So let me set the scene for you. As I write this, I’m sitting in a library. Just minutes ago, a few feet away, a group of three people—two men and a woman—were sitting at a four-person table, each with a laptop and headphones, each seemingly lost in an individual world. Then a fourth person walked up, carrying a cup of coffee.
(Yes, this is a very progressive library, with its own coffee cart out front. Which is a big reason I come here.)
This fourth person started to set his coffee down on the table, and—did you guess it?—the lid popped off in his hand, the cup tipped, and coffee went everywhere!
“Oh my god,” the coffee-lover exclaimed. “I’m so sorry!” And then to the woman directly across from him, who suffered the worst of the deluge: “Are you o.k.?”
A quick clean-up
By now everyone at the table was on their feet, snatching up computers, books and papers. Someone ran to the restroom for paper towels, and they all went to work sponging up the coffee. Within a few minutes these four strangers had put things to rights. Smiles and fist-bumps flashed across the table as they sat back down. But the perpetrator, clearly mortified, kept apologizing.
“Are you sure you’re o.k.? I didn't know the lid was loose. I’m so sorry.”
“No worries, man,” one of the other guys said. “It could’ve happened to any of us.”
“Let’s make it a good thing,” someone else added. “We got to know each other. And the table’s cleaner than it was before.”
The coffee lover looked relieved. “You guys are so nice,” he said, and headed off to refill his empty cup.
I wonder if any of the four people in this incident thought of themselves as a character in a story. I doubt it. But clearly each of them is. Let’s break it down into the essential elements you’ll want to include whenever you tell a story.
First, setting. Yep, got that. A library. Specifically, a table in a library.
Next, characters. Got that, too. Two men and a woman with laptop computers; one man with a cup of coffee.
Now, plot. Four people in a library do not make a story. You don’t have a story until something happens. That’s why movie directors are always shouting: “Action.” Good plots are organized into that narrative arc structure I like to talk about. You know, rising and falling action, with a climax, or tipping point, in the middle.
In this case, we start with very little action—three people plugged into their headphones, typing on laptops. Ho hum. Then a fourth person walks up. Interesting. Or at least potentially interesting. The action is picking up a little.
Here comes trouble
Now we notice this guy is holding a cup of steaming hot coffee. In a library. Experience tells us these two things normally do not go together. Uh oh. We’re definitely feeling some tension now.
And here comes the tipping point. Literally. The fourth guy dumps his cup of coffee right into the middle of our tranquil scene, and chaos ensues.
From here on out, in keeping with classic story structure, we should see falling action as our characters react to this disaster and work to restore the status quo.
And that’s exactly what happens. At first each individual responds individually, jumping up, grabbing his or her things. Now here’s where this story gets really fascinating. How are these people going to respond to this turn of events, what story experts would call an “inciting incident?” What will they do? Yell, scream, get mad? Call the coffee police?
The suspense is killing us!
But no one gets mad! No one even blames our clumsy coffee drinker. In fact, they go out of their way to forgive him and even welcome him into their group as they all pitch in and work together to resolve the crisis. What a happy ending; what a valuable lesson.
Stories really are unfolding all around us all the time. And each one can be a life lesson. Pay attention, take notes. You’ll come away wiser, and you’ll have plenty of stories to use for every occasion.