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Book Notes: “Storyworthy” by Matthew Dicks


Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks (2018) is a book about the art of storytelling and, more importantly, the self-discovery, meaning, and interpersonal connections it engenders. The author is a teacher, novelist, and writer who has made a name for himself in live storytelling competitions; to date, he’s won a record 48 Moth StorySLAM events and 6 GrandSLAM championships (The Moth is a non-profit that organizes storytelling events and produces a popular weekly podcast). Storyworthy is a blueprint for the methods and techniques Dicks uses to find, develop, and perform his award-winning stories.

Storyworthy focuses on a specific kind of storytelling, the personal narrative—the real stories, epiphanies, and transformations experienced by ordinary people. According to Dicks, a personal change lies at the heart of every meaningful story. The size of the change is not important. Stories with small, incremental changes can be just as satisfying as the big ones. In fact, the small changes are often more relatable and universal. When crafted effectively, a personal narrative generates meaning and emotional connection for both storyteller and audience. Despite Dicks’ focus on personal narrative, the storytelling ideas he discusses are applicable to a wider ranger of genres and contexts (e.g. fiction novels, film, etc.).

Dicks structures Storyworthy in three parts. Part 1 is about finding stories to tell. Here Dicks recommends three different strategies, the most compelling is called “Homework for Life” and involves daily reflection and observation of small, but meaningful moments that can be turned into stories. It’s a way of capturing those fleeting moments that we all experience but are too busy to notice and too quick to forget.

Part 2 is about the techniques Dicks uses to craft a story. Dicks’ key recommendation is to work backwards from a moment he calls the “five-second transformation.” This moment is a small change or epiphany that is the climax of a great story. A five-second transformation might be the moment you fall in love with someone or the moment you find forgiveness, or the moment you discover something new about yourself. For instance, in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dicks notes that the protagonist, Indiana Jones, experiences his five-second moment near the end of the film when Jones, a man of science and spiritual skeptic, must embrace faith in a higher power in order to avoid being destroyed by the Ark of the Covenant. These five-second transformations constitute the endings of a good story. The culmination of a story in which the protagonist is permanently changed. All the other storytelling techniques Dicks employs—finding the start of the story, crafting a story arc, employing humor, creating moments of surprise—work to bring clarity and meaning to this five-second moment.

In Part 3, Dicks explores the oral communication of a story (remember, Dicks is active in live, semi-extemporaneous storytelling competitions). He discusses specific performance techniques, stylistic choices like using present-tense to foster immediacy with the audience, and practical tips about how to handle a microphone. Through it all, one key lesson is clear: the speaker has a duty and an obligation to be entertaining. Dick insists that a good storyteller must “entertain, engage, and inform. Every single time.” It might seem an obvious point, but I know I regularly ignore these criteria, much to the detriment of my storytelling.

Storyworthy is a “readworthy” book. I’m an avid student of storytelling and still have much to learn. Dicks does a fantastic job of distilling story to its basic components. He doesn’t just talk about the theory of story craft, he also demonstrates by sharing his own personal stories throughout the book. These stories are frequently used to illustrate key concepts and highlight important techniques. Dicks’ stories will make you laugh, cry, and think. Dicks ideas will make you a better storyteller. And to that end, the teacher practices what he preaches: Storyworthy is entertaining, engaging and informative.

Pros: Offers a blueprint for effective storytelling and an array of compelling strategies for bringing those stories to life. I’ll be returning to the ideas in this book for years to come.

Cons: Part 3 was the least interesting section and could have been condensed.

Verdict: 8/10


Part I: Finding Your Story
Chapter 1: My Promise to You

  • Storytelling helps people discover who they are AND connect with others.

Chapter 2: What is a Story?

  • The kind of storytelling the author focuses on is personal narrative: “True stories told by the people who lived them.”

  • Change: An effective story must show personal change or growth. It can be a small change, but there must be progress.

    • “A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events.”
    • Author defines anecdotes as stories that fail to reflect change.
    • Stories that exhibit change pack an emotional punch and create a special connection with the audience.
  • Matt’s first rule of vacation stories: “No one wants to hear about your vacation.”

