Story-telling example: salami tactics

Telling a story concisely involves three elements:
  1. A character the reader can identify with.
  2. A plot that makes things interesting.
  3. Context that tells the reader why they should be reading and how it fits into their own world.
Some writers think you need to tell your story all at once. In practice, it is far more effective to tell a story in a series of thin slices -- salami tactics. Write a sentence (or two) for each slice and make them as specific as you can. Use the someone does something for some reason format. However, keep the sentences short (15 to 20 words) or your reader will find your story confusing.

Stories are best told in thin slices

Here is an example of a story format from the BBC science pages:

The European Commission has responded to criticism of its billion-euro Human Brain Project, declaring confidence that objections will be satisfied.

The statement also defends the ability of the project to set its own scope, which critics have said is too narrow.

These two sentences each broadly follow the story-telling format but, somehow, they don't tell much of a story.

The European Commission and the statement are the characters this writer has chosen for his story. Neither is a character that readers can identify with. Individuals or groups of people work much better than organisations or abstract concepts.

We can pick a better character to write about by thinking about two things:
  1. Who are all the possible characters.
  2. Who is the reader and which of these characters will they most readily identify with.
Possible characters (more human, less abstract) include Robert Madelin (the EC director general responsible), other European civil servants, scientists, people who might benefit from this type of research (patients of neurological disease, for example). Think about this list long and hard because the choice of characters will have a dramatic effect on the story and the way you tell it. Can you spot other possible characters?

Good writers know that part of the secret is to keep re-drafting until you are happy

The reader of the BBC science pages could be almost anyone, but we can say they are likely to have an interest in science. So my choice would be to make the story about scientists or because we want to be as specific as possible, brain scientists.

Here is my first go at improving the story. Bear with me: first attempts nearly always have problems, but we still have to make them otherwise we never get to the second attempt.

Scientists are wrong when they say EU brain research funding concentrates too much on computer simulations, according to the European Commission, because it is up to the scientists themselves to decide the scope of projects. (35)

This is a better story because the main characters are human beings (we can picture them in their round spectacles and white lab coats and already we are starting to care about them). But there are two problems. Firstly, my plot is a little weak. Scientists are wrong has a bunch of guys standing around being wrong, in their wrongness. Plots work better if something is happening so avoid verbs where no one is moving about (are wrong, are concerned, face). Try again.

Brain scientists won their battle to have a billion Euro research project reviewed by independent experts after the European Commission said it would look at the governance of the Human Brain Project. (32)

The plot is better (although winning a battle is a tired metaphor, so I should try again). But both my first two attempts suffer another problem. I have written a long sentences (35 and 32 words -- way over the 20 word limit I set). I have tried to be specific but in doing so I have made the story too complex too quickly. The solution is to slice the story more thinly. Readers enjoy thin salami much better than thick. Attempt number 3:

Brain scientists themselves should decide how to distribute EU research funding, the European Commission admitted in response to criticism. (19)

I am now within my 20 word upper limit and the story is easier to understand. Remember, I can expand the story by adding more sentences in the story-telling format. But I am still fiddling with my single sentence story. Good writers know that part of the secret is to keep re-drafting until you are happy.

The problem with version 3 is back to the plot. Deciding is may involve some action but it's not exactly the most exciting plot. It is a good idea to stop and ask yourself what is actually happening -- what is this story about at its core? Well in this example, it is about scientists and their funding. And what do people normally do with funding? They spend it. I like spending as my plot because it is a physical action but it is also something the reader can understand quickly.

Fourth attempt?

Brain scientists spending billion-Euro EU research funds should decide for themselves how to allocate resources, the European Commission admits. (20)

I'm going to stop there. This is only a thin slice yet it is fairly specific. All the essential elements of the story are now there: character, plot, context. There is far more to this story but it is best told as a series of slices.

Look at the original here.  If you want to try out this technique, try developing the story with a series of someone did something for some reason sentences. Look at what the scientists were complaining about. Then try to find a simple way of expressing the European Commission's response as a story.

The original piece of writing was pretty good. But I hope you can see that by assessing how well it tells a story and polishing (and polishing) we can make it simpler and easier to understand, and at the same time more interesting and engaging.