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Great Stories and How to Tell Them

Chapter One
Great Stories Always Show

You've probably been told many times that you have to tell stories to keep an audience.  Stories hold people's attention.  Stories are what they remember.  And you've all probably kicked yourself a few times  after sermons that left people nodding off  for not including more illustrations.
But in order to communicate powerfully we need to do more than lighten up our talks with a few illustrations.  We need to tell great stories.  The shortest distance between two points in a sermon is a great story.  And not all stories are created equal.  Some, in fact, are almost indistinguishable from abstract exposition; they flow right past the audience.  Other stories grip people's hearts.  Some stories, as we'll see in the next chapter, actually become signs  making God vividly real for the listener.
One of the very basic principles about effective narrative that you learn in both writing and film making is this one: SHOW IS BETTER THAN TELL.  Let's say you're writing a story about a man named Fred who treats his family very badly.  To make the reader really feel that this man is insensitive, selfish and short tempered you don't just tell the reader he's insensitive, selfish and short tempered.  You show him doing something; you picture a scene.  Maybe he cuts his wife down for making some innocent remark or harrangues his little boy at length for leaving his bike in the driveway. 
What you want readers to do is to react, to be able to conclude for themselves that this man is a certain kind of character.  What they discover is always more powerful than what they're just told.  Showing, instead of just telling, is a giant step forward in holding an audience's interest.
When I first started out making films in college I did what most beginners do; I got caught up in camera angles, camera movement, camera work.  The first piece I did was about my roomate Barry.  He'd given up a music career to study medicine.  I thought I'd make a little piece about him. 
I composed each shot with excrutiating care; catching the speckled light through the trees falling on him, practicing every zoom and pan over and over.  Barry was very patient.
But what I ended up with was just shots of my roomate walking around the campus of Andrews University with this guitar case.  I imagined I could always tell his story through narration or something.
But I didn't show it.  I didn't show much of anything, in fact.  Showing something actually happening in front of the camera would have been more powerful than just telling.
Think for a moment about why painters go to all that trouble of covering a canvas with countless, agonized brush strokes.  Why do novelists go to all that trouble of writing chapter after chapter; imagining a whole world and populating it with great care?  After all, don't they have some basic point they're trying to get across?  Doesn't the painting or the book have some specific message?  Why can't they just write it out in a few lines and hand it out to people: This is what I want to say through my art.  That would save an enormous amount of effort.
But they don't do that.  Artists keep painting and writing because they want the viewer or
the reader to discover the message, to feel what they feel.  They want to communicate an experience, not just an idea.  They have to show, not just tell.  And because they do that so well, human beings are profoundly moved. 
This idea of "show is better than tell" also plays itself out in the Christian life.  I was walking from the parking lot to the church where I worship one day and noticed this big, shiny, black Mercedes parked right in front of the sidewalk leading to the sanctuary.  All the humbler cars were parked some distance away in the lot.  But this sleek Mercedes was straddling the sidewalk entrance, where everybody had to walk to the church  and of course notice the driver's beautiful car.
I came of age in the 60s and inhaled some of the hippie mentality.  We made a big deal of rejected the materialism of our parents' generation.  So, in the back of my mind, I regarded rich people as scum.  There had to be something wrong with them.  They certainly couldn't be spiritual.
So as I looked at the man in the expensive suit getting out of his black Mercedes, all my prefabricated animosity started firing away.  Here was another arrogant, inconsiderate rich person.  And as he walked around the back of his car, I noticed his custom-made plates.  And I thought I read letters that stood for "Painless."  Oh a dentist, I imagined.  A rich, dentist.  Scum, scum.
But before I'd quite passed by to take my place in church as a Pharisee in good standing, the man opened the passenger door and helped his wife up on the crub--very gently.  I spotted one of her legs  withered with polio.  He slipped her arm through his and, like a perfect gentleman, escorted her proudly, as she limped along beside him, to the sanctuary.
I followed along behind  a little less sure of my I thank thee Lord that I'm not a rich dentist convictions.  This was the sidewalk where I frequently strode with thick books under my arms, ready to teach Sabbath School class.  I could wax eloquent about the virtues of the Christian life before fellow church members.  I could delve into Greek words about grace and love; I could whip out a few choice morsels from little known commentaries.  I could talk at great length about the prophetic call to champion the cause of the weak.
But that day this rich dentist was showing me what Christian courtesy is all about.  And his small action spoke more eloquently than all the words I could put together.  I was just telling.  He was showing.
Here's the first thing we need to know about what makes a story great.  Stories that SHOW are infinitely better than stories that just TELL.   There are specific things we can do to make stories show more--and thereby capture our audience more effectively.  In this chapter we'll look at better ways to tell a story.  In the next we'll get a broader perspective on the content of the stories we tell.

