During China’s War of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 207-265), the great general Chuko Liang, leading the forces of the Shu Kingdom, dispatched his vast army to a distant camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldier. Suddenly, sentinels hurried in with the alarming news than an enemy force of over 150,000 troops under Sima Yi was approaching. With only a hundred men to defend him, Chuko Liang’s situation was hopeless. The enemy would finally capture this renowned leader.
Without lamenting his fate, or wasting time trying to figure out how he had been caught, Liang ordered his troops to take down their flags, throw open the city gates, and hide. He himself then took a seat on the most visible part of the city’s wall, wearing a Taoist robe. He lit some incense, strummed his lute, and began to chant. Minutes later he could see the vast enemy army approaching, an endless phalanx of soldiers. Pretending not to notice them he continued to sing and play the lute.
Soon the army stood at the town gates. At its head was Sima Yi, who instantly recognized the man on the wall.
Even so, as his soldiers itched to enter the unguarded town through its open gates, Sima Yi hesitated, held them back, and studied Liang on the wall. Then, he ordered an immediate and speedy retreat.
The above story, from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, illustrates the 5th law: “So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It with Your Life,” and is one of about 70 anecdotes used to illustrate all 48 laws. The stories are set in Ancient China, 18th Century France, Renaissance Italy, Modern America, and everywhere in between. Altogether, these tales their interpretations make up about 90% of the content of the book.
Robert Greene tells all these stories for one simple reason: because he knows that a story is worth a thousand books.
A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the best business books I’ve read:
- Good to Great by Jim Collins
- The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
- Story by Robert McKee
All of these have been wildly successful. Why? Because they tell stories. My technical writing manuals are useful from time to time, but even the ones that are designed to be read cover-to-cover I haven’t finished, because they’re boring. They don’t make you laugh, or cry, or think. They tell you what to do – which is useful enough – but at the end of the day there are a million books out there, and the ones that tell you how without the who are, for the most part, thoroughly unmemorable.
Compare that to The Tipping Point, full of stories about Hush Puppies and AIDS and Paul Revere’s ride, or Good to Great, with its stories about Walgreens’s Internet integration and how Philip Morris became the largest tobacco company in the world. In Robert McKee’s Story, the principle I remember best is “Story happens in the gap between expectation and result,” which also happens to have, at least for me, the two most memorable examples in the book: Chinatown’s “She’s my sister and my daughter” scene and the immortal reveal from The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.
So how do you tell a good story? Well, the answer to that question is tough to summarize in a short essay like this one, especially because most articles about storytelling focus on the same esoteric principles like “theme” and “plot,” which are really hard to explain. But here’s what I’ve found make for the best short stories, which by and large is what you’re telling in a nonfiction book.
Driving every great story are interesting characters whose fates we care about. In long-form stories they MUST have internal conflict – which is to say, there has to be something mentally or emotionally that’s keeping them from achieving their goals. The shorter the story, the less critical internal conflict is, though it never hurts to have it in there.
In the story above, Chuko Liang’s reputation is paramount – without it, the story doesn’t happen. Just as important is his keen wit and decision making. These characteristics inform every piece of the story, and as readers we’re rooting for him and celebrating his victory.
In the story of Chuko Liang and Sima Yi, consider the details: He wore a Taoist robe, lit some incense, strummed his lute, and chanted . . . these details add depth and intrigue to the story, and make us interested. Though it’s important not to get caught up in excessive description, a red mountain bike means far more to the reader than a bicycle does.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Introduction to The Tipping Point. In explaining how Hush Puppies – “the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole” (details!) reached their tipping point, he shares such particulars as:
- Sales were down to 30,000 per year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores.
- People were buying them at “Ma and Pa stores”
- Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself, and the executives had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.
- “The designer Joel Fitzgerald put a 25-foot inflatable basset hound – the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand – on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique.”
- Sales figures in 1995 were 430,000.
- The president of the company stood on stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that – he would be the first to admit – his company had almost nothing to do with.
Malcolm Gladwell, instead of using the details to illustrate a story, uses details as the story. Consider the following short tale:
The two stood, facing each other, each daring the other to make the first move. A magpie cawed, catching Jacob’s eye for just a tenth of a second. That was all it took. Moments later, his wife rushed over to him, hysterical, her tears pouring into the pool of blood that grew from the gaping hole in his temple.
The story never says that Jacob was shot, but it doesn’t have to. The details do that work for us, and rightly so. Similarly, a 25-foot basset hound on top of a store is a far more interesting and effective way of illustrating the point of growing popularity.
Most books about story talk about “plot,” but I find that term doesn’t really mean a whole lot. What really makes a story strong is rising stakes, which happens in one of two ways:
- Increasing either the importance of accomplishing the goal
- Increasing the challenges to accomplishing the goal
Everything that happens must be more important or more difficult than what happened before it. If you go back to the original of the story used to open this article, the stakes rise in paragraph one: 150,000 troops rush in (increased challenges) to capture our hero (increased importance), with only a hundred men to defend him (increased challenges). In order to survive, he has to think of something . . . and then he does.
I could write a whole lot more on this, and I’ll save it for a later article, but it’s important to realize that the longer a story is, the more you’ll have to do this. Start by asking yourself the question “Is this more or less interesting than what happened before?” If it’s less, then something needs to change.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering why most sequels suck, it’s because it’s really hard to increase the stakes on the second story after the writers blew their wads increasing the stakes in the first.
Mystery vs. Suspense
If two people are sitting at a table, talking for five minutes, and then a bomb goes off, you’ll wonder what happened. But if you show that there’s a bomb under the table, you’ll spend the next five minutes shouting at them to stop talking and get out, because there’s a bomb under the table.
This example, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, illustrates a great point in storytelling: Suspense happens when you give the audience information that the characters don’t have. Mystery happens when you give the characters information the audience doesn’t have.
The Hush Puppies example from The Tipping Point is suspense – we know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know how, and we get to watch the company executives come along for the ride. In The 48 Laws of Power, it’s mystery – we’re not sure what’s going to happen, and then when it does, we wonder how and why.
If you feel your story lacks the element of surprise, drop a hint up front of what’s going to happen, making people wonder how. If, on the other hand, the ending is completely unpredictable, try to disguise it as long as possible to add to the mystery. Both are legitimate tools, and incorporating one or the other makes every sequence of events that much more interesting.
These are just a few of the elements of story. There are a thousand more. What’s important is that you incorporate the human connection in your nonfiction books, because it’s the only way to have people really care about the result.
 In a true mystery story, there are a few more rules than that, but for our purposes, this definition is sufficient.