The Secret to Telling a Great Story Is Living One

Note: This week, my friend Scott McClellan released his book, Tell Me a Story, and I had the honor of writing the Foreword. Below is an adapted excerpt.

When I was younger, my dad used to tell me stories before bed. These were tales that rivaled those of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn — only they were true. He told me about growing up in Chicago, the same place where I was born, but our experiences were vastly different.

Tell Me a Story
Tell Me a Story by Scott McClellan

Each night, I got to hear a different story from my dad. He told me about the time he saw a UFO or when Santa Claus broke into his bedroom to give him a candy cane.

I became the audience of a mastery storyteller, enthralled with the unusual and interesting characters from another lifetime. These were incredible, audacious tales of bravery and adventure. And I was immediately captivated.

Every night, I would go to bed amazed. And every night, my dad would tell me the same thing:

Some day, you’ll have stories of your own to tell.

But I never believed him. There was just no way I’d ever have stories like my dad’s — I was certain of it. They were just too incredible. And for the longest time, I was right.

Finding my story

For many years, I lived an average life of safety and security. I got good grades, didn’t get into trouble, and never broke a bone. I lived a boring story. I knew this; I just didn’t know how to fix it.

Not until I left home for college did I find a deeper narrative into which I could immerse myself. I began to travel and slowly started coming alive.

At first, the trips were small — weekend jaunts with friends and such. Then they evolved into entire summers, road-tripping across the country to work at a summer.

Eventually, my wanderlust led me out of the country on a study abroad program in Spain, which was where I started grasping what it meant to live a truly great story.

On the streets of Seville, I met a homeless man named Micah. As a kid who grew up in a farm town, I never spent much time around homelessness, so meeting someone who lived on the streets was uncomfortable.

I didn’t have a neat and tidy compartment in which to place such an experience. So I did what most people would do: I walked away.

I ignored the man, at first pretending I didn’t see him and then downright dismissing him. My friends and I had plans for the evening; we were going to check out the city’s nightlife. We didn’t have time for vagrants. We told Micah we’d come back later (we were lying).

“Will you be here tomorrow?” my friend asked.

Micah shook his head: “I could be here, there, I could be anywhere — I could be DEAD tomorrow.”

The statement shocked me, but I wasn’t affected enough to actually do anything. So I walked away. As I did, Micah started screaming at us, begging for help. My pace quickened, and Micah’s shouts got quieter in my ears, all the while growing louder in my mind.

The faster and further I went, the more I could hear his voice. It was unbearable.

Finally, I stopped. Handing my backpack to my roommate, I told him there was something I had to take care of. And I did what I didn’t want to do: I turned around. I’m not sure why; I just knew I needed to. And what happened next changed my life.

I treated Micah to a McDonald’s hamburger meal. As he stuffed his face with fries and drenched the partially-chewed food with his drink, I tried to talk to start a conversation.

At first, he just listened, but then he spoke up, asking me why I came back. I told him I had to. That I couldn’t really explain it, but just knew I needed to turn around. Then he told me something that I’ll never forget:

“You are the only one.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’ve been standing on that street corner for months, and you are the only one who stopped.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I refused to accept it. However, he insisted it was true.

After about an hour, Micah and I shook hands and parted ways. I never saw him again. But I was never able to look at a homeless person — much less anyone in need — the same way again.

Inciting incidents

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to change a story. A simple change of mind. One act that alters the course of your life forever. Turning around when you’d rather run away.

Think of the stories you grew up with. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Catcher in The Rye. Casablanca. The Matrix. In each and every epic that moves us, there is an element of surprise, some unexpected turn that sends the hero on a journey.

Storytelling experts call this the “inciting incident.” It’s the event that calls a character, often unwillingly, into a larger story. And it is always uncomfortable.

The word, “incite,” means to stir into action, and that’s what all great stories do. They change us in some way, make us move. And it’s not enough to believe in a good story; you also have to live one.

Whether we realize it or not, we all are storytellers. With the lives we are living and the risks we are, or aren’t, taking, we are crafting a narrative for eternity.

