How to Tell a Simple, Compelling Story
What Makes Great Writing #005 - Featuring Barack Obama
It’s tempting to think storytelling is a biological gift, like blond hair, blue eyes, or the ability to drink green smoothies without choking.
That isn’t the case. You can learn to tell good stories.
The core concept of a story is easy to understand. Here’s my favorite definition. (Like all good writers, I stole this definition from someone else.)
“A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict in order to get it.”
You only need a character, a conflict, and a victory. This is the pattern of storytelling.
Today I want to look at one story Barack Obama told when campaigning for Hillary in 2016. Obama is a great example of someone who seems like a freewheeling, “natural born” storyteller, yet his stories follow a pattern, a structure.
In order to illustrate this, let’s take a look at a speech he gave about his 2008 campaign when he met a mysterious woman in a pink hat who changed the way he looked at the world forever.
Source - Fired Up - Animated
Author - Barack Obama, (and, likely another speechwriter. Possibly Ben Rhodes.)
Part 1: A Character who wants something
“I was campaigning for the presidency in 2008. I had flown into South Carolina.”
A clear setting is important. With 14 words, Obama takes us out of the vague cloud of his eight-year administration, and into one exact moment.
The main character of this story is Senator Barack Obama. Not President Barack Obama. It is 2008, and Election Day is looming. At this moment in time, Obama has no idea whether he will be president or not.
What does he want? We don’t actually know yet.
Part 2: A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict
“The alarm goes off, and I feel terrible. I am exhausted. I think I’m coming down with a cold. I open up the curtains. It’s pouring down rain outside. Pouring down rain. Horrible day. I get the newspaper outside my door, and there’s a bad story about me in the New York Times.”
Notice that Obama has spent no extra time characterizing himself. We already know who our character is, where he is, and what he is doing.
That’s why we immediately see our main character is pummeled by obstacles he does not want to face. He does not really want to get up. He does not really feel well. The weather is miserable.
(Characters need to be kicked around before we can care about them.)
“I get dressed, shave, walk out. And my umbrella blows open. Does that ever happen to you? And I get soaked! Soaked! I’m just soaked. I get in the car and ask “How long is it going to take to get to Greenwood?” The driver says, “an hour and a half.” Finally, we get there and I walk out and go in. There are maybe 15 to 20 people there. And… I gotta tell you, they didn’t look any happier to see me than I was to see them.”
So far, Obama has only spoken two sentences about himself, and 15 sentences about the conflict he is facing. These are the rising complications of his story.
After those 15 sentences, we face 15 grumpy people. 15 people can’t swing a state. 15 people can’t win the presidency. 15 people can’t do anything, right?
“So I go around the room and say “Hello, how do you do? What do you do?” But they’re not really feeling it right now. And suddenly I hear this voice from the back that says “FIRED UP.” and everyone else in the room says “FIRED UP.” Then, the voice says “READY TO GO!” and I everyone else says “READY TO GO!” And I don’t know what’s going on. I’m starting to think these people are crazy.”
This is a turning point in our story. Obama has waged war with the rain. He’s gritting his teeth to talk to this tiny audience.
That’s a big deal. We need to see the hero make an effort to overcome the conflict. We need to see him fail. The sentence “they’re not really feeling it right now” tells us the main character is still struggling, but fighting.
His quest must be worthy if he’s putting up with all this.
“And then I look in the back of the room. And there’s this middle aged woman. She’s got a big church hat… turns out, she holds a position in the local NAACP office… where she goes, she says this chant: “FIRED UP. READY TO GO.” She just does this thing. But the interesting thing is after a while, I’m starting to get kind of fired up. I’m starting to feel like I’m ready to go.”
Luke Skywalker has Yoda.
Scott Pilgrim has Ramona Flowers.
Barack Obama has the Lady in a Church Hat.
The mentor/guide is a common storytelling mechanism. Main characters rarely instigate change on their own.
Guides lead heroes through their biggest challenges. In this case, Lady in a Church Hat helps Obama stare down all the enemies he faced so far: doubt, fear, sickness, boredom, annoyance.
She is about to lead him to victory.
Part 3: A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict in Order to Get It
“All those negative thoughts and bad memories start drifting away. And it just goes to show you how one voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, IT CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.”
It is only at this point that we understand what our Barack character really wanted in this story. He wanted to believe he had support to win the presidency. Everything up to this point felt like it was working against him: the potential sickness, the blown umbrella, the bad story in the New York Times, the big drive to a small crowd.
He faced down each of these things to receive his prize — a singular voice in a crowd that would help him keep going. Obama left his meeting that day assured that he’d gained support from a small, but mighty, force.
And when you’re on a mission to win the most powerful office in the land, a day like this can make all the difference.
(If you're interested, the reason the section that goes through the "if it can change X, it can change Y" sequence feels bulletproof because it uses a logical structure called transitivity of implication.)
Barack, of course, delivers this story with his well-known charisma and fervor.
But don’t overlook this: Obama’s energy is quickly forgotten if he’s not using the principles of storytelling to begin with. He understands that every story must have a character who wants something and overcomes conflict in order to get it. That’s the pattern, forever and always.
Obama's style is great sauce on a good steak.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
P.S. My business partner Tim and I are about to close enrollment for our writing course. The course is ideal for anyone who is looking to earn a part-time income as a writer.
The early bird discount ends at midnight tonight.