If you want to tell a story from your life, Donald Davis says: look for trouble. I've been talking with workshop participants lately about person, place, and problem as a basic set of necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) story elements.(1) The trouble comes with this word, "problem." Sometimes we tell stories that have an obvious problem, where we or the protagonist encounter an obstacle, barrier, or a mean old villain. If all stories had obvious villains, it would be easier to develop them as stories! But much of the time it's hard to identify exactly what the problem is, especially if you're doing something like telling a story related to your career, your path to success, or your organization's successes or challenges. Sure, you know you need some trouble to keep the audience interested, but is it really okay to talk so openly about a problem? If you or your organization has faced a serious problem, then you might not feel comfortable talking about it. Let's face it, the things that get most humans and organizations into real and serious trouble aren't polite dinner conversation.
However, it's vital that a storyteller take risks. It's vital that the tale contains tension. Even relatively small obstacles in life, like not knowing what major to choose or being unsure of which grant to apply for, can make for good stories. The trick is that trouble has to be faced and amplified, resisted or engaged, so that trouble becomes struggle.
Trouble has to become Struggle.
For a story to be powerful and meaningful, the troubles you are facing have to increase in intensity in ways that correspond meaningfully with your mission and/or connect meaningfully with your audience. I'll start with a fun example and then take on something more serious.
Alumnus Daniel Burkhalter (MS/LIS) once told a story at the annual Storytelling Festival about a time from his childhood when his family had a big square TV. He really wanted to watch it while his parents were away at church on Sunday nights. But every time he did, they would catch him--trouble! He discovered that they knew he had been watching because the TV was warm. And he came up with a plan, involving ice cubes, to cool down the TV so that they would not know if he had been watching--from trouble to struggle!
Struggle is what happens when you dig in and do something about trouble. You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper--either way, your audience will want to know what happens next. If an organization faces a funding crisis, the story starts to take off when people pull together to try something new. If a library is devastated by a flood, the struggle to rebuild and the community that pulls together to make it happen are key to the story.
Struggle is taking a risk in the face of trouble, and not knowing yet whether the risk will actually pay off. That's what helps to captivate an audience. That's also what shows commitment to your own ethics and ideals, without your having to explain them.
You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper.
So when you don't think you have a story to tell, look for a time of trouble when you took action. Whether that action had good or bad effects will determine whether the story is funny, inspiring, or a cautionary tale of what not to do. If you've ever had a difficulty and made a choice, you have a story to tell.
(1) inspired by a conversation in a recent podcast of The Moth on storytelling