The Story of Story: Part 3 – Good Story, Well Told.

Often in my English classes, (and yours?) we talked about the mechanisms of writing: spelling, grammar, word usage, punctuation, paragraph construction, metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme scheme, for instance. We talked very little about how to tell a story well. And we talked zero about what makes for a good story. 

In the last article, I described some guidelines for soliciting stories from users and other stakeholders. From these, one may gain insight into potential problems that a product or service might solve, ameliorate, bypass, or avoid. Later, I will describe more about how stories may be used in the design and development process. Before getting into that, however, I want to describe more about what makes for a good story. In the following articles, I will also suggest ways to make the story well told. 

What Makes for a Good Story?

You might find it helpful to write down a short list of 5-10 novels, short stories, movies, or TV shows that you really liked. It doesn’t have to be your all time ten best; just something good that springs to mind. Then put that list aside. Read through the criteria I propose and then check back after you’re done reading to see whether or not most of these criteria were met. I’m betting that they mostly were met. 


The Story Cube. 

Imagine a cube of some really nice material that you like; e.g., polished wood, lead ore, malachite, silver. This cube has three dimensions: height, width, and depth. It must have all three dimensions. In the case of a story, there are also three dimensions in this sense: Plot, Setting, and Character. If a story lacks any of these three, it will be “flat” (not so interesting). For example, if you spent time working in a large company or government agency, you were probably given training materials about how you’re not supposed to do unethical things like steal from your company. They may have provided you with scenarios and asked what you would do or what was the “right” response. These stories tend to have people in situations making decisions. The problem with these stories is that, in order for them to be “efficient”, they spend almost zero time on character development.  “Joe wants to impress his boss and make his quota for the fourth quarter so he puts down as sold this-quarter things he is sure he will sell early in January. After all, he rationalizes, calendars are arbitrary.” Of course, the answer is no Joe should not be lying on his sales report. But we really don’t know much about Joe. We don’t know enough about him to really care much about him. Of course, he shouldn’t lie. If he does, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but contempt for Joe. It should have been obvious to him that he shouldn’t lie on a sales report and if he does lie, he should be fired. Good riddance. Let’s replace Joe with someone who follows the rules. 


This story is so flat that it seems to me that the story is constructed, not so much to really educate, but more to prove that you were shown that it’s wrong to lie on sales forms so that, should the court case arise, you will not be to argue effectively that it was a mere technicality that you didn’t know about. If you really wanted to change someone’s mind about what was right, knowing about Joe’s character could make you empathize much more. Maybe he came from a Mafia-type crime family and no-one would bat any eye about lying on a sales report. They would expect him to lie on the report. Maybe even now, he is looked down upon by everyone else in his family for being such a chump and working for “the man” instead of being “the man.” 


Or, perhaps Joe just found out that his wife has serious cancer and is understandably but severely depressed. He desperately wants to bring her some good news. If we reveal, not only what situation Joe is in but also, how he sees that situation, how he feels about it and what conflicts he faces, we will begin to have real empathy for Joe. His choices become real, rather than predetermined.  

TV commercials, like corporate training videos, are typically pretty flat too. But in some cases, the ad agency has gone out of their way to introduce you to some character that is recognizable and re-appears in commercial after commercial. Each time, just a little bit of character is revealed and eventually you find yourself watching the commercial largely because you start to care about the character. In a similar way, one might be able to make the corporate training stories more intriguing & educational if there were a cast of characters that persisted over time. 


Two Paths Diverged in a Yellow Wood…

Typically (but not invariably) the author knows how the story will turn out before he starts writing. But for the reader (or viewer), it is not at all obvious how the story will turn out. For compelling stories, the reader must be convinced to “play along with” the uncertainty of the outcome even if they are sure ‘the good guys will win.’ In good stories, bad things happen to the protagonist, but he or she is not a cork tossed on the ocean waves. The protagonist must want something; they must have a goal that is overwhelmingly important to them. They must react to changing circumstances, overcome the obstacles that are thrown at them. Characters are engaged in battles! Battles test them. If winning the battles is easy or inevitable, the character isn’t someone we can really relate to. 



Superman is basically super-human and invulnerable! But watching someone who is invulnerable and has super-powers win battle after battle is boring. Superman has to have weaknesses. To make it more interesting and allow for more plot variation, he actually had three original weaknesses: kryptonite, friends, secret identity. In one episode, someone will have some kryptonite while in the next, someone will kidnap one of his friends. Recent movies have added a fourth weakness: other super-human and invulnerable beings.  

