Trying to figure out what makes a story good was more difficult than I thought it would be. Since we are using a road trip metaphor this semester, I decided to use a similar analogy for my travel blog response: the guided tour. After all, a story really is somewhat of a guided journey. So, what makes a good tour?
In this guided tour scenario, let us assume that we are people on the receiving end, listening to, watching, or reading the story. We are the tourists. We may have chosen a particular tour package based on our own interests, or maybe we were drug along as part of some sort of group activity. Whatever the reason for partaking in the tour, it should be noted that communication during the tour is predominately one-way. We as tourists do not have primary control of the tour content or what stops will be made along the way – that control belongs to the storyteller, a.k.a. the tour guide. Don’t get me wrong, free-will is still a thing, and leaving in the middle of a tour is always an option. Still, the tourists are generally at the mercy of the tour guide, and it is the tour guide that can make even the most mediocre place interesting and worth exploring (or vice versa!). This brings us to the first component of a good story: the storyteller.
Soooo much of what makes a story good depends on the storyteller. How do we know if they are worth investing our time in? Let’s go back to our guided tour:
As we board the bus, we are greeted by the tour guide. Depending on the type of tour, we may or may not be able to physically see them. Chances are, the tour guide is more of a presence: something we can “see’ in our mind’s eye and “hear’ as they begin their tale — er — tour. Consider the following excerpt from The New Digital Storytelling by Bryan Alexander:
Put another way, we deem a character’s story worthy through multiple, overlapping validations. Does a character seem convincing, realistic, human? Do we empathize with them, feel an emotional connection? These two assessments are widespread in the reception of nearly all ï¬ctions. A third evaluation reverses the terms and questions the storyteller’s character: is he or she convincing? Do we feel hailed by or connected to that voice? Naturally, these criteria apply differently across cultures, times, and individual preferences, but the forms remain popu lar. (p11-12)
It is the tourist who determines whether or not the guide is worthy. Are they engaging, can we connect with them on some level, are they authentic? For example, I found Thomas King’s overall voice to be likeable and trustworthy. I don’t actually know him, but the cadence and tone he used made him seem familiar. I could hear his voice, I believed in his story, and he was funny — something a good tour guide should be in my opinion.
However, to make things even more complicated, everyone has their own set of preferences, their luggage if you will, full of past experiences, bias, and dreams. Perhaps the story’s subject is disturbing, or the storyteller’s perspective clashes with your own. If the dank odor of a lackluster plot greets you at the door, is it enough to make you turn back? Or is there a character sitting next to you that is intriguing enough to keep you in your seat? Maybe you just want to see where this bus is going. It really is up to you.
For the purpose of this blog, our tour guide seems trustworthy, so we settle in our seats. What’s next you might ask? Well, it is the second component of a good story: the journey, of course!
Have you ever heard someone tell a joke, but miss the punchline? I don’t mean some sort of terrible dad joke, but more like the kind of joke a kid would tell before they understand the concept of humor:
“… Oh. Well. Hello, purple toaster!’
Like jokes, stories are expected to follow a certain path with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. Without each of these elements, even the most enjoyable tour guide can have our inner Siri beginning to repeat, “Proceed to the route!’
As Kyle Johnson pointed out in our class discussion,
“It feels like now with such a large amount of content constantly being released and shared and consumed, it can be difficult to remember that for the most part, the basics elements of storytelling can remain consistent over hundreds of years. (Jan 26, via Slack)’
Beginning. Middle. End. This is what we expect to receive and, in order for a story to be good, the navigational skills of our tour guide have to deliver all three. But, more than that, we have to enjoy the ride.
On our guided tour, the journey is the middle, the bulk of our trip. Sometimes, we don’t need anything spectacular to encourage us to follow along. For example, I have watched all available seasons of the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. I don’t bake, but it is light and entertaining, with goofy jokes and a simple plot; I knew what was coming in every episode. I would akin this to reading a genre novel. As U.K. Le Guin explains in Telling is Listening,
“A genre novel fulfills certain generic obligations’ (p204).
