How to Tell a Good Story

No One Wants to Hear How Awesome You Are

Sam Bush / 7.22.21

Think of a good storyteller in your life. A grandmother, a groomsman, a beloved raconteur who has the spiritual gift of captivating a room. It feels like an honor to witness someone graciously holding court in front of an audience. I, for one, am not one of those people. I tend to get caught up in boring details, get sidetracked, or botch the punchline. There are only several unspoken rules to telling a good story (among others: know your audience, provide a mixture of humor and gravitas, etc.). But, according to a professional storyteller I once met, above all was this: the teller must not be the hero of his own story. 

It makes sense why the narrator can’t be the star of the show. For starters, nobody wants to hear how you shot the winning basket or landed that job interview. Success stories evince envy or (more likely) resentment. To those broken on the wheels of living, it doesn’t matter how heroic your tale might be — no one wants to hear how awesome you are. That time you nursed an abandoned kitten back to health after saving it from a house fire? Trust me, it’s better to keep it to yourself. Even if the story were true, even if you were actually a hero that one time, it will be irrelevant at best. A hero is not someone any of us can relate to. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

But that doesn’t keep us from trying. Nor does it preempt our tendency toward hyperbolic flair, as we instinctively embellish the details and shape the narrative to position ourselves as the champion. With each telling of the story, the fish gets bigger, the golf ball is putted farther away from the hole, the attendance at church grows a little larger. We leave out some facts and enhance others to make ourselves look better than we actually are. 

Under the weight of such self-aggrandizement, history tends to devolve into self-serving myths. This is true on both an individual and a national scale, where heroes are created by popular demand. We forever remember William Tell and the apple that was never shot. We hold tight to Paul Revere and the ride that was never finished. The gap between the two reveals a discontent with what actually happened. So it is with our own stories that portray us as someone other than who we are. We want to be esteemed and impressive (aka loved). Stretching the truth is a small price to pay for admiration. But when a storyteller — a politician or preacher, for example — positions himself as the hero he becomes a William Tell or Paul Revere. The tall tale undercuts its intent.

It’s been said that atheism’s best critique of Christianity is that it’s a pie-in-the-sky religion, that the idea of being whisked away to a perfect heaven when we die is simply too good to be true. And yet Christianity’s grand rebuttal is that nobody could possibly make up the gospel story. The worship of a crucified savior defies every human tendency to stretch the truth toward power and glory.

What makes it the greatest story of all is that its hero is the ultimate anti-hero. Christ may have been victorious on the Cross, but it was a victory of failure and disgrace — the kind that puts jealousy and resentment to rest. Once a hero is no longer a fan-favorite, he is no longer envied. He may even be a hero and not annoy us. This is why the story of Christianity is so compelling: that God did not even consider Himself the hero of his own story.

The unlikely hero is a long-established literary motif called a “great reversal.” Think of Batman. “He’s not our hero,” Commissioner Gordon says, “he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.” Scripture, of course, is brimming with dark knights: Moses the stuttering murderer, Paul the persecutor, Matthew the tax collector, a long list of anti-heroes. Their lives are marked by scandal and suffering rather than success. And there is no happy ending in a worldly sense: Moses never made it to the promised land; Paul was probably beheaded; Matthew was martyred (and that’s just to name a few).Their stories, like our own, are full of rebellion, shortcomings and the dumb luck of God’s grace. No embellishments necessary.