fiction as well as in life, you create a connection with your audience. One last comment about the writer who asked me the question about leaving out this ingredient from his story: when he learned to share two specific life moments that fuel his pursuit to succeed, his world opened up in ways that he never imagined.
When you are sharing your story, give your audience a sense of what your life looked like before your call to action and what you did as a result of it. When you skip this step, you take away the opportunity for them to connect with you and know you. By giving your audience a sense that you know what it means to fall and to get back up, you allow them a chance to know who you are and what drives you. By doing this, you allow them to identify with what you went through. When you do this, both in fiction and in life, your audience (i.e., those around you) will root for your success.