Brian’s Horrible No Good Story
In the Spring of 2015 I went on a week long road trip with some of my college buddies to a literature conference a couple states away. About halfway through the road trip, when the novelty of being with friends twenty-four hours a day had begun to wear off, we had resorted to sitting quietly in the car, the passengers mindlessly browsing their phones in hopes of some type of entertainment to pass the time. It was at this time that my buddy Brian spoke up, saying, “Have I ever told you guys about the time my dad got shot in the head?’ Immediately we were all intrigued, what a way to start a story! That was when Brian went on to tell us his dad’s life story, including the reasons he joined the military, the various places he was deployed to, and the different jobs he did there. After what felt like hours of pointless exposition, Brian said something along the lines of, “And then a bullet scraped right across the side of his head. And that’s the time my dad got shot in the head!’ It was at that point that I told Brian in no uncertain terms that that was the worst story I had ever heard in my life.
Over the past couple weeks we have been studying what a story needs to have in order to exist, and in the coming paragraphs I mean to explore what a story needs in order to be good. I struggled with this prompt for a while, as I had a difficult time coming up with a list of qualities every good story has. For every quality I thought of, I was able to come up with a story I had heard or read that I considered good that did not include said quality. It was around that time that I decided to try approaching this question the way Bryan Alexander did, and ask myself, “What does a bad story lack that makes it so bad?’ It was at that point that I remembered Brian’s terrible story and began to ask myself what it was about that story that made it the worst story I had ever heard. I would like to take a page from Alexander’s book (if you will excuse the terrible pun), and instead of asking what makes a story good, I would like to ask the inverse: what makes a story bad? In doing this I hope to reverse engineer a list of traits that are needed in order a story worth both telling and hearing.
Brian’s Broken Promise
In thinking of Brian’s story, I think the most obvious flaw was the unfulfilled promise to the audience. His story began by promising that something would happen to a character that we would all find exciting. We all knew that Brian’s dad was still alive, which led to us questioning what would happen to the character of Brian’s dad. We were promised that in the story he would be shot in the head, an event that most of us expected to normally be fatal, yet would survive. This reminds me of Alexander’s discussion of excellent opening lines to stories. Brian succeeded in opening his story in such a way led to his audience questioning what would happen next. However, when Brian ended his story by saying that the bullet grazed the side of his dad’s head, I ended up feeling betrayed by my friend. While this event could still have been considered exciting, it wasn’t what I was initially promised at the beginning of the story. This unfulfilled promise also reminds of a post Brandy made in our discussion when talking about her choice in Netflix movies. Brandy’s post stated, “I have the uncanny ability to pick the very worst movies on Netflix … The common theme among them? An incomplete arc. They captured my attention, brought me to the cusp, then instead of offering some sort of closure, they just left me there. The end destination was not worth the journey.’ (Pederson, 2020). Brian’s story did a very similar action, in promising something exciting, keeping our attention with said promise, and then disappointing the audience in the end. This leads me to what I consider the first quality of a good story, fulfilling promises made to the audience. For example, had Brian’s story ended with a bullet lodging into his father’s helmet, or something along those lines, my expectations may not have been met in the way I had thought, but I would not have felt as betrayed by the ending as I did.
Get to the Point Brian!
The next issue I had with Brian’s story was the massive amount of exposition that he included that did nothing to get us to the point of the story that we all wanted to hear. It was enough to know that Brian’s father was in the military, was deployed in the Middle East, and had a job in which he had to drive around in possibly dangerous areas. The added information that the audience was given ended up being unneeded to the story at large. In looking back at Brian’s story telling, I remember listening to every piece of information Brian gave, expecting each part to be important to the event that I was excited to hear about. I didn’t know why it was important for me to understand the circumstances leading to Brian’s father joining the military, but I expected Brian to be giving this information to me for a reason, and that the end of the story would justify this information that I had been given. Needless to say, this information did not end up being important to the story, and instead I felt as though my friend had taken time from my life that I could never have back. This leads me to the next quality that a good story needs: every piece of the story needs to help to lead it to its overall point. This is not to say that a story is not allowed to go off on tangents, instead that these tangents and pieces of information need to help the audience better appreciate the ending destination.
That Ending Though…
My last issue with Brian’s story was the way he chose to end it. After piquing our interest with a promising opening and leading us along a winding path of needless information, Brian effectively ended his story with two disappointing sentences. This ties into the first part of unfulfilled promises to the audience, but something about this ending feels to me more than just an unfulfilled promise. Had Brian ended his story with, “And then the bullet went into his head, but he survived. And that’s the time my dad got shot in the head!’ I believe I would have still been equally disappointed with the ending. I think that this final quality is a little tricky to pin down, but I would have to say that it would be something along the lines of the ending of the story needs to answer the questions posed by the beginning of the story in a satisfactory way. Catherine Chatfield in out class grapples with a similar question in her post. Catherine asks, “Are endings good because of how we were changed?’ as well as, “Are endings good because of what we learned?’ This gets to the heart of my issue with Brian’s story. At the end of the story we didn’t learn anything new. We started the story knowing that Brian’s dad would get shot in the head, and at the end of the story a bullet hit him in the head. We did not learn why. We did not learn Brian’s dad’s reaction. We didn’t learn anything. In the same way, at the end of the story we didn’t feel changed in any way (save perhaps in our desire to never listen to one of Brian’s stories again). Brian could have saved his story by making the ending meaningful to us.
“And Then He Got Shot in the Head!’
Once the road trip had ended, and life returned to normal it would have been possible that we would have all forgotten about Brian’s story. The thing about a bad story is that it sticks with you though. Brian never heard the end of our ragging, and whenever one of us began to ramble to long about any topic, the other would exclaim, “And then he got shot in the head!’ Because of this, I’m grateful for Brian’s terrible story. Our group grew closer in our hatred of the story of how Brian’s dad was shot in the head. Kyle’s post this past week mentioned that a good story connects people, and I do believe that we were connected by the good story of the worst story ever told.
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
King, T. (2011). Truth about stories : A native narrative. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Pederson, B. (2020, February 2). Story-chat [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from: https://app.slack.com/client/TS4M05RL1/CSTFKLXNG