C.A.R., the Engine of Storytelling

In Three Uses of the Knife, a primer on drama by David Mamet, he states, “We require drama. It’s how we perceive the world.”

In my workshops, after we introduce ways to improve each person’s public speaking delivery, we dive headfirst into the basics of storytelling. Mamet writes, “We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us — to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.” He then breaks it down to the atomic level: “Our survival mechanism orders the world into cause-effect-conclusion.” An easy way to remember this is to use the acronym CAR when organizing your story.

-Context: Answer who, when, and where? What does that person want? What is the obstacle getting in the way of them achieving their goal?
-Action: What happens when the goal and obstacle do battle?
-Result: What happens? Did the protagonist win or lose? How is the relevant to your audience?

In our workshops, attendees start with a simple event (something they had to buy that took some extra thought), then plug in the CAR structure. Using this method allows them to take just about any chunk of information — no matter how direly boring — and transform it into a compelling story. Vince Gilligan, creator of one of the most compulsively watchable TV shows in recent memory, Breaking Bad, speaks about how breaking the episode was the single most important (and most difficult) aspect of creating an episode:

Taking the time to order your information — for a talk, for a presentation, to even relating a personal anecdote — will ensure you don’t fall into the trap of the vacation slideshow, the epitome of audience death by excruciating levels of boredom. The slideshow lacks any obstacle or challenge, and without conflict this brings, it is a series of unending non-events with no hope of a satisfying conclusion. When planning a talk, check to assure you’re telling great stories using CAR.

As Mamet writes, we tell stories “…to order the universe into a comprehensible form.”