  • “You must tell your own story and not the stories of others. People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to your friend Pete last night, even if Pete’s story is better than your own.”

    • Important: You can tell other people’s stories, but you must do so from your own perspective and from your experience. In other words, make the story about how you were affect/impacted/changed.
    • “Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. Feel free to tell your side of other people’s stories, as long as. you are the protagonist in these tales.”
    • “A story is like a diamond with many facets. Everyone has a different relationship to it. If you can find a way of making your particular facet of the story compelling, you can tell that story as your own.”
  • The Dinner Test: Any story you tell on stage to a large audience should be similar to a story you might tell a friend over dinner.

    • The language and delivery should be natural.
    • “Storytelling is not theater. It is not poetry. It should be a slightly more crafted version of the story you would tell your buddies over beers.”
    • Author doesn’t recommend memorizing stories word-for-word. Instead, memorize the structure, key beats, and main point. The goal is for the account to appear extemporaneous and unrehearsed.
  • The audience wants to feel like they are being told a story. They don’t want to watch a performance of a story.

Chapter 3: Homework for Life

  • Small moments of discovery and self-awareness are the seeds of interesting stories.

    • These small moments are relatable and universal.
    • Author has found that “big” moments don’t connect as well and are better told in the context of small moments.
  • Our lives our filled with daily moments that are interesting and meaningful, but we often ignore, overlook, and forget about these moments because we are not mindful or observant.

  • We must also capture or record these moments by writing them down, or we will forget them.

  • Homework for Life: A habit in which the author records one story worthy moment from the day.

    • Ask this question daily: “If I had to tell a story from today, what would it be?”

      • He later rewords the question: “What is my story from today? What is the thing about today that has made it different from any previous day?”
    • This is a way of generating a constant steam of new story ideas.

    • Not all recorded ideas will turn into stories. Sometimes an idea will be incorporated into other stories. Sometimes interesting patterns will emerge. Some ideas might prompt other ideas or memories.

    • Author uses an Excel spreadsheet to record his daily moment.

      • Two columns: date and story.
      • Story can be one or two sentences (or a string of evocative words). The goal is to record a memory and revisit at a later date to flesh it out if desired.
    • “Moments of real meaning that I had never noticed before were suddenly staring me in the face. You won’t believe how plentiful they are.”

    • “I discovered that there is beauty and import in my life that I never would have imagined before...these small, unexpected moments of beauty are oftentimes some of my most compelling stories.”

  • Stories give us meaning and significance: “As you start to see importance and meaning in each day, you suddenly understand your importance to this world. You start to see how the meaningful moments that we experience every day contribute to the lives of others and to the world.”

  • “If you want to be a storyteller, this is your first step. Find your stories. Collect them. Save them forever.”

Chapter 4: Dreaming at the End of Your Pen

  • Crash and Burn: An exercise to generate story ideas that involves stream-of-consciousness writing.

    • Do not get attached to individual ideas. Let go of ideas as soon as new ones emerge. All the while you are writing these emergent ideas down.

    • Do not judge or censor the ideas that flow from your mind.

    • Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, etc.

    • Do not stop writing. Write even when your mind is empty.

      • Trick: List colors if you don’t know what to write about. Eventually, a color will draw an association, and you can write about that.
      • Trick: List numbers if you don’t know what to write about. Like the colors trick, a number will eventually generate an association.
      • You can use any kind of list to generate these associations (countries, foods, cities, people in your life, etc.).
    • Author performs this activity with pen and paper and allocates 10 minutes for the exercise.

    • When you are finished with the actual writing portion of the exercise, review your output and look for story seeds, interesting ideas to explore further, or any other patterns.

Chapter 5: First Last Best Worst

  • First Last Best Worst: An exercise to generate story ideas where you identify experiences for different topics that represent a first, last, best, worst experience with said item, idea, or experience.

    • For this exercise, Dicks sets up a sheet of paper with the following columns: Prompts, First, Last, Best, Worst.
    • Prompts are listed in the left-most column.
    • Sample prompts: Kiss, car, pet, trouble, injury, gift, travel, tree, toaster, monopoly, flag, socks.
    • Once you have written your prompts, fill in the corresponding fields for that prompt (i.e. first, last, best, worst).
    • Even strange or uninteresting prompts can work because the exercise involves free association.

