In January 2021, when I first started working on Digital Storytelling, I asked my two older kids, then five and three, before bed one night, what makes a story and what makes a story good. Their answers immediately went to the books we were about to read. But with a little more probing, they were able to reveal some universal truths of storytelling.
Bryan Alexander defines a story as, “For a given audience, a story is a sequence of content, anchored in a problem, which engages that audience with emotion and meaning.” My son identified one of the essential parts of what makes a story a story to be what makes a story good. I think he is on to something. There is a reason why Alexander’s definition starts with the audience and circles back to them, and I have always found that I write better when I have an idea of who is going to read what I am writing.
But the audience isn’t part of the story itself, generally speaking, and great stories often transcend their intended audiences. Alexander’s definition has three other parts: “a sequence of content, anchored in a problem, …with emotion and meaning.” To be good, and to engage beyond its intended audience, a story needs to either excel or violate one or more of these parts.
Of course a story must have content. There must be something to tell, and the act of telling implies an order, hence a sequence. But must a story have an order? And given an order, must the story be told in order? A great deal of attention is paid to the order of stories in high school English classes: prologue, rising action, climax, falling action, catharsis. But even the oldest written stories mix up the order of events to build drama. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey both start in media res (Latin: “in the middle of things”). And some modern interactive stories don’t have a single order of content; the order—and to some extent even the content—are chosen by the audience. And some stories, such as murals, are told all at once.
Regardless of the order, the content must have some relevance to the audience. It may be purely entertaining, or it may be instructional. It must balance familiarity with novelty to keep the audience engaged. This applies to the setting, the characters, the action, and the anchoring problem. I believe that the anchoring problem needs to be one that the audience recognizes right away, so that whether or not they have experienced that problem, they can sympathize with the protagonists of the story. The more universal the problem—hunger, weather, travel, a beast—or the more extraordinary the problem—a tragedy, a hero’s quest—the more likely the audience will be able to sympathize with the protagonist and the more transferable that sympathy will be among audiences.
That sympathy is the source of the emotion and meaning in Alexander’s definition. If the audience cannot sympathize with the characters, they will not be engaged with emotion and meaning. The content of the story is the vehicle by which it conveys emotion and meaning. A story’s ability to do so is the measure of its quality.
Of course, the effectiveness of that vehicle depends in large part on the audience. That is why there are good children’s stories and good stories for adults. The meaning that one takes from a story depends on the context that one brings to the story. Children’s stories may have simple lessons, but they are grounded in the children’s world, and they construct the children’s world, laying the groundwork for more, bigger stories.
Maria Popova’s video essay “Wisdom in the Age of Information” addresses the intellectual and moral quality of stories in building our worldviews. A child’s world and values are built on the stories they hear. While some stories might teach them information, such as the alphabet, numbers, or planets, others might include lessons on interactions with talking wildlife or climbing abnormally tall plants or cooking for mythical creatures. Buried in each of these stories are other values about how we view and interact with each other and with strangers.
These values build throughout our lives. Popova identifies stories as a force guiding us up the “ladder of understanding” toward wisdom. Stories and storytellers give us a moral framework and standards for behavior. In a world of information, without wisdom, having a story to guide us helps us find direction and meaning. The weakness of Popova’s case is the singularity: she praises the individual story and storyteller as the imparter of wisdom, ignoring the danger of gleaning all one’s guiding wisdom from a single story or storyteller. The storyteller charting their course toward the horizon may, in their wisdom, point their audience in the wrong direction, leaving the audience wondering once again, “Why are we here?”
In Thomas King’s first lecture in The Truth About Stories, he tells the story of how evil came into the world: through a story. King and Popova both claim that releasing a story into the world is permanent. It can’t be called back. The wisdom, good or evil, cannot go back into the box. Its effect on its audience is permanent.
As an example, I enjoy The Lord of the Rings. I have never been able to read the books, because I read too slowly, and I know that the movies do not do the books justice, but I am forced to base my opinions on the movies. (I did read The Hobbit before that film trilogy was released. I plan to read the LotR trilogy to my kids when they’re a little older. We can enjoy it for the first time together.) I think that The Lord of the Rings is a good story. It has its shortcomings (underdeveloped characters), but it is, ultimately, up-lifting. Evil is vanquished. Unlikely heroes emerge. It begins and ends with plenty of food, ale, and pipe weed. The emotions and meanings are engaging and edifying.
By contrast, I hate Game of Thrones. Again, I have not read the books, but I started watching the TV series on DVD with my wife a decade ago. I did not watch much past the first season. The depravity of many of the characters was too much for me. I declared at the time, “There is enough depravity in the real world right now (the backlash to the Arab Spring). I don’t need to watch made-up depravity on TV.” The emotion and meaning were engaging, yes, but not in a positive way, in my opinion.
And so it comes back to the audience. The audience must be engaged with emotion and meaning, and the emotion and meaning should lead that audience up the ladder of understanding. And that is, perhaps, what ultimately makes a story good: its ability to “plant the seed of transcendence,” as Maria Popova puts it, and not to drown or stamp out that seed.
Here is a story. It is a meta-story, the story of how a story came to be and came to have an affect on my son and my wife and me. I do not claim that this is a good story, but it is a story.
Two days after I recorded the audio track for this video, for the first time in months, Gus asked for a Bob Story. It was a couple more days before I was able to tell him one. On the night that I told him a Bob Story, he told me he wanted to bring them back. He says they are happy memories. He has been having a lot of bad dreams lately, and he thinks having a Bob Story as he falls asleep might prevent them.
I knew it was a fond memory for all of us, but I didn’t realize how powerful it was for him. I would never have claimed that Bob Stories were good stories, although some have been better than others. To him, though, they are good stories (but not as good as Harry Potter). They are good because they were created for him personally, and they elicited feelings of happiness and safety.
For our part, Meg and I gave the stories meanings that he didn’t notice, but that prepared him for upcoming life events. The big family move is the obvious example that I included in the video. I also incorporated current events and the changing of the seasons whenever I could. The fact that Bob’s Pilot is gay was meant to prepare him—at three or four, when all of his friends had a mom and most had a dad—for meeting his uncles in Michigan. There was kindness, nonviolence, and compassion for members of the natural and supernatural worlds. The Bob Stories constantly planted seeds.
As I wrote this post, I caught myself asserting differing criteria for a good story and wandering between an objective and a subjective judgment. A good story needs to have all of the parts from Alexander’s definition. It needs to excel or violate the rules in ways that engage the audience. It needs to be tailored to its own audience first, and perhaps find new audiences through its universality. These are the objective criteria of quality, but to make a story good, the engagement must meet the subjective satisfaction of the audience, whether for entertainment or for enlightenment.