In order to make the difference between showing and telling crystal clear we're going to  look at pairs of stories, A and B, which illuminate the same principle.  One is a typical sermon illustration, the other draws the listener into a specific scene, character or action.  Look at each story pair and try to find the main thing Story A lacks that Story B has.

Let's say you want to illustrate God taking on human flesh in order to save us.
You're tired of the familiar man becomes ant parable.  How would you SHOW the Incarnation in a story?

A. Black Like Me
In 1959 John Howard Griffin changed himself from a white man into a black man.  Feeling he could never understand the plight of blacks unless he became one, he darkened his skin with oral medication, sun lamp treatment, and stains.  Then he traveled through the South.  The results were unbelievable.
He received treatment that was almost inhuman.  There were vehicles which he couldn't ride, restaurants where he couldn't eat, hotels where he couldn't sleep, rest rooms he couldn't use.  He was persecuted, slighted and cheated.  Griffin wrote about his experience in his book, "Black Like Me."
Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, Paul Lee Tan (Rockville, MD: Assurance, 1985) No. 2691.

Griffin's experience in the South does indeed have dramatic potential.  His temporary "incarnation" as an African-American sheds light on what Jesus experienced as an alien among His own people.  But the way this experience is related here does not equal a great story.  It's not even a good story.  Why?
It's simply a general description of events, an overview of something that happened--this man went to the South as a black and was mistreated.  We have no picture in our minds.  There are no scenes to capture our imagination.  Much more powerful would be a description of one incident, one place:  One sweltering afteroon Griffin walked into a crowded diner in Birmingham.  Two waitresses in striped uniforms turned from behind the counter and gave him a cold stare.  Conversation at the tables suddenly stopped..
     When you show in a story, you give the listener a scene they can visualize; you take
the listener to a specific place.  If there's nowhere for them to go, in their mind's eye, then chances are they won't be following you through the story. 
Let's look at another story that illuminates God becoming one of us.

B. Homeless Like Me
Shortly after World War II,  Naples, Italy, was a city of  bombed-out ruins.  Rubble lay everywhere.  And on every street-corner you could see gangs of orphans  and outcasts called scugnizzi--begging, stealing from shops, sometimes assisting older criminals.  They were tough, wily, and apparently unreachable.  But 25 year old Father Mario Borrelli wanted to try.  So he became one each night after his regular duties.  Dressed in the usual ragged, filthy scugnizzi get up he started begging at the Naples railroad terminal.  The other young toughs were impressed by his style: just the right mixture of humor and pathetic humility.  When a gang leader swaggered up and demanded half his take, Mario beat him up.
The incognito priest slept on basement gratings covered with old newspapers just like the others.  Soon he was getting to know his new companions well as they talked around fires, heating up their scraps of food in old tin cans.   And  Mario discovered that all of them, even the most bitter and hardened, had a longing for home, affection and security.
One winter evening Mario informed the gang that he'd found a place for them to stay, the little, bombed out church of Saint Gennaro, which had been abandoned.  Slowly he transformed the structure into a home, and started providing the boys with nourishing meals.
One night Mario appeared in clerical robes.  After his friends stopped laughing, he explained that he was, in fact, a priest.  By this time the bonds he'd established were strong enough to make them stay; Mario had won their respect.   That's how the House of the Urchin was established, a place where young throw aways could find a home, hope, and the street wise spiritual guidance of Mario Borrelli.
Readers Digest Teenage Treasure, vol. II, Endeavor, "Don Vesuvio and the House of the Urchin," Frederic Sondern Jr. (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Readers Digest Association, 1957), pp. 28-32.  
This story immediately takes the listener to the streets of Naples just after World War II.  Just a few lines make the scene vivid:"covered in old newspapers," "scraps of food in old tin cans."  But these specific images are vital if you are to establish a setting.  Stories need to happen somewhere, somewhere in particular.  Nebulous events that happen out there in life flow right past the listener.  Nothing sticks; nothing grabs. 
However, you don't want to spend several paragraphs describing a locale.  Novelists can do that in a book, but you don't have that luxury in a sermon.  You have to picture the scene vividly and quickly.  It's like setting up the first few shots of a film. You place the audience in a tangible setting and then go on with the action. 

Stories that "tell" give general descriptions.  Stories that "show" present:
A setting we can visualize.

Let's look at another pair of stories.  Say you want to talk about God's grace and forgiveness.  How would you SHOW what divine pardon means in a story?

