19. Write sticky stories

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
…Philip Pullman


WE HAVE LOOKED at the different types of stories we might write. Now, let’s think about how we make our story sticky enough to trap readers.

Sticky stories are those that trigger the imagination, hold interest and are remembered. Their characteristics include:

  • simple — find the core of any idea
  • unexpected — introduce surprise to grab attention and make the story memorable
  • concrete — present an idea in a way that makes it easily comprehensible and memorable
  • credible — make it believable
  • emotional — emotion is often the first reaction that people have to reading a story and is a way to create empathy.

Rather than write a straight news piece, why not structure your story as a mystery? Don’t give the answers immediately. Raise questions and only later provide answers. That is the idea of EngineeringGuy.com in looking at the Heath brothers book, Make It Stick.

Doing this sticks readers to the story by using intrigue and triggering curiosity. Readers continue with the story to find answers to the questions raised.

The Heath brothers say giving the unexpected is a another way to make stories memorable, to make them stick in memory. The unexpected breaks thinking patterns and breaks the flow of the narrative, and when done suddenly becomes memorable.

Here’s an example. Rather than a straight narrative it is written as a letter from an old friend who has not seen the person she writes to for decades. The letter style makes it a more personal tale. She accidentally rediscovers him and after agonising over it, writes to let him know something she wanted to tell him when they were in relationship.

The story is about how a young man, after finding a job with a news agency, became a photojournalist and was sent to Saigon (during the war in Vietnam) as a stand-in for a photographer recovering from an accident. The piece is excerpted from a longer article and takes up where the woman rediscovers him:

I wanted to come to the airport to say goodbye to you that morning. You said no, no need to. But I wanted to because I wanted you to come back here after your assignment though, as I said, we had no expectation about anything even though we had started that casual relationship. Was that really what it was? There was something I wanted to tell you but I didn’t because I didn’t want to have any expectation of you or you to have any of me. I thought we would work something out when you came home. But you didn’t. After Saigon you went to California and your occasional letter from there was the last anyone in the sharehouse heard from you because the house broke up soon after and we went our own ways. You disappeared from our lives.

Now I have found you again. You won’t know that until you read this letter. I found you because just by chance I was flicking through a course prospectus, I think it was, that someone left in a cafe. And there was this information about a media course. I started reading it in that semi-disinterested, absent-minded way you do when you’re waiting for your coffee. Then, suddenly, something reached out and grabbed me. Full attention. It was the mention of your name as photography teacher in the course.

For weeks I agonised about contacting you. Then I found the courage to write this letter. And now I still don’t know how to tell you.

I said when you left I had something I really wanted to say to you that morning you picked up your duffel and your camera bag and took the taxi to the airport. I was confused and I guess it’s why, after you said no need to come to the airport to say goodbye, I didn’t insist on coming with you. I just stood there on the footpath and watched you drive away, watched you drive out of my life.

I said nothing because I didn’t want to burden you with expectations, especially since our relationship, such that it was, had none of the commitment that people make when they plan to start something more serious. I also didn’t want to burden you with knowledge that could limit what you were doing.

So I just want to let you know that she is doing well and has followed you in working in the media. She’s a journalist and for the past few years she has been working with an NGO in Africa, coming and going to produce stories and photographs for the agency. Just last week she informed me that she was going to be stationed over there, probably for a few months while someone was on leave recovering from illness. It was like deja vu and my mind leapt back all those years to that morning you closed the taxi door and drove away.

So, in letting you know about what I wanted to say to you that morning you left, it occurs to me that maybe it’s something genetic, this business about journalism and photography. Anyway, I thought you would like to know our daughter is doing well in life.

…Love from times past
Yvette.

The story starts by creating a sense of intrigue. What could have been so important all those decades ago that the woman writing the letter found it so difficult to tell him? That difficulty is hinted as further on in the story, reinforcing the intrigue and reader curiosity. In the second last paragraph the mystery becomes more specific when she refers to “she is doing well and has followed you in working in the media”. Finally, the truth is revealed.

The story uses emotion, as the Heath brothers suggest, and the fact that there is something left unsaid over the years is mentioned a number of times, providing a sense of intrigue and suspense and stimulating the readers’ curiosity. The final sentence introduces the unexpected. The story is credible.

Writing in the letter format is suited to personal stories rather than basing a story on interviews. It personalises the story and brings it closer to the reader than would a narrative describing the emotions and intrigue.

Sticky stories are covered in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Make It Stick, 2007 Random House, USA.