For those who would dare to live differently, the road before us is not the path of least resistance. It’s scary and costly, full of unexpected twists and turns. But on this jagged journey, we find the one thing we’re searching for: meaning.

Answering the question

For years, I never understood why I didn’t have stories like my dad. But now I do. There was one difference between my childhood and his: risk. It wasn’t until I encountered this truth — that without conflict a story is incomplete — did my life change.

All our favorite films and books are telling us the same thing: Safety is not what you were made for.

Most of us want our lives to matter, but few are living differently. Why is this? Because we’re afraid of the cost (I know I am). We know that it’s only in the throes of danger that men and women become heroes. And this scares us (as it should).

But we must consider the cost of not risking safety and comfort. Where would Middle Earth be if Bilbo Baggins had never left the Shire? What would have become of a galaxy far, far away if Luke Skywalker stayed on the farm? In our own lives, there is a similar question.

I pray you have the courage to answer it.

If this resonates with you, check out Tell Me a Story, a new book by Scott McClellan, on Amazon (affiliate link).

44 thoughts on “The Secret to Telling a Great Story Is Living One

  1. This is fantastic–thank you. As a writer, I’ve been feeling ineffective since I came to a realization several years ago that every plot has already been written. Whether a book or a movie, everything is, at its base, a recreation of another story. Maybe that’s not true. For years, I’ve come up with half-thought plot ideas, only to shoot them down when I recognized bits of a movie scene in them. But I think what you’re saying is right–that in order to tell a compelling story, you need to escape your comfort zone first.

    I think an adventure outside my comfort zone is in order.

    Thanks for the great advice!

  2. What an interesting read!  One time, I met several friends at a BBQ place, had a delicious meal that was great, but after they lost our order and a number of other fumbles, it was really slow to get to us (I mean REALLY slow).  We handled it all with grace, but of their own volition the owner came out and essentially made most of our meal free, which saved me at least $50 after all was said and done.  On the way out, a man approached me in the parking lot and asked to talk to me.  He told me had just gotten out of prison (and various other details that convinced me he was being truthful) and that he needed some money to help him get home.  I handed him the cash I had saved from the dinner and told him good luck!  It really was as if the two events were intended to occur.  Who knows what happened to him or if he really was telling the truth, but I sure felt a little spring in my step afterward…

  3. Great story, Jeff. Thank you for sharing such a transcending moment with us. Often times it’s those small things and realizations that make our minds just explode. Imagining that man who’s been neglected for months on the corner of a street is devastating. You were the one person who went out of his way to help him and I can only imagine how blessed he must have felt that day. 

    I’m glad you started to view the homeless in a different way. It’s very funny that you posted this because I’m writing an article on trust. Part of the article mentions my family and their idea that all homeless people “just want money for drugs and alcohol.” I have never seen that to be true in my life. I’ve always helped homeless people and more often than not, they immediately go and buy food (or I just buy them food.) Why aren’t people more trusting of those in need? It baffles me, but I am glad you view them in a different light much like I do.

    1. Hi Vincent. Well, I think the truth is some people do just that. In fact, I’ve seen it. The hard part of generosity is helping people even when they don’t want to — or can’t — help themselves.

  4. This post soooo reminds me if John Eldegd “waking the dead”, ” epic”, and “the journey of desire”. It resonates with me and echoes of St. Ire sues “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I needed this reminder this morning! Thanks for writing. Your posts bless me time and time again! Thank you!

  5. This reminds me of a minor character in my first book, “A Train Called Forgiveness,” my novel based on my life in and after being the child victim of a cult.  The protagonist meets a homeless man who had been in a hit and run accident on foot.  “The man with his head caved in” offers to carry Andy Burden’s bags from the bus depot to the train station in Memphis in the middle of the night for $5.  At first, Andy declines the offer, but then changes his mind.  Because he changes his mind, he learns one of may valuable lessons about forgiveness from “the man with his head caved in.”

