“A story’s a story, no matter how small”

HortonWith apologies to Dr. Seuss, his book Horton Hears a Who gave me an idea for today’s blog post. In the book, we are reminded that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” – but as I was thinking about some of the questions people ask me about my two careers, I realized that writing can also be summed up in this way.

Believe it or not, whether it’s a radio commercial script, a poem, or a picture book (or even a novel, for those of you with longer attention spans than Yours Truly), there are many similarities between them…

Let’s start at the beginning

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: the first line is possibly the most important line you will write.

At his seminars and workshops, radio advertising guru Dan O’Day has stated for years that the first line of a commercial is the “commercial for the commercial.” In other words, the first sentence of a commercial needs to garner enough attention and interest to compel the listener to continue listening and not zone out or – worse – change the channel.

The first line of a poem or book acts in much the same way. It sets up a story, it pulls the reader in, it connects on an emotional level. And not only does the opening draw the reader into the story, it is often the deciding factor on whether or not a consumer purchases said book.

There’s a reason we tend to remember the first lines of books (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and poems (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”) even if we don’t recall exactly what comes next.

If the first line isn’t compelling, you won’t get anyone past it. And guess what?

The rest of it needs to be compelling, as well!

And then something happened…

The next step is to develop the story by connecting with the reader (or listener) on that emotional level I mentioned. I don’t mean “emotional” as in tear-jerking, chest-clutching, drop-to-your-knees kind of emotion (although it could be)…I simply mean the story and character need to touch the reader or listener in such a way as to stir empathy.

This can be done through imagery, dialogue, word choice, and even humor. If I’m going to write a commercial for a florist, I may choose to set a scene with a husband who wants to surprise his wife for her birthday. If I’m writing a poem about a child playing at a park, I may decide to not let him/her have any playmates, which – while sad – is completely relatable to both kids and adults.

Whatever I do, I want the reader to not feel disappointed he/she continued listening past the first line!

“So, what’s the problem?”

There needs to be some tension, whether it’s through a problem that has been presented or simply through the imagery being described. Maybe your main character has tried fixing that leak in the bathroom and now it’s flooding. Perhaps two lovers are feeling unsure of the next step in their relationship.

Or maybe the old tree in the backyard needs to be taken down, but its bark still bears the scars of think rope once used for swinging.

And did you notice that any one of these scenarios could be used for any genre of writing? The bathroom leaking could be a plumbing commercial, but it might also be ID-100227497 (tree)a short story. The story of the lovers sounds like a poem, but it could be a commercial for a dating service, a jewelry store, or even a condom manufacturer!

That old tree could be the main character in a commercial for tree-cutting services, a metaphorical poem about old age and memory, or a novel about a family coming to terms with its members’ mortality. A story’s a story, after all.

The only place problems get solved

…is in commercials.

This is where the genres split. While a poem, novel, or picture book can conclude in all sorts of satisfying ways, commercials need a solution; it’s why they exist, isn’t it? The whole point of a commercial is to show how problems can be solved.

Other stories can veer off into strange paths: a problem may get solved, only to present another problem; a problem may get solved in such as way as to leave the reader wondering if it really was solved; or it may not get solved at all!

But commercials that don’t solve problems are few and far between.

Don’t take my word for it…

Test out my theory the next time you hear a radio commercial (TV commercials I find too visual for this exercise). Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the first line or two compelling? Is it truly the “commercial for the commercial?” Do they draw me in and make me want to continue listening?
  • Is the premise/problem believable? Is the dialogue natural? Does this “feel” real?
  • Can I relate to the character, premise, or problem that has been presented? Do I feel empathetic to these folks’ plights?
  • If I can’t relate, it is reasonable to assume that there are people out there who can relate to it? (I may not smoke, but there are people who do; I may not own a pet snake, but there are people who do; I may not be a woman, but there are plenty out there.)
  • Is the conclusion satisfying? Was a problem solved – believably?
  • Is this compelling? If not, why?

And by the way…those are the same questions you can ask yourself, once you’ve finished writing your poem, picture book, short story, or novel!

A story’s a story, no matter how small.

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