Part II: Crafting Your Story
Chapter 6: Charity Thief

  • Author recounts his story titled “Charity Thief” which is used to demonstrate several story-telling techniques in subsequent chapters.
  • [YouTube video of live Moth retelling of Charity Thief].

Chapter 7: Every Story Takes Only Five Seconds to Tell

  • “All great stories—regardless of length or depth or tone—tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life.”

  • Purpose of a story is to highlight this five-second moment of change, epiphany, catharsis as clearly as possible.

  • Examples of five second moments:

    • The moment you fall in love.
    • The moment you fall out of love.
    • Discovering something new about yourself or another person.
    • Your opinion about a subject changes.
    • You find forgiveness.
    • You reach acceptance.
    • You sink into despair.
    • You reluctantly resign.
    • You make a life-altering decision.
    • You fail spectacularly.
    • You accomplish something great.
  • Example from the story “Charity Thief”: The author realizes he knows nothing about loneliness. He discovers this truth while talking to a man in New Hampshire who had experienced true loneliness.

  • “The rest of the story is crafted to serve that singular moment in time and only that moment. Anything in the story that doesn’t help bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible is marginalized, shaded, or removed entirely. Anything that helps bring clarity to that moment is strengthened and highlighted.”

  • Remember: Tiny moments are the “bedrock” upon which great storytelling is built. Most people fail to understand this.

  • Critical question to ask about experiences in stories: “How did it change your life?” (it’s a “so what” question)

  • Jurassic Park’s five-second moment:

    • Sam Neill’s character is in love with Laura Dern’s character but doesn’t like children (a key obstacle to their relationship). Neill starts disliking children (or thinking that he does) but over the course of a film in which he must cooperate and save two children he realizes he likes children after all.
    • The dinosaurs are the external trapping that makes the story fun, interesting, and hooks the audience.
    • The “inner story” of Neill’s character provides the true resonance and satisfying transformation.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark’s five-second moment:

    • Jones is a man of science and little faith or spirituality.
    • In his most desperate moment, Jones must change (when the Ark is opened) and embrace the power of God.
  • The inner moments are critical because they are relatable and universal.

    • We all know what it feels like to be disappointed, rejected, sad, frustrated, etc.
    • The situations like dinosaurs, adventurous archeologists are unfamiliar and novel. They excite us but are not relatable.

Chapter 8: Finding Your Beginning

  • The five-second moment is the ENDING of your story.

    • It is the very point of your story.
    • It is the most important thing you will say in your story.
    • For maximum impact it should come as close to the end as possible.
  • The beginning of your story requires making decisions that will allow the ending to have maximum impact and resonance.

  • Identify the opposite of your five-second moment:

    • The beginning of the story should be the opposite of the ending.

    • Story arc is a journey from one state of being or belief to another.

      • I was once this, but now I am something else.
      • I once believed this, but now believe something else.
      • I once felt this way, but now I feel another way.
  • Even though a story should have change:

    • The change can be positive or negative.
    • The change can be small.
    • “The best stories often reflect incremental change. Tiny steps forward. Glacial improvement. Audiences would much rather hear about incremental, tenuous growth than about overnight success.”
  • “You must begin an end your story in entirely different states of being.”

  • Additional recommendations about beginnings:

    • Start the story with forward movement when possible. The goal is to create momentum and immediate immersion. “We’re going somewhere important.”

    • Don’t set explicit expectations. Example: “This is hilarious” or “you need to listen to this.”

      • “Starting your story with a thesis statement reduces your chances of surprising your audience.”

Chapter 9: Stakes

  • Story stakes: The negative consequences of failure. The costs of the protagonist quitting.

  • “Stakes are the reason audiences listen and continue to listen to a story.”

    • What does the storyteller want or need?
    • What is at peril?
    • What is the storyteller fighting for or against?
    • What will happen next?
    • How is this story going to turn out.
  • Example of comparing the five-second moment to the stakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

    • Summary based on five-second moment: “Would you like to go to a movie where a man who does not believe in God ultimately finds the faith required to save himself and the woman he loves?”
    • Summary based on the stakes: “Do you want to go see...a movie about an archeologist-turned-hero who must battle Nazis, snakes, booby traps, and evil scientists in order to save the world?”
    • The Nazis and snakes are the stakes.
  • “Boring stories lack stakes, or their stakes are not high enough.”