  6. Love hearing about this defining moment in your life.  I love how inciting incidences in our life work.  It sometimes feels like putting together a life long jigsaw puzzle or looking at a mosaic.  So many of the lessons I’ve learned and the growth that has occurred can be traced back to these moments in my life.  And, I feel like I only get a glimpse of what I’m supposed to do with the lesson.  It’s exciting and yet it often confuses me too.  Not sure if that makes sense to anyone but me.  Look forward to checking out Scott’s book. 

  7. Great to see you got your blog back to normal. Love your story here. Glad you had the experience so you can tell it. I too have found that traveling to the unfamiliar inevitably sparks all kinds of new creations in our lives.

      1. Definitely. Thanks. At 24, I’d say I’m on my way, having lived in Uganda, Mexico, and Thailand. Learned tons/got tons of stories from those experiences and plan to travel a lot more in the future.

  8. Even though I will probably never meet Micah, I’m grateful for him because of how he changed your life and then how his ripples have changed mine as well.

  9. I have a tendency to want to read about the stories of others than take the risk to create my own. Life presents us with opportunity to do interesting things that we don’t often recognize as such. Having the awareness to recognize these times and the courage to pursue them is what can create great stories.

  10. “It’s not enough to believe in a good story; you also have to live one.” In a writing class at the Christian college I attended, we talked about the “monomyth” or the idea there is really only one story that is being told over and over. The story is that of Jesus. And your words (whether you meant them to or not) tell me that it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus, I have to live for Him. And that’s where my strongest stories always come from.

  11. what a great story, and reminder too….

    you are the only one….

    that will now stay with me.


  12. This is amazing!!  I had this same thought quite a few times and as I get older, there are still some days that I wonder.  But, I’m learning that its ok to screw up, ok to fail, ok to be afraid of the ‘cost’ sometimes and that is natural.  What makes the difference is going on and acting anyway.  That’s where we become heroes…if not to the world, at least to ourselves and our families!

    Thanks for this reminder Jeff!

  13. Love this, Jeff!

    A year ago I started a blog just for family and friends called “Stories from a Screensaver,” just to keep track of our life out here in Hawaii. After a year of random and encouraging feedback and nudges from my readers, I know it’s time to step (jump?) out of the comfort zone and do something much bigger with my writing.

    Don’t you just love the crazy brainstorming that follows a good inciting incident?!

    Thank you for sharing your gift. Look forward to learning more from you as I live this new chapter in my story!

  14. A great story always has risk! That why we stay tuned or are motivated to move on. The stories I love to share are the stories of when I have faced risk. These are the same stories that hold the bond of relationships together. Some of my best friends are those that I have faced a challenge with, risked with and overcome fears with. 

    It is as if a part of our heart is dormant until risk is present.

  15. This is a wonderful post, very compelling and superbly written. 

    As Herman Melville put it: “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” 

  16. This is also a great reminder to share our stories with our children – what a legacy your father left you.  We all do have a story to tell.

  17. Sharing stories is something I am constantly doing with my girls.  It reminds me that no matter the story, great or small, the importance of living it and telling it is the key.

  18. “For those who would dare to live dif­fer­ent­ly, the road before us is not the path of least resis­tance. It’s scary and cost­ly, full of unex­pect­ed twists and turns. But on this jagged jour­ney, we find the one thing we’re search­ing for: mean­ing.”

    I love this story, this paragraph, and your continual willingness to share your stories- please don’t stop writing!

  19. “Some day you’ll have stories of your own to tell.” Your dad’s prophetic words made me cry. Because I’ve only known the story-telling Jeff. The Jeff that’s been a lifeline at times and whose words have kept me plugging along, clicking keys, and believing in something bigger than myself. And this, “Safety is not what you were made for.” I know. Oh how I know. And that makes me scared as hell and excited as heaven. Thanks.

  20. Jeff . . . I can’t tell you how valuable this is to me right now. You just told me the story of my life, and I’m on the precipice of change. Thank you for telling your story – for sharing the pieces needed to inspire me to make a decision. You, my friend, are an invaluable source of wisdom and knowledge. Thank you.

  21. I just started reading this book, Tell Me A Story, last week. Definitely everything, and more, I was anticipating after reading this post. Thank you Scott for sharing your gift with us!

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