It’s something journalism school will not teach you.
I’ve made my living for 20 years as a longform writer and author and it took me more than 10 to learn the most essential truth of storytelling:
Delay, delay, delay.
What do I mean by that? Well, this tip is particularly for those of us, ironically enough, who majored in journalism. The first thing we learn in j-school is the inverted pyramid: Putting your best material first, out of fear you’ll only have the reader’s attention for a moment. But putting the best material first guarantees you’ll only have that reader’s attention for a moment.
Look, all of life is story. We constantly organize our thoughts into a narrative so we might understand it. We do the same with external events, seeking clarity through the filter of cause and effect and shaping that information until it resembles a story. So the actual stories we write…should be stories. Not a series of factoids whose value and intrigue diminish as we read. And not — because this is just as bad — a well-rendered anecdote at the top of the piece followed by an assemblage of stats and quotes and observations.
When we do that we’ve hoodwinked readers. We’ve led them to believe we’re telling a story when really we’re offering the impression of one. So many journalists do this. We do it because it’s what we’ve been taught. We do it because we lack the confidence to believe the reader will actually stick with us until the last word.
Here’s how to get them to hang around: Withhold information. If a story is a series of anecdotes, great stories place their best anecdotes where they’ll have maximum impact. Cheryl Strayed did that in Wild. She revealed who she was slowly as she hiked the PCT. Each revelation kept the reader intrigued and led to deeper and more nuanced revelations. She didn’t lead with her best stuff. She led with what would entice readers enough to get them to follow her along.
How do you know where to place your best anecdotes? You have a sense for what the story will build to. Aside from being an all-around great dude, Chris Jones is a phenomenal writer. When he came on my podcast in Season One, he said he structured every story by thinking first of where it should end, and then figuring out how to build toward that. The dramatic close, the themes and life lessons embedded within it: It’s almost an argument to put your best material last.
If you want to learn storytelling, in other words, learn it from someone like him.