To hear him tell it, when Dave Lieber moved from New York to Texas in 1993, he landed in enemy territory.
Everywhere he went, people were alien and hostile. They would lean in real close and ask: “Boy, what church do you go to?”
“I don’t go to church,” he’d answer.
“Well why not? Don’t you believe in the Lord?”
And then, Lieber says, he would give the absolute worst answer you could give in Texas in 1993: “Because I’m Jewish.”
He’s exaggerating for comedic effect, of course – but also to make a point. Lieber is a longtime newspaperman and consumer watchdog for the Dallas Morning News. He also has a sideline as a public speaker who teaches storytelling. And he’s the author of a collection of short stories, The Dog of My Nightmares.
And while he may be Jewish, he’s become an evangelist for a technique he picked up as a cub reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
According to his “Magic V-Shaped Storytelling Formula,” the ideal narrative follows the shape of the letter V.
When you first encounter the hero of the story, he or she is at the very top of the V. That’s where we meet our protagonist Dave – “a stupid idiot Yankee boy” who innocently accepts a job and moves to Fort Worth.
Things go downhill pretty quickly when Dave encounters the villain. As he explains, the villain can be a person, such as a thief or an ex-wife – or it can be an obstacle or menace such as pollution, traffic, or bureaucracy.
In the story of his own life, the villain is Texas.
As he tells it, just about everything in the Lone Star State conspires to beat down this liberal, divorced, Jewish New Yorker: The people, the food, the language, the landscape. He keeps running into folks who misunderstand and judge him, or just plain don’t like him.
“People wanted to hang me,” he says. “They would say, “Oh bless your heart – and I knew they weren’t blessing my heart.”
In every story, the villain’s role is to drive the hero down, down, down, to the bottom of the V. For Dave Lieber, that’s exactly what the state of Texas did.
He drove the wrong way. He said the wrong things. He bought the wrong cowboy boots.
When he tried to eat a fajita for the first time, he rolled the “flat white pancake” tight, took a bite, “and everything shot out the other end.” The waitress looked fit to kill.
Most storytellers speed through the low points, Lieber says. That’s because it’s pretty uncomfortable down there. “They don’t like to dwell in it.”
But dwell is exactly what you must do – because the audience doesn’t care about your success, he says. “They want to know about your failure.”
For Lieber, things keep spiraling downward – more misunderstandings, more miscues, more cultural gaps and gaffes, until finally he reaches the bottom of the Texas abyss. And god is it awful.
He tries to ride a bull at a church rodeo and lasts only 1.6 seconds – then he’s lying flat in the dust with hundreds of Baptists laughing hysterically.
So Lieber does what all Texans do when in trouble – “I got down on my knees and prayed.”
One week later he’s introduced to a beautiful woman named Karen. She has two kids and a recalcitrant dog.
They fall in love, and what does Lieber do? He rides that V all the way back up to the top. He proposes to Karen in a column in his newspaper called “The Dog’s Not All I Need to the Fill the Hole in My Life.”
And right there, at the top of the V, is a little upturned curlicue – which stands for the denouement. That’s where everything gets neatly tied up.
Lieber gets the girl, settles down, and becomes a family man. And finally, Texas changes his mind about “the idiot Yankee boy” and throws open its arms. “I had a wife, step-kids, and a pet that didn’t like me,” he says. “Now I was one of them. And they were able to connect.”
Yes it’s a simple formula. And yes, it works.
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