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You're Probably Ruining the Best Part of Your Stories

Let's say you're telling a friend a story. The story is about a recent trip you took to the grocery store.

You tell your friend that as you were using the self checkout, you noticed a doll lying on the scanner next to you. You tell them, I actually gasped, because I thought it was a real baby!

What do you think their reaction will be?

I'm guessing it will be mild amusement at best. Maybe they'll humor you with a raise of the eyebrows to show they understand how you probably felt.

But did they actually feel what you felt? Probably not.

Why is this? Why didn't they have the same reaction you did?

It's because you totally spoiled the punchline for them. You told them the story from your perspective after you'd already realized it was a doll, not a real baby.

Imagine if I told the same story a different way, and try to imagine how you'd react.

So I was at the grocery store checking out, and I look over next to me and see a baby lying on the scanner! I gasped out loud in the store. Then I looked closer and realized oh, it's just a doll.

See the difference?

In this version, you're kind of playing a trick on your listener. You're putting them in the world as you saw it at the time. You're pretending you don't have information that you really do have.

In this scenario, between you mentioning the gasp and your realization, that's where the person will go, What?! A baby? And that's what you want. You want them to feel how you felt when it happened.

The reason you're probably making this mistake is that we don't usually tell stories as they happened. We tell a meta-story about the events that took place, with the benefit of hind sight.

Except, you didn't see a doll on the scanner. You saw a baby. Only after taking a second glance did you notice it was a doll. The story of seeing a doll is actually a story of your surprise, not of the fact you saw a baby. It's a slight but crucial difference.

Telling the story after you've replaced the mystery with the truth kills any tension you wanted to create. This is why the best thrillers and horror movies reveal information to the audience at the same time it's revealed to the main character.

It's scary when the main character hears a noise in the house and slowly turns the corner because as the audience, we also don't know what's going to happen. If we did, we wouldn't be scared.

The tension in your story comes from the audience not knowing something. You know the truth because you already lived the story, but the point of telling the story in the first place is to connect with the person you're telling it to—to bond over shared experiences and emotion.

That can't happen unless you put the truth to the side for the moment. All will become clear soon enough.

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