Writing style

Was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered?

Surprise!

Adapted from Gage Skidmore

My dad loves talk radio. I remember as a kid driving around with him and the car tuned to WGN an AM station based here in Chicago. One of the personalities the station hosted was Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey had a popular segment called “The Rest of the Story”.

I wasn’t in love with talk radio, but I enjoyed Paul. He always told some odd bits of someone’s story and concluded with the name of a fairly well known person he had just described.

The surprise made the stories interesting.

Murray Davis discovered this when he looked at what research papers spread more than others.

An audience finds a proposition ‘interesting’ not because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew, but instead because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew was wrong.

We love movies when the bad guy doesn’t hurt someone when we expect it. We devour books where the good guy unexpectedly turns out to be evil. We crave surprise.

And so a big part of my writing style is simply trying to surprise people.

Did you know that young kid who no one wanted to play on the radio turned out to be Justin Bieber? Or the two guys who struggled to become actors, so they decided to make their own movie instead, catapulting the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

On and on I’m looking for morsels of Paul Harvey/Murray Davis-like surprise. Is there something I can poke at that people currently assume? Or is there even something I can hold back through the course of the story that might surprise people at the end?

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”

Source

I remember a Chemistry class I had in college. There was this Teaching Assistant (TA) who collected Beanie Babies and decided to sell his entire collection for a pretty good sum. He did it because he wanted to use his money to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. This has nothing to do with anything, I just remember that being something cool the TA did.

The TA was also the one to show me one of the first “viral videos” ever to hit the internet. It was a cartoon filmed with cutouts using stop motion animation of 4 kids swearing like crazy and Santa spinning Jesus over his head before throwing him across a field of snow.

That was the second ever short episode of South Park that Trey Parker and Matt Stone created in 1995. Today, South Park is one of the most successful cartoons in history.


I picked up a book once about writing. I can’t remember the name of it or the author of this chapter but it was all about an important technique the author used in their writing: weaving. Weave stories together. And that stuck with me.

I started seeing it everywhere. You see it in authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, The Heath Brothers, South Park.

Wait, one of those isn’t like the other.

South Park’s season 21 premier weaves stories about Amazon’s Alexa replacing people’s jobs and a fake TV show called White People Renovating Houses. Back and forth the show moves from this group of people arguing about Alexa taking over the world and the remodeling show. Until they converge.

Some call this storytelling technique “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”, nodding to the days of the early silent cowboy films that needed to use subtitles to signal to people they were now literally going back to the ranch for the next thread of story.

But you see it constantly in the shows and movies you love. One thread starts, and before it reaches a peak, the story moves you to another thread keeping you in suspense.

The weave also helps in another form of surprise: showing you interesting contrasts between two things you might not have thought of being related before: Justin Bieber and ridiculous hard work, Stealing Cars and Frankenstein, Sansa Stark and building an audience.

Don’t get caught stealing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One of my favorite vloggers right now is How to Dad. He’s got a bunch of funny videos showing exactly what his channel’s name describes: weird shit he goes through raising his kids.

He’s been showing more videos recently of his daily life and you can see the things he’s “borrowing” from other vloggers. The selfie-sticks, the drone shots, the timelapses, the musical score. Except the musical score is now often him singing, playing the flute, or banging on his kids toys in his shower and recording the result. It’s a musical score unlike anything you’ve probably seen on a YouTube vlog.

He’s taken pieces of things that have inspired him along the way and added his own bits of creativity to make it truly unique.

Yes, I’ve been inspired by a great many people. And consciously and subconsciously I stand on their shoulders. But I make sure I’m only trying to take a piece of influence. I like his story structure. I like her use of surprise. I like how he uses narration in his videos. And I take all these pieces of things and merge them into a new whole adding my own unique bits.

For example, probably unlike many of my favorite authors, I spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to People Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Variety. One, I try like How to Dad, to add my own ingredients. And two, because I think there’s some great lessons from those channels people haven’t explored past their surface.

Stop doing the same thing every single time


If I came home on a weekend from college, I would go back to school late on a Sunday night because my mom and I couldn’t miss watching X-files together after dinner on Sunday.

X-files was a fantastic show. Its peak season in my opinion was Season 5. That’s where they really stretched themselves creatively. They broke the usual formula of an episode and told stories through different main character perspectives, with different film making techniques, etc.

That’s how all my favorite shows have worked. Sure they often have a go-to style, but they aren’t afraid to change it up constantly.

And so there’s a style to my writing I reach for a lot, but I’m constantly trying new things and source material. Maybe tonight’s vlog episode is about the psychology of getting my daughter to swim and what that means for us as humans, or it’s simply a montage of the Highrise team enjoying our meetup.

I can’t stand formulaic output over and over, and so I’m always looking for new styles and mediums to use.

Do what you’re not passionate about

Photo by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

And finally, my writing style is a product of me being interested in everything. I don’t know if it’s something I’ve been born with, or something I learned from my parents. I played every single sport growing up from Figure Skating to Football. I enjoy Justin Bieber and Phish. In college I took classes in Thermodynamics, Philosophy, Advanced Calculus, and Acupressure.

I love variety.

And that’s a big reason I can’t stand things like conferences in my industry. We’re all doing the same thing, and now we’re meeting to all talk about the same thing we’re all doing? Yuck 🙂

My favorite conference/trade show I attended recently was a show in Food Technology. I didn’t have a direct use for any of the crazy robots and food packaging technology. But it was interesting seeing the trends in food product design and dissecting how they could be applied to other industries.

Everyone is so obsessed with doing what they’re passionate about. Spend more time on things you start with zero interest in. Become interested in just being interested.


So was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered? Both. It was a lot of influence from people I enjoy and admire and also an attempt at being uniquely me.

Put those two things together in everything you do and it’ll take you far in writing, work, and life.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.



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