A. Forgiving a Son
A father had told his son he would send him to sleep in the attic, with only bread and water for his supper, if he broke the laws of the home once more.  The child disobeyed again and was sent to the attic.
But the father couldn't eat.  His wife said, "I know what you are thinking.  But you must not bring the boy from the attic.  It would cause him to disobey again.  He would have no respect for your word.  You must not cheapen your relation as his father by failing to keep your promise."
To which her husband replied, "You are right.  I will not break my word.  To do so would cause my son to lose his respect for my word.  But he is lonely up there."
He kissed his wife goodnight, entered the attic, ate bread and water with the boy, and when the child went to sleep on the hard boards, his father's arm was his pillow.
Encyclopedia, No. 2692

Why isn't this a great story? 
For one thing it contains what might be called Clerical Dialogue.  Clerical Dialogue is a secret language spoken nowhere on earth except by characters in sermon illustrations.  They make little speeches to each other; they do an awful lot of  telling--getting across points which the story-teller wants to make.  In this illustration, the story-teller has inserted a mini-sermon into the poor woman's mouth.  I'm surprised it doesn't have three points and an appeal. 
The problem with Clerical Dialogue is that it's unrealistic.  Nobody talks like that.  The less real the dialogue is, the less real the characters become in the listener's mind.  And when something in a story doesn't feel like a real event to the listener, then it's going to fade into the flow of abstraction and put him or her to sleep. 
Short, snappy dialogue best moves a story along.  Occasionally, you can relate ideas or principles as thoughts people are having.  But don't make people in your stories give speeches.
Now let's look at what actually happens in the above illustration.  The incident has potential.  It has a nice ending: when the boy went to sleep, he had his father's arm for a pillow.  But what it lacks principally is a real character.  The protagonist is generic: a father, a certain man.  There's nothing said about him that identifies him as a specific human being.  Again, just a few lines would help: Joe was a salesman in his thirties who loved his son a great deal, but didn't always know how to show it.
General descriptions and generic characters don't stop the flow of  abstractions.  They are words that flow right past an audience.  General descriptions are like muzak--just something in the background, easy to ignore.  Specific scenes and characters are definite melodies that echo in our heads.
When I read movie critiques I sometimes run across this evaluation: "In spite of the big budget, dramatic action, intricate plot, they failed to give us a character to really care about."  If an audience is to get involved in a movie, or a sermon, it has to have someone to root for, or cry about or become indignant with. 
People don't care about generic characters.  It doesn't matter much what happens to them. If you want your audience to care, then give them someone to care about.  You have to dig for details.  Sometimes you have to imagine plausible details.  Stories that come to us second or third-hand often lose the specifics of setting and character; they've degenerated to the abstract essentials.  That's why first-hand accounts are so important.  That's why biographies are better story sources than most illustration books.
Here's another story that attempts to show what forgiveness means.

B. Adopting a Son
Elizabeth Morris sat down in the back of the high school gymnasium for a MADD program.  Her eighteen year old son Ted had been killed by a drunk driver some months before.  She was still fighting through the rage and pain.  She'd followed the trial of  the driver with passionate intensity.  At times she thought she could execute the man herself.  The trial had concluded.  The driver had been sentenced to prison.  But Elizabeth's anguish hadn't ended.
Now she looked up and saw a young man walk to the microphone.  He said, "I want to tell you about the night I killed Ted Morris."
A flood of violent emotions swept through Elizabeth.  She'd come here to confront her son's killer.  But as she listened to Tommy, he seemed genuinely repentant.  Afterwards she mustered enough courage to speak to him.  When Elizabeth learned that no one ever visited him in jail, she decided to go see him.
 The visit began with a few moments of tense conversation.  Then Tommy suddenly blurted out, "Mrs. Morris, I'm so sorry.  Please forgive me."
Everything froze for Elizabeth as she stared at her son's killer.  She wanted to let go of all the rage and pain.   Yet every human instinct shouted, "Revenge!"
In that moment, however, the words Christ spoke from the cross seemed to echo all around her: "Father, forgive them...Father forgive them."  Suddenly she could forgive, because she was forgiven.  Elizabeth found herself praying silently, "Dear God, You lost an only Son, too.  Yet You forgave those who killed Him."
Elizabeth Morris forgave Tommy sincerely, and she did more.  Eventually, she and her husband  had him released into their custody.  Tommy's dysfunctional background made his chances for recovery pretty slim.  But he succeeded against the odds.  Because he began to eat in the Morris home, pray in their home, study in their home.  This grieving couple found a son again--in the one every human instinct had taught them to hate.
Readers Digest, May 1986, pp. 136-140; from Guideposts, January 1986. 

As the audience listens to this story, do you think they care about Elizabeth?  Do you think they care about how thismother is going to react, about what's going to happen to her?  You bet they do.  This is a real human being going through a traumatic experience.  Elizabeth involves the listener.  The listener can't wait for a happy ending.  She or he will be listening eagerly when you tell them how Elizabeth and Frank Morris found the strength to forgive  and eventually had this young offender released into their custody, adopting him into their family. 

