Warren Zevon, Mitch Albom, and Storytelling
Image via WikipediaAt the suggestion of Karen Swim, I’m taking another look at the art of storytelling by examining the work of Warren Zevon, one of our all time great rock composers — although this time Zevon is not taking center stage.
The song is one of my favorite stories ever, regardless of genre – Zevon’s awkwardly titled Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song). The lyrics were written by Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie. (Incidentally, the song features spoken backup vocals by none other than major Zevon fan David Letterman.) So what can this collaborative masterpiece teach us about the art of storytelling?
The irresistible appeal of inner conflict
He was born in Big Beaver by the borderline
He started playing hockey by the time he was nine …
… Buddy’s real talent was beating people up
His heart wasn’t in it but the crowd ate it up …
…”Coach,” he’d say, “I wanna score goals”
The coach said, “Buddy, remember your role,
The fast guys get paid, they shoot, and they score
Protect them, Buddy, that’s what you’re here for …
In Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, the conflict was between Roland and his assassin. This time, it’s man against himself. An internal struggle makes for a great story. If you don’t believe me, check out Crime and Punishment. Albom is telling the same kind of story as Dostoevsky, only in about 1000 fewer pages. Ah, which brings me to another hugely important storytelling technique …
Hit some, Buddy! it rang in his ears
Blood on the ice ran down through the years
The king of the goons with a box for a throne
A thousand stitches and broken bones
He never lost a fight on his icy patrol
But deep inside, Buddy only dreamed of a goal
He just wanted one damn goal
This is good stuff. We have the sum and substance of Buddy’s tragic career in a mere seven lines. And yet, we don’t really miss a thing, do we? You still feel his pain and frustration and the weight of the years. For business purposes, the ability to summarize effectively is paramount. Nobody has time for details, and piling them on can take the punch out of your story anyway. We’re hooked. We like Buddy and we feel for him. Now what?
The moment of truth
In his final season, on his final night
Buddy and a Finn goon were pegged for a fight
Thirty seconds left, the puck took a roll
And suddenly Buddy had a shot on goal
The goalie committed, Buddy picked his spot
Twenty years of waiting went into that shot …
Whoa, Nellie! Talk about a dramatic moment. Literally at the end of his career, opportunity finally knocks. You’re dying to know what happens next, aren’t you? That’s drama. That’s what makes a great story. The business world is full of drama (anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows that). If you look for it, if you approach that case study or white paper in a dramatic frame of mind, you will see how events create conflict and tension, and lead up to some moment of truth – a new idea, a decision to change course or draw a line in the sand. We have a kind of High Noon moment going on here – everything is on the line, and it’s all or nothing. From here, Albom goes for …
The slightly open ended ending
The fans jumped up, the Finn jumped too
And cold-cocked Buddy on his followthrough
The big man crumbled but he felt all right
‘Cause the last thing he saw
was the flashing red light
He saw that heavenly light
Endings are tricky. If you wrap things up too neatly, your story may seem unbelievable, contrived, and/or preachy. On the other hand, if you’re too open ended, you drive some people (me, for instance) absolutely nuts. In business, both extremes, especially the latter, are just no good. Here we strike a nice balance. I’m not exactly sure whether poor Buddy is wounded or dead, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. We have the satisfaction of knowing Buddy’s life wasn’t a total waste, and that little bit of uncertainly makes the story all the more memorable.
That’s what I call a story.
How about you? Where are the stories in your business? Can you see ways to turn dry copy into a hot story, to turn bullet points into pointed, dramatic bullets?