Stories have become a universal tool for learning, conveying meaning, and entertainment, but the content of a story itself is not the determining factor for what makes a story good. Historic movies, popular songs, and best-selling books all share a similar aspect across massively different formats. A good story creates strong connections.
I learned this one key aspect of a good story during what should’ve been a small, insignificant moment of my life. I studied at Coastal Carolina University for my Bachelor’s degree in Communications, and spent my sophomore year studying abroad. I spent a semester in England, and a semester in Australia, studying film and journalism, spending hours upon hours every week trying to learn how to write a good story, but my work improved only marginally. I returned back from an amazing year, and struggled almost immediately. No one back home was very interested in the stories I brought back with me, and I lacked the solid connections I had created while out of the country.
Once I got back to Coastal, my study abroad advisor recommended me for a job in her office to assist students who now wanted to study abroad. I was initially hired to just file paperwork, but the position grew into advising students from beginning to end, the only difference between my supervisor and I being that her signature on documents actually carried weight. This continued on for a year, still feeling like I was missing something. Eventually the director of study abroad heard of a conference opportunity upstate, designed for study abroad staff and students. She picked me and four other students who had studied abroad in all different locations, who had never met, to pile into a car for a six-hour car ride. Suffice to say, the first hour was awkward.
But then something happened that changed the entire trip entirely. One of us asked what was one fun thing we did while studying abroad? One by one, we were each able to unload these stories that we had been holding on to for months, even over a year. We had finally found our audience in each other, and were able to connect our stories and show our similarities. We were able to share our stories, and create connections between our commonalities through them. Within three hours of talking and sharing our experience, we became an inseparable group until we all graduated.
The reason why a story is good because of the connections it makes can be due to several different factors. One reason connections creates good storytelling is because the story conveys one’s own personality, and can provide signals for others to latch to and create their own personal tether to the storyteller. In New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander states that “perhaps stories are essentially about representing people,’ which causes audiences to value stories with more personal touches than more informal and distant storytelling (p.11, 2017). Stories convey emotion, but a good story creates connections with its audience. During that car ride, each of us told a story that best represented us, in a way that each of us could understand.
The impact of connections can lead to genuine relationships being built between individuals who may not share much in common. Doug Lipman’s TedTalk “What Can Storytelling Teach Us About Creating Connection?’ provides a prime example of one such situation. Lipman provides a personal story, where he was a struggling first-year teacher for struggling students, and was struggling to build any sort of rapport with the students. Similar to my own story, Lipman was in a situation where he was with others who he knew very little about, with seemingly no chance at building any sort of relationship. Once Lipman realizes from others (the vice-principal of his school) that storytelling could be a useful tool, he starts to get through to the students. Similar to the concept Alexander introduced, by telling a story where both the storyteller and audience share a similar goal or value (supporting the main character of his story), Lipman was able to find the tethers that the students could latch to and find a connection, even though they may not want to admit so. A useful read would be Brandy Petersen’s post at https://digitalstorytelling.community.uaf.edu/travel-blog-1-what-makes-a-story-good/. She devotes a section of her piece solely to connections, and how vulnerability is a useful tool in developing bonds between us. During our ride, we created the tethers through our stories. We recognized similar experiences with each other, and could be an easy tool to create deeper conversation.
This concept is seen even in the most popular storytelling, even though we may not always recognize it. I would be remiss to write about good stories without mentioning movies, and in particular the Oscars, just after the awards show. Although I may personally not agree with the value of awards in film, and that the audience support and passion a film gains has a greater impact in my eyes, I can’t help but support the most recent winner of the Best Picture Oscar. The film Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho tells the story of a struggling lower-class family trying to take advantage of employment opportunities through a wealthy family, although through some unconventional methods,, leading to some less-than-favorable outcomes. The film has gained acclaim and massive audience support, but is opposite of what is typical of the most popular movies of the modern day. Rather than being about a man in a high-tech armor suit saving the day, or an epic in a galaxy long ago and far, far away, Parasite showcases something shockingly unique in film: a normal family of four struggling to get by. In the article “Bong Joon-Ho is Weaponizing the Blockbuster’ by Inkoo Kang, its explained that Bong often uses protagonists that are actually normal people by everyday standards, making them unique in typical popular films. This uniqueness once again creates a signal for connection for the audience. This protagonist is like you. Their struggles are similar to yours. Their decisions are those you would make. Though some of his films may be surreal and contain fantastical elements, Bong connects the audience to his work, by giving them the opportunity to connect with his characters and their struggles. For a similar concept (and a much different care ride) I would recommend Malachi Swagerty’s piece at https://digitalstorytelling.community.uaf.edu/the-worst-story-ever-told/. It tells a story that is oh-so-relatable, but illustrates the lacks the connections throughout that are established in the beginning weaken a story. Instead of strengthening the bond between character and audience in Parasite, the story in Malachi’s piece weakens over time and lacks the any sort of impact in the end. During that ride together, each of us were able to identify almost common persona between us, through our similar experiences and the skills and values we all took away. We were able to almost create an identity between the group that each had contributed, and was relatable for each of us.
I think back on the impact that car ride to the conference had on me. I had always learned in film class that the details are what sells the story, or that facts and interest drive journalism, but it all lacked the personal touch that makes a story. It’s one aspect that can never be truly taught in storytelling. You can tell a student to be descriptive. You can tell a journalist to get the hard-hitting details. If I had received an assignment during my undergraduate degree that simply said “connect with the reader,’ it would have been the one I would’ve most struggled with. I struggle to write any details about and stories or readings from my time in school, but I can still tell you the customs Troy learned in his stay in Osaka, or the amazing food Hannah loved in Kazakhstan. Making connections isn’t a skill to be taught, it’s a value to be learned. During that car ride, I learned the value of listening to others and the personal stories they were willing to share to help create commonality between us, and the value of communicating my own story, in the hopes that others may find similarities and comfort in connecting with me, Connections cannot be understated in good storytelling, because they are what makes good storytelling.
Alexander, B. (2017). New Digital Storytelling, The: Creating Narratives with New Media—Revised and Updated Edition, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from https://publisher.abcclio.com/9781440849619
Kang, I. (2019, October 24). Bong Joon-ho Is Weaponizing the Blockbuster. Retrieved from https://slate.com/culture/2019/10/bong-joon-ho-profile-parasite-movie-spielberg-oscars.html.
Lipman, D. (2018). What Can Storytelling Teach Us About Creating Connection? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4S40nn4SdQ