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The Secret to Great Storytelling

By Matthew Dicks, author of Storyworthy | Updated November 3, 2018

There are many secrets to storytelling. Many ways of crafting a moment from your life into a compelling, connective, memorable story.

One secret is more important than all others:

Every great story is about a five second moment of our life.

That's it. The purpose of every great story is to being a singular moment of transformation and realization to the greatest clarity possible.

This is not how most people think when it comes to telling a story. Most people see a story as a series of events with a beginning, middle, and end. "Interesting stuff happened to me. Let me tell you about it."

It might be interesting, and it might be compelling. I might even want to hear it, but it's not a story.

Similarly, "Let me tell you about my vacation to Tahiti" is not the beginning to a story, despite what many seem to believe. This is merely an attempt to review the itinerary of your previous vacation — activity by activity — with good meals inserted into the itinerary when appropriate. It's a review of stuff that happened. A series of events. An attempt to re-live a week in an exotic locale and perhaps brag about it a bit.

But it's not a story.

No one has ever wanted to hear the sentence following "Let me tell you about my vacation to Bali." No one has ever wanted to hear a person talk about their vacation. Ever.

But if someone said, "While I was in Tahiti, I met a taxi driver who changed the way I think about my parents forever," that is potentially a great story.

That is something I want to hear.

Why? It's a story about a five second moment. If done well, that story will culminate in your moment of realization and transformation, and everything that precedes that moment will serve to bring that five second moment to the greatest clarity possible. For a lifetime, you thought about your parents in one way, and then in a singular moment, that thought changed forever.

That is a journey I am willing to take. That is a reason to tell a story.

Storytellers seek these five second moments of transformation and realization. I call them "five second moments," but in truth, they are often one second moments. That is how quickly things can change. These are the moments when you fall in love. Fall out of love. Realize for the first time that your mother has always been right. These are the moments when you see the world in a new way. Understand yourself better than ever before. See a friend or colleague or enemy in a new light. These are the stories in which people find or lose their faith. Make a monumental decision that changes their career trajectory. Decide to finally tell the truth.

This is good news, because most people believe that stories must be about astounding moments in our lives. Life or death moments. Not true. Not even close. I am a person who has died and been brought back to life via CPR twice. I was arrested, jailed, and tried for a crime I did not commit. I was homeless. I was the victim of a horrific crime that left me with a lifetime of post traumatic stress disorder. I was pulled from my childhood bed by a firefighter.

And that is truly just the tip of the iceberg of insanity that is my life.

This is why my friends told me to go to The Moth and start telling stories. "You've had a terrible life! Go tell about it!"

I thought this at first, too. At last I can turn my great misfortune into someone useful.

It turns out that I was wrong. Though many of those experience have made excellent stories, the most popular stories that I tell are not about the big moments of my life but the small ones.

  • The time I picked up my eight year old daughter and realized that I am the last person who will ever hold her like the little girl she is almost not.
  • The time my wife revealed that she knows I was hungry as a boy, even though I had never told that secret to anyone.
  • The moment when two of my fifth grade students rose from their seats, walked across the classroom, and hugged me upon learning that my mother has dead (and had been dead for more than a decade).
  • The time I dropped my keys onto my shoe, and a stranger bent over and picked them up before I could, making me realize in a flash of insight what a selfish jerk I had been all day (and for much of my life).
  • The time I swallowed a penny as a boy and learned something profoundly disappointing about my parents.

Each of these stories, and every story that I tell, culminate in one of these tiny moments of change. Singular moments of realization or transformation.

I was once one thing, but now I am another.

This is what makes a story memorable and meaningful. This is what allows the storyteller to connect to the audience. Find a way into a listener's heart and mind and never leave.

You don't have to die or be arrested or live on the streets to be a great storyteller. You don't need to travel to exotic locations or meet famous people. You simply need to find a moment in your life when something about you changed in a profound way. Your life is filled with these five second moments. Find them, and make them the stories you tell.

Next: Crash & Burn: Stream of Consciousness Writing Exercise

More with Matthew Dicks

Matthew DicksMatthew Dicks is a bestselling novelist, thirty-six-time Moth StorySLAM champion, and five-time GrandSLAM champion. In addition to his widespread teaching, writing, and performing, he cofounded (with his wife) Speak Up, which produces sold-out storytelling performances throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York at least once a month. He lives in Newington, Connecticut. His website is

The Secret to Great Storytelling
There are many secrets to storytelling, ways of crafting a moment from your life into a compelling, connective, memorable story.

Crash & Burn: Writing Exercise
Crash & Burn is stream-of-consciousness writing, writing down whatever thought that enters your mind, regardless of how strange, incongruous, or even embarrassing it may be.


Based on the book Storyworthy. Copyright ©2018 by Matthew Dicks. Reprinted with permission from