What's in a story?

We’re reminded regularly of the importance of stories. They can be attention-getting ... can resonate with readers ... can make, or hammer home a point ... 

But what constitutes a good story? And, how do you tell it? In thinking of how I approach this, there seem to be three distinct steps. 

1) Begin at the end.

What’s your point? What’s the moral of the story … the conclusion you want the listener or reader to reach … the next step you hope they will take?

As a fundraiser, this may seem obvious: the ask. But I’d argue for a much broader perspective, that of donor development. For your ask to succeed, you must first establish a mutual understanding of the need and the urgency to fill that need.

While an organization may want to raise money to refurbish a historically significant artifact – such as a vintage airplane,  for example – the first task may be to establish or reinforce that this item does have significance.

A hunger relief agency might want to reinforce the importance of nutritional balance or the impact of hunger on a child’s ability to learn. A social services agency might need to establish the costs of not taking action. And so on.  

2) Make it real.

Every story has characters & conflict. You create the characters for your reader and describe the conflict they endure as you move (with them) toward the goal you've established. 

There are many forms in which “heroes” and “villains” can interact. Citizen soldiers come together to defend freedom against the forces of fascism. An innocent child is rescued from horrendous disease. A creative and committed researcher makes groundbreaking discovery.

How can you personify this movement in a way that provides both rational and emotional support? 


3) So what?

There’s a difference between significance and relevance … and establishing the former doesn’t guarantee the latter.

Sure, saving this historical artifact can preserve history. But it can also serve as tribute to the values that history represents (the men and women who risked their all). Perhaps it can even help convey the lessons learned and thus carry those values forward (daring and resolve, even in the face of overwhelming odds) . 

Even more importantly, consider with whom you are talking and what role they may play in this story. How do you involved the reader and and make them a part of the hero’s journey? Do they experience a similar dilemma? Can they help resolve the conflict?


While I said at the outset there are three distinct steps, these are not always well-delineated.  In fact, you must weave them together seamlessly for your story to work. This is seldom a linear process and may move forward in fits and starts. 

In many cases, I may open the story with an attention-getting nugget or two, step back to establish context and set direction, and then periodically bring in additional details to help keep the reader moving in the desired direction. 

What story-telling "tricks" seem to work well for you?