  • Five strategies for using story stakes:

    • The Elephant is some large and obvious thing that the audience can see.

      • It represents the need, want, problem, danger, or mystery.

      • It is clearly presented and sets audience expectations.

      • It creates a reason for the audience to pay attention.

      • It must be presented early in the story.

      • Example from two story openings:

        • (No elephant): “My mother was the kind of woman whom everyone adored. The model of decorum and civility. She served as PTO president and treasurer...”
        • (Elephant): “I don’t care how perfect my mother was. When I was nine years old, I wanted to disown her. Leave home and never return. Forget she ever existed. My mother was the kind of woman who everyone adored...”
        • Second example makes it clear about the kind of story being told. It creates a framework tension, a want, and conflict that contrasts with the perfect description of his mother.
      • Elephants can change color. The need or want can change as the story progresses.

        • Once the problem is clear, the audience can start guessing and anticipating what happens next.
        • “Make your audience think they are on one path, and when they least expect it, show them that they have been on a different path all along.”
    • A Backpack is a way of increasing the stakes of a story.

      • “It’s when a storyteller loads up the audience with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment before moving the story forward.”
      • One way to accomplish this is by describing a plan to solve a problem along with your emotional state. This connects with the audience that sees what you see and wants the plan to succeed.
      • “This is why heist movies like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise explain almost every part of the robbers’ plan before they ever make a move. If you understand their plan to rob the casino, you can experience the same level of frustration, worry, fear, and suspense that the characters feel when their plans go awry.”
      • Backpacks (and plans) work best when they DO NOT WORK. There’s no payoff when a plan works as expected.
    • Breadcrumbs are a means of foreshadowing to keep the audience guessing.

      • Dicks’ story “Charity Thief” uses a Breadcrumb in the following excerpt:

        • “But as I climb back into the car, I see my crumpled McDonald’s uniform on the back seat, and suddenly, I have an idea.”
        • He doesn’t spell out the idea here. He lets the audience guess at what might happen and when the scene unfolds, the actual events are surprising.
      • “The trick is to choose the Breadcrumbs that create the most wonder in the minds of your audience without giving them enough to guess correctly.”

    • An Hourglass is a way to slow down the narrative at a critical juncture to create additional tension and expectation.

      • “When you know the audience is hanging on your every word, let them hang. Drag out the wait as long as possible.”
      • One technique Dicks uses here is to describe things in great detail in order to wrench out as much suspense as possible.
      • “Find the moment in your story that everyone has been waiting for, then flip that Hourglass and let the sand run.”
    • The Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by the narrator to throw off the audience or make them wonder about an unconsidered possibility or danger.

      • “We spend our lives predicting our future. Anticipating what will come next. Often these predictions about future events are incorrect, and quite often they become part of the stories we tell. We want people to know what we were thinking as well as what we were saying and doing.”
      • Only use Crystal Balls when the prediction is plausible and only when it creates an interesting possibility.
    • Sanity checks for the quality of your stakes (or lack thereof). If the answer is “no” to any of the following, RAISE THE STAKES:

      • Would the audience want to hear my next sentence?
      • If I stopped the story right now, would anyone care?
      • Am I more compelling than video games and pizza and sex at this moment?

Chapter 10: The Five Permissible Lies

  • “We want to tell true stories of our lives, but no story is entirely true. Intentionally or otherwise, our stories contain mistakes, inaccuracies, slippages of memory.”

  • “Be strategic in some of your inaccuracies, and only when it’s done for the benefit of the audience.”

  • However, Dicks advises that one should never add something to a story that wasn’t already there in the story to begin with.

  • The five permissible lies:

    1. Omission: Certain details and characters may need to be omitted from a story for purposes of clarity (especially if they serve no purpose for the five-second moment).

      • Omission occurs all the time for endings. Audiences don’t want a perfect ending. Leave some loose threads and open questions. Avoid endings with perfect redemption.
    2. Compression: The act of pushing the sequence of events into smaller units of time.

