Every day is a day for stories.
No, I don’t mean movies, or television, or that novel you’re reading, or that game you’re playing.
I mean you, me, and the falafel vendor on the corner, we all are the givers and receivers of stories. We tell stories, and they are told to us in return. This is a primitive, critical need inside us hairless monkeys: it’s why we painted stories on cave walls about punching antelope, it’s why we sat (and still sit) around campfires and tell stories about how the gods created microwave ovens or how Betty Sue McGooligan was cut apart by the serial killer with the hook for a head. It’s why when we get together with our wives or our friends or even our children our first impulse is to tell stories. “Oh, today at work, Ronnie, from the warehouse? He ran over Tony’s boombox with the forklift. No, no, on purpose! I know!” “Dude, that reminds me, did I ever tell you how my Uncle Tim was raped by a forklift? Seriously, it was on the news. Check this out, so he was sitting on the banks of the Seine…”
Seriously. It’s what we do. It is practically our default state. Hanging out over dinner? “Oh, honey, that Chinese food reminds me, tell them how you found that leprechaun skeleton under the house.” At the conclusion of that tale, someone else adds, “Man, speaking of leprechauns, did you see that triple rainbow today?” And from there it’s another story about rainbows or buried treasure or pirates or parrots or ostriches or sandwiches or whatever.
Story after story. Endlessly tumbling. Each chained to the last. Like a human caterpillar.
We’ve all been privy to great stories — and, by proxy, the great storytellers who tell those great stories. And, sadly, we’ve also been sucked into the whirling vortex that represents the opposite end of the spectrum: shitty storytellers telling their shitty stories. We’ve all been there. You feel trapped, as if in a phone booth, unable to pull away from a story that just goes on and on and on and seems to have no point and no value and no rhythm, no peaks, no valleys, no nothing but an awful narrative unfolding like a bleak black curtain that threatens to smother you and all the goodness within your heart.
Hence, it’s important to look and say, “What makes for a good story?” This isn’t just for writers or filmmakers or other creative types. This is for everybody. We all tell stories. Stories are deeply fundamental and wholly elemental to our very being.
So, to reiterate: what are the essential ingredients to good storytelling?
Oh, no, don’t get up. You stay duct-taped to that recliner. I got it covered.
Number One: A Reason To Give A Fuck
The first and worst reason that a storyteller traps you in the telling of a bad story is by guaranteeing that you just don’t give a rat’s right foot about the story he’s telling. It has no purpose. It has no connection, no relevancy, no emotional core. The story — and its teller — fails to conjure any reason to care.
Stories are part of our call and response behavior — we see something or think of something, so we share a story about it. And that often triggers something in the listener, and then that person shares her story. And back and forth it goes, a ricocheting game of narrative ping pong.
But see, that’s the thing: a story must either call us to it or must act as a response. If it fails to do either of those things — if it fails to call our attention or if it fails to respond to something in our lives — then what’s the goddamn point? A story at its core must must must endeavor to make the audience give a fuck. The reason for the aforementioned fuck-giving can be multifarious — my Dad died of cancer, so maybe you want to tell me a story about cancer. You have a dog, I have a dog, now we’re talking about dogs. Maybe you just know a guy, and his story is the saddest you’ve heard — or the happiest, or the weirdest, or the bat-shit-nuttiest — and you want to convey that, you want to transmit that emotion to me.
A story has to make us care. It has to make us feel something — anything! — to be a story that matters.
For the record, the reason to give a fuck is also the reason the storyteller gives a fuck — at least, most likely. Storytellers tell stories for a reason: again, it’s part of that response. Stories have a message. Or, good stories do. I don’t mean some lofty, hoity-toity thematic intent — I just mean, there’s a reason and a message implicit. It might be as simple as, “I think this is funny,” or as complex as, “The ennui of old age is forever at war with the diabolical impetuousness of youth.”
Number Two: Characters To Care About
Stories are told by people. And so they must be about people. Or, at least, characters — a character could be a grumpy wombat, a robot toaster, a vampire unicorn. But even then they are representative of people — ultimately, we anthropomorphize so that they are relatable to us — so that, in essence, we’re all speaking the same narrative tongue.
