If you really want to learn how to tell a story — and that’s what all of us should be trying to accomplish — I want you to go to the video store this week and rent season one of the MTV show “Laguna Beach.”
“Laguna Beach” is a brilliant example of storytelling that can teach us the subtle qualities that make a story soar. I was exposed to the show through my two daughters, who’ve been watching it for several years. But as a 51-year-old man, all I really knew about the show was what I read in People magazine while waiting to get a haircut.
My daughter bought Season 1 on DVD, and over Christmas vacation I sat down to watch. I planned to watch one 30-minute episode and go do something else. But I sat on the sofa for hours, watching episode after episode. I was caught up with the story, but also found myself admiring the editors and producers who knew how to tell a story.
Their premise was simple: Follow the lives of a group of kids who attend Laguna Beach High School. That’s the surface. What we really get is a wonderful story arc that touches on universal themes of love, commitment, the future, the past, doubt, letting go, growing up and friendship.
The scene is what elevates a story from a feature to a narrative. It’s a tool we don’t use enough. Writing a real scene takes space, and we all face pressure to keep stories short. But keeping a story short makes the writer “tell” instead of “show,” which is the heart of the scene.
“Laguna Beach” offers a classic example of why “showing” matters.
In one episode, a group of girls are getting their nails done in a salon before a big dance. They’re what I’d call the girls who are in the fringe of the popular group, grappling with doubts about how to fit in. And in comes the popular girls.
What happens in that two-minute scene is spectacular: Raised eyebrows, body language, over-confidence and vulnerability. No one “tells” the viewer that. We see it. We’ve been there. We relive our own moments, and we feel something.
Telling a reader that someone is “nervous” or “proud” or “humble” may engage them intellectually, but not emotionally. You, as the reporter, realize the person is “nervous,” and your job is to record the things that reveal that. That’s the secret of good writing: to report the story as it unfolds, to be the camera getting down all the raw footage of the moment.
Here’s an example from a piece I wrote about a young man trying out for his high school basketball team.
Read this scene and ask yourself what it shows about the mother, the boy and the values they have. I don’t tell the reader. I let them witness it, to discover it themselves. That makes them emotionally connected to these two characters.
The scene opens at the family home when the mother tells her son that she thinks they can afford some shoes if they use her discount at the store where she works. He finds a box of shoes, looks at the price tag — $50 — and sets it back. Then his mother looked at the box.
“Geez,” she said. “They’re $50, and that’s a little spendy right now.”
Mike wandered over to the clearance rack. Nothing caught his eye. And then he found the shoes that were white, with red-and-black highlights, two of his favorite colors. He bent down to look at the boxes, pulled out a shoe and searched for the price — $39.99.
Mike shoved the box back onto the shelf, stood and moved on. His mother tapped him on the shoulder.
“Honey,” his mother said,” I saw you looking at that red-and-black pair. Do you like them?
Why don’t you try them on? What are you, a 12?”
His mother found the size and handed the box to her son. He slipped off his surfers and laced up the basketball shoes.
“Well,” his mother asked, “how do they feel?”
“What’s the price?”
He looked at the box.
She opened her checkbook and flipped through the register.
“With my discount,” she said, “I think we can do that.”
She thought some more. Her son waited.
“Yes,” she said, “we can do that.”