    3. Assumption: This is used when specific details aren’t 100% remembered but are necessary in the story. Use a reasonably assumed and plausible detail.

    4. Progression: The act of changing the sequence of events in a story for purposes of impact or comprehension.

    5. Conflation: Similar to compression. This involves compressing the emotional experience into smaller units of time (e.g. days instead of months or years). [Me: Not entirely sure how this is different from #3 Compression]

  • “Using these lies strategically works great until someone who is directly involved int the story is standing beside you, listening.”

Chapter 11: Cinema of the Mind

  • “A great storyteller creates a movie in the minds of the audience.”

  • “Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story.”

    • Example from two story openings:

      • “My grandmother’s name is Odelie Dicks, which probably explains why she is who she is. She’s a crooked old lady in both body and mind...”
      • “I’m standing at the edge of my grandmother’s garden, watching her relentlessly pull weeds from the unforgiving soil. My grandmother’s name is Odelie Dicks...”
    • Using physical locations better engages the audience. It provides them with a framework for visualizing the details themselves.

    • “With very little effort, your mind formulates a fully realized scene, with depth, color, and texture, and all I did was give the moment a specific location.”

  • “Every moment should be a scene, and every scene needs a setting.”

Chapter 12: The Principle of But and Therefore

  • Many people use the conjunction “and” to connect events in a story. The result is a boring list of episodes.

    • “And” stories have no movement, progression, or momentum.
  • “The ideal connective tissue in any story are the words but and therefore, along with all their glorious synonyms. These buts and therefores can be either explicit or implied.”

  • But and therefore indicate change.

  • [Me: Other writers—Mary Robinette Kowal comes to mind—recommend a similar technique that uses “Yes, but...” and “No, and...” as ways to drive positive or negative developments along in storytelling.]

  • Matt Parker (South Park): “If the words ‘and then’ can be placed between any two scenes, you’re fucked.”

  • “It’s the causation, or the causal links between sentences, paragraphs, and scenes that make a story. It’s the interconnectedness of moments that brings meaning to an otherwise linear collection of events connected only by time and space.”

  • “Stories are the crafted representation of events that are related in such a way to demonstrate change over time in the life of the teller.”

  • The power of the negative: The negative is often better than the positive in storytelling.

    • Example:

      • I am dumb, ugly, and unpopular.
      • I’m not smart, I’m not at all good-looking, and no one likes me.
    • The negative contains a hidden “but”: it presents both possibilities.

Chapter 13: This Is Going to Suck

  • Author recounts his story titled “This Is Going to Suck” which is used to demonstrate several story-telling techniques in subsequent chapters.
  • [YouTube video of live Moth retelling of This Is Going to Suck].

Chapter 14: The Secret to the Big Story

  • The trick to telling a big story: “It cannot be about anything big. Instead, we must find the small, relatable, comprehensible moments in our larger stories. We must find the piece of the story that people can connect to, relate to, and understand.”
  • “You may never understand what it’s like to crash your head through a windshield, but you’ve probably been let down or ignored or forgotten by a loved one, as I was in that emergency story isn’t about a car accident or a near-death experience. It’s about my friends standing the place of my family when I need them most. That’s it.”

Chapter 15: There Is Only One Way to Make Someone Cry

  • “When it comes to storytelling, I believe that surprise is the only way to elicit an emotional reaction from your audience. Whether it’s laughter, tears, anger, sadness, outrage, or any other emotional response, the key is surprise.”

  • Common storytelling mistakes that ruin surprise:

    • Presenting a thesis statement prior to the surprise.

      • Essays open with a thesis and offer supporting material.
      • Stories open with evidence and offer the lesson at the end (if at all). Sometimes the lesson is implicit.
    • Failing to take advantage of the power of stakes:

      • Use ideas like Backpacks to create more tension and surprise. The goal is to accentuate these story developments.
    • Failing to hide critical information in a story.

      • Sometimes important moments only become important in hindsight of the storytelling.
      • One way to hide information: hide it among other details or via humor.

Chapter 16: Milk Cans and Baseballs, Babies and Blenders

  • “Stand-ups want the audience to laugh at all times. Storytellers want the audience to laugh at the right times.”