You do not have a story without characters. Defy me. Go ahead, I dare you. Even the most oblique, abstract tale — “This is the story of Sirius, the Dog Star!” — ultimately makes characters out of its subject matter. It must! Because characters are the vehicles that carry the story forward.
Further, we must care about the characters. Somehow. Someway. It goes back to number one: if we can’t give a fuck about the characters, what does the story even matter?
What makes characters compelling and give-a-fuck-able remains somewhat elusive: complexity isn’t the key. Children’s stories do not feature complex characters. Nor do urban legends or campfire tales. But somehow we relate: they are within, not outside, our sphere of understanding. If characters are too far outside the firelight, we can no longer understand them.
Once we understand them, we care.
Number Three: A Problem
A story hinges on a problem. Specifically, a problem for those characters we care about.
Characters alone do not make a story. Timmy wakes up, eats eggs, goes to school, gets an A+, plays baseball with Dad, has Captain Crunch before dinner, then goes to bed ultimately fulfilled… that’s not a story. I mean, okay, it’s technically a story, but it’s a story that sucks a bag of dicks. The only conflict in that story is the question blooming in the listener’s mind: “How will I beat a murder rap if I bludgeon this storyteller to death with this talking robot toaster I found?”
As creatures we are not programmed to be compelled by unconflicted narratives. That actually speaks volumes of us as a species and just how goofy we are: we love to love our characters, but the only way we truly love them is if we first make them suffer. We can’t be happy if John McClane meets his estranged wife in the Nakatomi building and then they make out and have sex in her office and he goes home to play with their kids. We can only be happy if he has to run across broken glass and get blown up first. We’re fucked up, but hey, it is what it is. You want to tell good stories, you have to tap into that.
The problem serves as the anchor of a story.
Said it before, will say it again: in life, we avoid conflict. In fiction, we strive for it.
Number Four: Acceleration And Deceleration
Or, peaks and valleys, waxing and waning, ebb and flow.
A flatlining story is as dull as a geometry lesson. A story should never start at point A, then end at point A. We listen and want the story to shift, to change, to become faster at times and slower at others… and even those slow points — “the valleys” — seem almost designed to keep us salivating for the high and fast points, “the peaks.” It’s as if we slow down just to further anticipate the coming acceleration.
A good story has escalation. It has rises and falls. It gives the story context. It lends it suspense, and texture, and rhythm. The patterns can be different across separate stories: some rise, rise, riiiiise until they crest the climax and fall — while others are more bumpy, more iterative, more up-and-down-and-left-and-right. There’s no one pattern that dominates the narrative design — but the pattern must have that sense of speeding up and slowing down.
It’s not all that different from a long car ride. A car ride down a long stretch of gray highway is about as soul-crushing as one can imagine. But a trip through the mountains, or in and out of small towns, is compelling: the stop and go, the new sights, the shifts in the wind and the change in direction. Those things keep us interested. They keep us awake and aware.
Good stories do that.
Bad stories are a long stretch of dead interstate.
Number Five: A Conclusion Appropriate To The Story
And, stories (like overlong rambling blog posts) must end.
But not just end in the sense that, “Well, that happened, and now it’s over,” but rather end in the way that actually means conclude. We say stories have endings, but really, the good ones have conclusions. They tie up. They complete the tale. They take our characters to their final destinations (narratively speaking).
The worst thing is when a great story dies with a bad ending. Or barely an ending at all — the story just stops. Ever have that happen? You’re listening to someone and it’s all like, “So, Jim is left alone in the hotel room with this drunken hooker, and she’s pried her peg leg off, and she’s busting up lamps and she smashes the TV — and Jim thinks, Jesus, the syphilis has really driven this prostitute batty.”
“So what happened then?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Wh…? What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I guess he’s okay. I saw him in the break room eating a donut.”
“That’s it? That’s the end? Then he was in the break room just eating a fucking donut?”
“Shrug, I guess.”
It’s like storytelling blue balls. Nothing sucks more than an unfinished — or worse, an ill-finished — tale.
Number Six: Your Turn
I know I asked this before, but keep on noodling it. What else is essential to a good story? I don’t mean preferable — I mean, what elements will kill a story when absent from the narrative?
Swish it around in your mouth. Spit it out in the comments below.