Thursday, June 24, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #32: Imagine You're On An Airplane...

You board a airplane. You’ve brought a good book that you’re dying to read. Then the person sitting next to you turns to you and starts spontaneously telling you about their week, in great detail. Uh oh. You’ve just sat down next to the scariest beast of them all: the unwelcome storyteller.

Well I’ve got some bad news for you. If you ever submit a manuscript, you become the unwelcome storyteller, and the reader is the person who would really rather read their book. Why can’t the reader be someone who’s excited to read your manuscript? Well, maybe they were, 50 submissions ago, but now they feel hurt and betrayed by the mountain of half-ass stuff they’ve had to read and they really, really don’t want to have to read one more story. They would rather do anything than read manuscript #51, but there you are, yakking their ear off.

So try to remember what it feels like to be stuck next to an unwelcome storyteller. When the person next to you on a plane starts talking, do you just assume that they’ve got a good story to tell? You don’t. Do you automatically care about whatever they have to say? Certainly not. Could you ever possibly care? Yes, but only if they’ve got a great story to tell. How quickly do you want their story to become interesting? Right away! Do you want them to start with a lot of background about where they were born and what childhood traumas they had? No, you hope that they skip over all that and instead tell you a focused story about one unique and interesting thing they did.

If you could describe the ideal airplane conversation, what would it be like? You’d probably want them to have a fascinating job and tell you clever stories about the fun and fascinating adventures they’ve had doing that job. (And yes, you want them to be good at that job, don’t you? That makes the stories a lot more interesting.)

Whenever the person next to me on a plane starts talking, I smile impassively and try to suppress my fears. I know that there’s a 90% chance that this will turn out to be an insufferable bore who makes my flight seem ten times longer than usual. But occasionally, just occasionally, I have a great conversation. There’s that slim 10% chance that this person will be clever and fascinating, and I’ll tell everyone after I land that I just heard a great story on the plane.

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