Stories that "tell" give us generic figures.  Stories that "show" present:
A character we can care about.

Let's look at our final pair of stories.  How would you SHOW the power of God's unconditional love?

A. Analyze the Child
A professed Christian became troubled about the little love he felt for God, and spoke of it to a friend, who told him: "When I go home from here, I expect to take my baby on my knee, look into her sweet eyes, listen to her charming prattle, and tired as I am, her presence will rest me; for I love that child with unutterable tenderness.  But she loves me little.  If my heart were breaking it would not disturb her sleep.  If my body were racked with pain, it would not interrupt her play...
"She has never brought me a penny, but is a constant expense to me.  I am not rich, but there is not money enough in the world to buy my baby.  How is it?  Does she love me, or do I love her?  Do I withhold my love until I know she loves me?  Am I waiting for her to do something worthy of my love before extending it?"
Encyclopedia, No. 1941

Why isn't this a great story?  What does it lack?
It lacks a lot of things.  There's no setting and we know nothing about the narrator.  But more than anything else, it lacks action.  Nothing really happens here.  There's no challenge to meet, no conflict to resolve.  All we have is a baby lying there and someone commenting at great length on it.  The illustration reminds me of my early days in film-making.  My camera moved all over the place; I got all the angles, all the moves, but very little was happening in front of the lense.  This story, like too many sermon illustrations, is commentary on a still life, a static scene.
In order to capture an audience's attention, something has to actually happen in a story.  Live action.  It won't do to summarize what has happened or will happen or may happen.  The audience has to see something happening. 
In great stories, the actions speak loudest.  Here's a story that shows what God's unconditional love is all about.

B. Overwhelmed by the Child
Late one evening two men sat in the living room of a Budapest apartment.  It was the middle of World War II.   A Lutheran pastor named Richard Wurmbrand played Ukrainian melodies softly on the piano.  Borila, a huge soldier on leave from the front, sat listening to him.  He had just boasted of all the Jews he'd killed in a certain village with his own hands. 
But Pastor Wurmbrand wanted to reach this man.  After a bit the pastor could see the soldier was deeply moved by the music.  He stopped playing and said, "If you look through that curtain you can see someone is asleep in the next room.  It's my wife, Sabina.  Her parents, her sisters and her twelve year old brother have been killed with the rest of the family.  You told me that you had killed hundreds of Jews near Golta, and that is where they were taken.  You yourself don't know who you have shot, so we can assume that you are the murderer of her family."
Borila leaped from his chair, his eyes ablaze, looking as if he could strangle the pastor.  But Wurmbrand calmed him by proposing an experiment: "I'm going to wake my wife and tell her who you are, and what you have done.  I can tell you what will happen.  My wife will not speak one word of reproach.  She'll embrace you as if you were her brother.  She'll bring you supper, the best things in the house."
The pastor then came to the punch line: "If Sabina, who is a sinner like us all, can forgive and love like this, imagine how Jesus, who is perfect Love, can forgive and love you!"  He urged Borila to return to God and seek forgiveness.
The man melted.  Rocking back and forth, he sobbed out his confession: "I'm a murderer; I'm soaked in blood..."     
Wurmbrand guided him to his knees and began praying; Borila, having no such experience, simply begged for forgiveness over and over.
Then the pastor walked into the bedroom and gently awakened his wife.  "There is a man here whom you must meet," he whispered.  "We believe he has murdered your family, but he has repented, and now he is our brother."Sabina came out in her dressing gown and extended her hands to the huge, tear-stained soldier.  He collapsed in her arms; both wept greatly, and amid the overwhelming emotions of grief, guilt and grace, kissed each other fervently.  Finally Sabina went into the kitchen to prepare some food.
Wurmbrand thought that his guest could use a further reinforcement of grace, since he was struggling with the weight of under such horrible crimes.  So he stepped into the next room and returned with his two year old son Mihai, fast asleep in his arms.  Borila was dismayed; it had been only hours since he boasted of killing Jewish children in their parents' arms, now this sight seemed an unbearable reproach; he expected a withering rebuke.  Instead the pastor leaned forward and said, "Do you see how quietly he sleeps?  You are like a newborn child who can rest in the Father's arms.  The blood that Jesus shed has cleansed you."  Looking down at Mihai, Borila felt, for the first time in ages, a surge of pure happiness. 
Later, rejoining his regiment in Russia, he laid aside his weapons and volunteered to rescue the wounded under fire.
    In God's Underground, Richard Wurmbrand (New York: Bantam Books, 1977).

Stories that "tell" are like commentary on a still life.  Stories that "show" present:
Actions that speak loudest.