Not My Restaurant Break Up
Use Therefore and But
It's obvious storytelling is all around us, especially if you want to tell stories. We even hear about storytelling in marketing, storytelling in finance, storytelling in advertisement. Every angle needs a story.
How do you tell a compelling story?
Is a story a sequence of events?
Ira Glass says, "Human instinct compels us to stick around to see what happens next." But you have to set the story up properly.
The Set Up Must Pay Off
Think about the last time a story was told as a sequence. Were you intrigued? This happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. I'm bored writing it. You must be bored reading it.
Even something as painful as a breakup contains the seeds of a compelling story but becomes coma-inducing when told in the "and then" format. When a relationship ends, we tend to talk about it with friends in a sequence of "And then this happened. And then I did that." It becomes a bland recounting of events, even if it wasn't me who was part of the breakup.
I was waiting tables in a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. A couple walked in, probably early 20s. They had narrow smiles and a quiet, sad demeaner. I welcomed them to the table with the typical corporate lines required of me. I got them drinks. They ordered. They broke up. I gave them their check.
It's a sequence. But it doesn't tell a story.
There is an art to transforming events into stories that resonate. The key is to identify the pivotal moments—the major decisions, turning points and sources of conflict. This is where the power of "Therefore" and "But" comes in.
We left off with the breakup...
What if we rewrite it with more narrative tension and more storytelling intension?
The Story Part II
I was waiting tables at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. A couple walked in—in their early twenties with narrow smiles and a sad demeanor. I recited the requisite corporate welcome lines and took their drink orders. I walked away and their voices hushed; the sound urgent.
I returned with their drinks. They stopped talking. They looked way from each other. I was required to ask if they were ready to order. I had to offer two examples of items they could start with. But they ordered entrees without looking up from the table. An uncomfortable silence fell between them. I walked away—to give them privacy? It was really to put in their order.
Their quiet argument continued. The woman cried quietly. I brought the food to the table. I couldn't hear the woman over the Billy Joel song on the radio. The man held his head in his hands. A burger and a pizza. They usually smelled like melted cheese and butter; but now they smelled like sadness. The woman stopped crying.
"Can I help with anything?" I said. Then I felt self-conscious, like they expected me to help with their breakup in some way. I changed the phrase. "Can I get you anything else?" The woman shook her head. The man stared at the table. I walked away and the Billy Joel song ended. The harsh tone of their whispers echoed against the wall. They didn't eat their food. I still had to ask if they wanted dessert.
Can You "Therefore and But"?
The pivot points of conflict and yearning created by "therefore" and "but" infuse the mundane interaction with emotional tension. But it also demonstrates the different experience you can have if you shift the perspective from the expected characters to someone else. The story was not about those in the middle of breaking up but about how a couple's breakup affected me. How I had to navigate this moment, but also how the moment still needs to feel personal, specific, and explored.
While subtle, this technique brings the brief restaurant drama to life. Through the friction and momentum created by "Therefore" and "But", we take a sequence of events and turn it into a compelling storyline.
Mine your experiences for pivotal moments. These moments of reward and friction are where the storytelling lies. They transform a bland recounting of life into a compelling story that will move readers.