John-Paul Flintoff: Story mastery

John-Paul Flintoff


Story mastery

[ WARNING: reading this could seriously improve your storytelling, with potentially powerful effects on your audience ]


One of the greatest lessons I ever learned came from the rock star Gene Simmons, of KISS.

(It had nothing to do with make-up.)

Looking back, I can see that the lesson really only began to sink in after Mr Simmons took me hostage by locking me in a windowless space, and told me to keep the noise down.

I was locked in there with a colleague, a photographer named Julian, who’d come to take pictures of Mr Simmons for The Sunday Times. We whispered to each other, trying to hide our fear about what might happen next.

I should perhaps explain that most people I have interviewed did not imprison me.

Some have been positively kind, and generous. The documentary maker Michael Moore applauded my work, as did the film and theatre director Richard Eyre. The late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, once told me: “Very good. Very funny… In fact, it made me laugh.”

Yup: I made Pinter laugh. This will go on my gravestone.

Before the Sunday Times, I worked as a writer and editor on The Financial Times Magazine. This is me at the FT, long before Mr Simmons locked me up:

As well as rock stars, film makers and theatre people, I’ve written a lot about sportsmen, artists, religious leaders, criminals, and their victims, prime ministers, financiers, Nobel-winning scientists, philanthropists and any number of “ordinary” people who have had extraordinary experiences.

But what I liked more than anything was to write journalism about real-life experiences I had:

  1. cleaning windows on the outside of Britain’s (then) tallest building, where the flecks of soap spiralled down off my hands to invisibility
  2. working for a minicab company and driving an assortment of people around London at all hours,
  3. joining the cast of a London pantomime, for the whole of the rehearsals and into performance…

The best thing about being a journalist is seeing the world, and meeting people.

Oh, and telling stories. I love telling stories…

I learned a lot more about storytelling when I trained as a theatrical improviser, and started on fiction. Honestly, I had no idea what I had been missing.

But I digress…

The best thing about being a journalist is NOT getting locked up inside a windowless room.

But like I said: I learned a lot from Gene Simmons taking me hostage. I’m very grateful to him. I owe him a lot.

Let me explain…

When I went to interview him, Mr Simmons cleverly didn’t give me the goods straight away.

First, he kept me waiting in the bar for a while. When I was finally called down into the lugubrious basement to see him, he was surrounded by his entourage.

He introduced me to them. I didn’t catch all the names, but they included a glamorous young singer he was promoting. I remember very little about her, now, except that she wore cowboy boots.

Mr Simmons played her latest song at very high volume, and we had a little chat afterwards, in which I think I told her that it was ace – that kind of thing.

Straight after that Mr Simmons locked me in the cupboard with my photographer friend.

He knew very well what he was doing, that multimillionaire rockstar. He was keeping me waiting. Building up the suspense, if you like…

On finally being released, we received no explanation for our enclosure, but Mr Simmons graciously allowed me to do the interview.

Here, finally, was what I’d come for.

At the time, the experience gave me an unusual feeling that combined irritation with amusement. Looking back, I feel only gratitude.

Because I see now that he was doing his best to give me a story: How I got locked up by the rock star Gene Simmons of KISS.

More than that, he was giving himself an opportunity to do a bit of promotional work.

He knew that, if he’d given me the interview straight away, I probably wouldn’t have stayed to listen to that woman’s song, no matter how glamorous she was, with or without cowboy boots.

So he smuggled it in first.

Keeping something back allowed him to do something remarkable: something that I’ve done myself, right here in this post. Did you see?

He kept my attention…

… as I seem to have kept yours.

Your time is precious. Thank you for reading.

JP “keep em waiting” Flintoff

PS. At the magical intersection of story and character, you can profoundly influence people, no matter what kind of audience you serve.

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