  • Milk Cans: One strategy for generating humor.

    • Involves a setup and punch line. Milk cans are the metaphorical setup and the ball represents the punch line.

    • The more milk cans in the tower, the greater the potential laugh.

    • Example: “I was rescued from the streets by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I sleep in a pantry off their kitchen that they’ve converted into a tiny bedroom. I share this room with a Jehovah’s Witness named Rick, a guy who speaks in tongues in his sleep, and the family’s pet goat.”

      • Goat is the biggest surprise, so it comes at the end (it’s the proverbial ball).
      • The preceding details are the milk cans (the setup).
    • Oddly specific words can be funny.

  • Babies and Blenders: The idea that strange juxtapositions are funny.

    • A kind strategy where one of these things is not like the other: “Incongruities are jammed together and generate laughs.”

    • Steve Zimmer’s story “Neighborhood Watch”: “After Steve’s family is not invited to the neighborhood Hawaiian luau, they decide to host the Zimmer family barbecue, which features ‘Zimmers, pineapple-flavored ham, and despair.’”

Chapter 17: Finding the Frayed Ending of Your Story

  • The ending is your five-second transformation.
  • Remember: the five-second moment defines the story. Even if an experience yields multiple lessons, you have to pick one. Failure to do so will result in a muddled story that lacks clarity.
  • The ultimate goal is to create meaning about who we are from our experiences.

Part III: Telling Your Story
Chapter 18: The Present Tense Is King

  • Author recommends present-tense as a way to create immediacy for the audience.

  • “The present tense will bring you a little closer to these moments in time. It may even trick you into believing that you have time traveled...”

  • His basic rules for tenses:

    • Use present tense as your default tense.
    • Use the past tense for backstory or when you need to create distance.

Chapter 19: The Two Ways of Telling a Hero Story

  • Failure is more engaging than success.

  • “Getting fired from your dream job is probably more entertaining than being hired for your dream job. Tragic first-date stories are far better than perfect first-date stories. The story of an F is almost always better than the story of an A+.”

  • When telling a success story, you have to make it relatable. This means you must bring the hero/protagonist down a notch. Two ways to do this:

    • Malign yourself.
    • Marginalize your accomplishment.
  • The reason you must undermine yourself and your accomplishment:

    • People love underdog stories. This is universal. We love it when flawed or gotten people achieve unexpected success.

    • People love stories with small victories rather than huge victories. “The step-by-step nature of accomplishment is what people understand best.”

      • “Rather than telling a story of your full and complete accomplishment, tell the story of a small part of the success. Tell about a small step.”
  • “The line between hero and insufferable person is a thin one.”

Chapter 20: Storytelling Is Time Travel

  • The goal of the storyteller is to make the audience forget that everything else exists and have them completely captivated in the moment your story inhabits.

  • To avoid destroying the immersive illusion of storytelling, avoid these things:

    • Don’t ask rhetorical questions. It makes the audience aware they exist and takes them out of the story.
    • Don’t address the audience or acknowledge their existence. As with the prior point, it breaks the fourth wall and harms the illusion of storytelling.
    • No props. Dicks says it doesn’t add anything to the story.
    • Avoid anachronisms.
    • Don’t mention the word story in your story (e.g. “that’s a story for another day).
    • Downplay your physical presence. Be as nondescript as possible to avoid your clothes upstaging any part of your storytelling performance.

Chapter 21: Words to Say, Words to Avoid

  • Author recommends avoiding: swear words, vulgarity, other people’s names (use similar names to protect the innocent), pop culture references (they aren’t universally understood), and accents (unless it’s your own or your parents or grandparent’s).

Chapter 22: Time to Perform

  • Don’t memorize your story word for word.
  • Author prefers to memorize the structure of the story (the scenes), the opening (start strong) and the ending sentences (finish strong) and deliver the story in a quasi-extemporaneous fashion.

Chapter 23: Why Did You Read this Book?

  • “Filmmaker Kevin Smith writes that anytime a person is speaking to a group of people, in any context, the speaker has a duty and an obligation to be entertaining.”
  • “You must entertain, engage, and inform. Every single time.”

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