It is basic entertainment that doesn’t require too much thinking. There are no major surprises.
While genre serves a purpose, a good storyteller will deliver something above and beyond this, a real hook. Perhaps they take a roundabout route you haven’t traveled before, or surprise you with an unexpected plot twist. Whatever the strategy, a good storyteller will capture your attention and imagination by creating enough intrigue and dramatic tension that you would follow them through the darkest night, into the morning, and maybe even into the first hour of the workday just to find out what lies at the next stop! This, my friends, is where connections are made.
A good journey reveals something that the receiver of the story recognizes as significant and valuable in some way, creating some sort of connection. There are countless ways this can happen. Perhaps we are captured by the content as we relate to the hero or heroine. Maybe we see aspects of ourselves in them and can fantasize being a part of their story. Maybe we are just intrigued with our tour guide, their mannerisms and ways of speaking.
In the 2013 article, How Stories Change the Brain, Paul Zak explains how our brains are hardwired to make such connections. A good story allows us to empathize with its characters and learn through their experiences. From an evolutionary perspective, it allows us to connect with strangers and learn how to better preserve the species. However, I have to agree with Le Guin when she explained her views of this connection to story:
It is marvelous that we can talk to living people ten thousand miles away and hear them speak. It is marvelous that by reading their words, or seeing a film of them, we may feel communion even with the dead. It is a marvelous thought that all knowledge might be accessible to all minds. (p194)
Stories are in essence communication. Of course, all communication can’t be marvelous. Communicating with others through story — whether it be through a physical, emotional, or spiritual connection — is something that can be very intimate and powerful. Opening ourselves up to communication can leave us vulnerable, whether we are the storyteller or the receiver. It can lead to something beautiful, but it might also lead to something horrible or scary. For a story to be a good story, the connection will be strong, memorable, and positive in some way — not in the everything is flowers and rainbows sense, but in the sense that it will help us to grow in understanding.
After explaining his estranged relationship with his father in Truth About Stories, Thomas King shares some of his inner thoughts about storytelling:
I tell the stories not to play on your sympathies but to suggest how stories can control our lives, for there is a part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live. (p9)
The journey and the connections we make along the way can really change us. In order us to feel good about that change, there has to be some sort of closure or end to the story. A good ending.
Eventually, all journeys come to an end. Unless, of course, it is a series where we are left with a cliff hanger! A good story will end with conflicts resolved and the audience feeling satisfied with the way things turned out. In the 2014 video, Wisdom in the Age of Information, Maria Popova asserts:
A great story then is not about providing information, though it can certainly inform. A great story invites an expansion of understanding, a self transcendence. More than that, it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding – of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves, of some subtle or monumental aspect of existence.
While transcendence is an honorable goal, I think a story can be really good, even great, without it. Sometimes it is the story that transcends beyond itself, creating connections through the telling and retelling of a simple tale. Maybe it is a silly tale, that makes no sense at all, but makes you feel good inside. I suppose that is an aspect of our existence, but it is not always a deeply philosophical thing. Whatever the reaction may be, it is the final reaction, when all is said and done, that is perhaps the best measure of a good story.
How do you feel as you step off of the tour bus? Maybe you made a friend or two along the way. Will you be taking a quick selfie with your guide so you can show them off, or rushing home to write a nasty yelp review? Are you resisting the incredible urge to run and tell the people you know, or are you upset you wasted two hours on an incredibly lame tour? It is easy to determine whether a story was good or not. You just feel it.
King, Thomas. Truth About Stories : A Native Narrative, House of Anansi Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uaf/detail.action?docID=744696
LeGuin, U. K. (2004). The wave in the mind: Talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination. Boston: Shambhala.
Popova, Maria (2014). Wisdom in the Age of Information. Future of StoryTelling.
Zak, P. (2013, December 7). How Stories Change the Brain. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain