Three Things Every (Real) Story Must Have

How to tell a story
Photo by Aline Dassel

The ancient art of storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of communication.

If that’s news to anybody on the planet I would be absolutely shocked.

Yet I see story after story about the science of storytelling. How we respond to them on an unconscious level. How they activate our brain.

But rarely do I see articles that actually explain what a story is. No wonder so few people are any good at telling them. After all, it’s one thing to understand that air travel is the fastest way to cross the ocean — it’s another to climb into the cockpit of a 767 and fly the thing.

Not that storytelling is as complex as piloting a plane. It’s really pretty simple, once you know the ingredients:

At its base, a story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of an obstacle or challenge. How the character overcomes (or fails to overcome) that challenge creates the drama and human interest that keeps us reading or listening.

There are other aspects of stories, but those are the basics. Omit any one of those elements and what you have is less a story than an anecdote. If that.

Once you know this structure you can see it at work in your favorite books and movies and TV shows. Take one of the classic stories in Western literature, Romeo and Juliet. Our characters are two naive, young lovers. Their goal is to be together. The obstacle is the blood feud that separates their families.

The more you study this construct, the better you’ll be able to apply it. Look around the place you work:

  • What are the organization’s goals? Quality? Cost containment? Customer service?
  • What are the impediments to those goals? Entrenched bureaucracy? Outdated technology? Poor communication?
  • Who are the people (the characters) dealing with those challenges and how do they overcome them?

Of course, the better the character, the better the story. Work extra hard on finding the right one.

There’s much more in my book, and here, here and here. But this is a good start, and will put you ahead of many an erstwhile storyteller.