Whatever the story, your character must have weaknesses. Otherwise, no-one will “believe” the character and you as the writer will be stymied when you try to develop an interesting plot. The weaknesses can be physical, moral, social, intellectual, situational, and so on. But they should not be merely irrelevant weaknesses. Imagine a story where Sue is the main character. She’s tone deaf. She’s also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative, driven to succeed. And, indeed, she becomes a very successful trial lawyer. Eventually, she is made partner. OK. Isn’t this exactly what we’d expect to happen? What does being tone deaf have to do with anything? 


Imagine instead, that Sue was inspired at the age of four when she went to the opera. It was her life-long dream to become an opera singer. Indeed, she was blessed with a beautiful voice. She was also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative and driven to succeed. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf. Now, the weakness becomes interesting. Perhaps she will fail and kill herself. Perhaps she will fail but find another goal that is even more important to her and succeed at that. Perhaps she will fail time after time but eventually develop a career as an improvisational opera singer. She will ask people in the audience to name five things and then and there, she will create a beautiful aria that weaves a tale of some considerable interest about the five things. No-one knows that she is singing out of tune because she is composing on the spot. 

The more improbable the odds and the more horrendous the journey, the more challenge you give yourself to make it work! Blind at birth but wants to be an artist? Surely, that’s just stupid. It’s impossible. But is it? What if feedback were provided in such a way that it influenced her to make unique and beautiful paintings? What if genetic engineering allows her to grow new neural pathways? What if she can be equipped with artificial eyes? If it’s fiction, a magic spell can do the trick. Even if your ultimate goal is a real product for the real world, imagining a magical solution may lead you to a new (and real) path, previously hidden by your own expectations. 

It is easy for a writer to identify with their hero. And that is potentially quite a problem. After all, if you were superman, you sure as heck would not go out of your way to go near kryptonite. You’d quite sensibly stay away from the stuff! But if you are writing about superman, you need to get him near the deadly stuff every third or fourth episode! The “weaknesses” in the character generate interest. The failures, injuries, betrayals, and conflicts of your protagonist provide materiel that allows you to architect a more interesting plot. 


A Garden of Delights, Flashy Sights, or Sword Fights?

Three dimensions of story is a weak metaphor only. The three dimensions of a cube can be manipulated independently. This is not generally true for the three dimensions of story. The character makes a decision, the decision determines the next step of the plot. That will influence the setting for the next scene. In addition, the actions of the protagonist may also change state of the underlying and cross-cutting conflicts. 


 two rival gangs fighting for urban turf and maybe sex,

 two gardeners in a fierce competition for sex with the town “catch” as well as the blue ribbon, 

two rival secret agents vying for victory and maybe sex,

two life long friends now vying for #1 in their Harvard Law class, and maybe sex.

The structure of the underlying plot might look quite similar, but the specifics will depend a lot on how the character is developing. If they develop from ego-centric to altruistic, then they will tend to make different decisions near the beginning than near the end of the story. In addition, the setting will have to be consistently portrayed. 

The four descriptions above would most naturally lead to a lot of the setting for the stories respectively in urban settings, garden settings, foreign settings & dangerous situations, mainly Law School and campus settings. Of course, you could violate expectations in a way that increases interest. Imagine that rather than have another garden scene–

The rival gardeners arrive at an urban parking lot dressed in expensive gowns, fully jeweled in their finest, both fully knowing that they will win first prize (but secretly fearing that they might not). These life-long friends now exchange icy greetings, make back-handed compliments about each other’s appearances. The verbal exchange escalates. Precisely because they know each other so well, they know exactly how the other person’s escalator functions. Soon, they are rolling around on the parking lot in their fancy gear; ruining each other’s clothes and hairdos. At this point, they hear in the distance, the loudspeaker and the chairman about to announce the Blue Ribbon Winner!  In their trashed and ripped clothing, they sneak in together to hear the awards, hanging out together in the shadows so as not to be seen in their tattered clothes. “And the blue ribbon goes to” {drumroll}: 

someone else entirely. 

At this, the two life long friends look at each other, laugh uproariously, hug each other, and then become even more intimate friends than they were before their fight in the urban parking lot. 

The fact that there are “expected” relations among various dimensions of story is wonderful. For every such expectation, you can decide to follow, bend, or break that expectation. The more expectations people develop, the greater the number of variations for creative exploration. One valid reason for the choice of setting is really where you want to spend your time. That goes for an author — but it also goes for any designer or business person or User Experience expert. What kind of setting do you want to be in? What kind of customers do you want to serve? Do you really want to make their life better or just get them to buy more product? What sorts of application areas are really cool to you? Of course, I understand people need to eat and often there is a conflict within us all about what to do. That’s what a good story is really about.


The reason that stories resonate is that, regardless of setting, people face the same kind of dilemmas. We all do. And, how we handle those dilemmas? In life, as in story, 

character is revealed by choices under pressure… 


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