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Telling a story. Or, "What Grog done."

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A presentation on Feb. 8 at Walter Library brought Matt Jennings and communications professionals at several universities throughout the U.S. together via a web conference to talk about what makes a story. Jennings is a great writer, currently working for Middlebury College. 

But storytelling, no matter the medium--and these days there are many--essentially maintains similar elements. It likely always has, from the first time a story was ever told, somewhere long ago, probably in a cave. Maybe it went like this: "Grog got up tree. Hit the big thing with club. Surprise! Thing fall down. We eat. Full. Feel good now" (followed by, oohs, ahhs, and some small applause).

That's a story. Beginning, middle, end. Some element of tension. A plot. 

Jennings specifically called out a few key elements I found helpful to keep in mind when considering, first, whether a story is a story at all; and second, how to write it once you decide it's a go. 

First: is it a story or a topic? 

A topic, according to Jennings, is static, passive, and is about "things." "Bill Smith: Alumnus of the Year" is a topic."Alumni in Hollywood" is a topic. Topics by themselves are not stories, but dig deeper and they may become more. 

Elements of a story include characters, dialogue, plot, tension, and scene. Personally, I feel like you get the most out of dialogue and tension. Tension, especially...if you can find some emotional connection and convey that to your audience, you can transfer the emotion. That can mean asking your characters hard questions sometimes. 

A story, then, is active, about people (not things), and shows; it isn't all tell.

Jennings says to find out if you have a story, ask, "Why does this matter?" and "Will people care?" Then, find out the players and how to tell it. Think about visuals or artwork from the beginning, he says--about how to tell the total story. And when it comes to characters, he says, "Don't tell the story of the army. Tell the story of the soldier." Tell the story from a unique perspective and show the audience things they would not see otherwise. A recent story on Northrop Auditorium's renovation is a pretty good example here, as the photographer and I were lucky enough to get access to the interior during demolition. Do all that, and one gets the idea that in the end, you'll be telling the story of the army more effectively simply by telling the story of the soldier. 
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Speaking of storytelling, tell yours. U communicators meet monthly to share stories. Next meeting is Feb. 9, 3 p.m., 510 Morrill Hall.

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