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A story!

Clara texts Elysha and me from her iPad. She doesn’t own a phone, but she can text from her iPad using Wifi when she is inside the home.

Her message:

“The remote fell into the radiator.”

This is annoying. It’s fallen into the radiator before, and oddly, it’s incredibly difficult to extract. I groan as I read the message, knowing it’s just another problem to solve in the near future.

A moment later, my phone dings again:

A photo of Clara holding the remote in her hand, accompanied by this message:

“But I got it!”

This is everything you need to know about storytelling. Or at least a lot of it.

Clara starts her story by engaging her audience with stakes:

The remote is stuck in the radiator. Something is wrong. A problem exists, and it’s a problem that I care about. I’m invested in the problem and its possible solution.

This is how we engage an audience. Not through nonsense and verbal detritus like, “Guess what?” or “You’re not going to believe this” or “Bad news!”

We make people care by giving them something to care about.

Then there is a pause. Clara waits before sending the next message. This is called suspense.

At its heart, suspense is simply the strategic delay of desired information. An audience wants to know something, so we make them wait before knowing. This delay causes the audience to feel anxious. Move to the edge of their seat. Ponder possible explanations and solutions. Make predictions. Worry and hope.

In the space between texts, I spin. I worry and fester and writhe.

I also drop into backstory, remembering all of the times I have been forced to squeeze two fingers into the tiny opening of the radiator to gain purchase on a smooth, rounded remote control.

I groan. I’m dreading the moment.

Then my phone dings. I see the photo and a message indicating that she has already solved the problem.

This is surprise. Surprise can take many forms and can be deployed in many ways, In this case, surprise is the resolution of suspense with the unexpected. In an instant, Clara frees me from my burden. The world is right again. Happiness is unexpectedly restored.

All of this happened in the span of about 15 seconds, yet it was more engaging, compelling, suspenseful, and surprising than many of the stories I will hear today.

Clara gets it. She knows the best order to deliver information to maximize impact. She understands how to engage an audience through stakes. She wields the power of suspense with skill. She knows the joyous feeling of surprise and how to deliver it.

This was not a fluke. She’s done this many times, in both small and big ways. She’s a storyteller.

This time, she told her story via a text message.

It doesn’t take much to engage and entertain an audience.

Almost nothing at all when it’s told well.