The Campfire

What Makes a Good Story? Start with These Three Things

What makes a good story? It’s the million-dollar question countless novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights have spent their lives trying to answer. But perhaps the best place to start isn’t with bullet points, but rather with a story that revolves around the act of storytelling itself.

Like many stories, this one begins with an act of betrayal. The great Shahryar ruled over a vast kingdom famed for prosperity and wealth. He lived in luxury and spent his days overseeing and administering to his domain. But the king’s power could not protect him from heartbreak.

Shahryar had a beautiful queen whom he loved dearly. One day, he left his palace on a hunting trip. But the hunting was poor, and the Shahryar resolved to return early. When he entered his chambers, he discovered his wife in bed with another man. Enraged and wild with pain, Shahryar killed them both on the spot. The king’s actions turned his heart to ice. He swore he would never again allow a woman to betray him. And so, the king concocted a plan. He would marry a different woman each day and execute her the following morning before she could deceive him.

Many women died to satisfy the king’s pain. Noble families with marriageable daughters either fled or sent their daughters far beyond the reach of Shahryar. But one woman refused to leave: Scheherazade, the daughter of the king’s vizier. Instead, Scheherazade insisted that she herself should become the king’s next bride. Her father begged her to flee, but Scheherazade held fast. Her predecessor’s blood still cooling from the morning’s execution, Scheherazade married Shahryar.

That night, Scheherazade asked her new husband for the company of her sister, Dunyazad. When Dunyazad arrived, she begged her sister for a story. Shahryar consented, and Scheherazade began her story. She wove tales together with her golden tongue throughout the night, each unfolding within another. When the sun rose, Shahryar found himself perched on the edge of his seat, desperate for more. The pull of Scheherazade’s unfinished story was so powerful that he allowed her to live another night to finish it. And another. And another. Eventually, one thousand and one nights of storytelling passed, and Shahryar fell deeply in love with Scheherazade. The two lived a long and happy life together, and never again did a woman die in the name of the king’s revenge.

Why Do Stories Matter?

One of the many things that the tale of Scheherazade illustrates is the power stories possess to move us despite our deepest inclinations to the opposite. Shahryar is what you’d call a tough crowd. He had no incentive to listen to Scheherazade or allow her stories to captivate them. Quite the opposite—for Scheherazade, swaying Shahryar was an uphill battle.

And yet, she managed it. Finishing the story mattered to Shahryar enough to spare Scheherazade’s life. The reason? He wanted to know what happened next.

There’s science behind Sharyar’s eagerness. Stories have many effects on human beings. But one of the most important is the cumulative effect of anticipation. Cliffhangers lead to anticipation, which triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is associated with reward and pleasure—our brains also release it in response to stimuli such as food, drugs, and sex.

We want to know how events conclude, how stories unravel, and what becomes of the characters we’ve become so invested in. In short, stories speak to our emotions. They influence listeners’ feelings even when our audience, like Shahryar, has deliberately steeled themselves against us. And that’s a powerful tool for anyone to possess.

Here, let’s consider a slightly different example of great storytellers. In 1978, two friends took a $5 course on ice-cream making. The two men had known each other for a long time. They’d both struggled to find their path in life. Many in their life considered them burnouts—boys caught up in the last gasps of the dying 1960s counterculture. Undeterred by the criticism of others and inspired by their recent culinary explorations, they decided to open their ice-cream shop in a converted Burlington, VT gas station.

Ben & Jerry’s local ice cream took time to gather momentum. Eventually, however, they managed to sign a distribution deal with a Boston-based company and export their ice cream to 18 states. Though they faced highly publicized resistance from competitors like Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerries eventually achieved worldwide distribution and now has annual sales revenues in the hundreds of millions.

One critical component of Ben & Jerry’s success? Stories. From the beginning, the partners focused on building their brand with unique, compelling, memorable flavors their customers could attach to. They built up a socially aware, community-focused persona that set them apart from large, impersonal competitors. And they made sure to let everyone know that their story had a happy ending: distinctive ice cream and a successful, caring company

Three Elements All Good Stories Share.

All good stories have three crucial things in common, whether they’re about two hippies from Vermont or mythical princesses in the Middle East. These three elements are part of what give stories so much power over us. Combined, they trigger deep psychological and physiological mechanisms in us that reach back to our origins as a species.

  1. Characters.
    Every story needs characters to populate it. When you tell a story, make sure you introduce your characters to your audience. Provide context like a place, time, and background to help listeners
    understand your characters’ feelings. Whoever your characters are, your audience needs to relate to them. Emotion and empathy are underlying facets of how stories work. They help your audience attach to your characters and invest in the outcome of your story.
  2. Conflict.
    If characters are the meat of your story, conflict is the flavor. It’s hard to feel invested in happy characters who’ve never faced a challenge. Conflict builds excitement and anticipation—we want to see how things turn out.
    Often, conflicts transform one or more of the characters. Scheherazade’s heroic actions empower her and transform Shahryar. Make sure to describe what the character experiences, including their emotions, contexts, and internal changes of heart or perspective.
  3. Resolution.
    Most of us are like Shahryar. When we invest in a story, we want to know how it ends. That ending doesn’t have to be happy. It just needs to be meaningful, relevant to the story, and provide a takeaway or sense of closure for the audience. Always give your audience the contextual and emotional cues they need to process the ending and understand how it relates to the larger story.

Learn to Tell Better Stories.

Ok, so you’re probably not telling stories to preserve your life from a pain-maddened, revenge-hungry monarch. But if Scheherazade could save lives with her stories, you too can accomplish your goals using the power of narrative.

Skillful storytelling can have many applications in our everyday lives. For example, let’s say you need to convince your boss to consider a new, daring idea. Try preparing a relevant story to accompany your written proposal. Or perhaps you’re in sales, and you’re about to pitch to a big client. Consider playing the Scheherazade to their Shahryar and use some captivating stories to close the deal.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘natural’ storyteller, you can still use narrative to influence people. Like anything else, storytelling is a skill. It’s safe to say that Scheherazade had her 10,000 hours in. That’s good news for all of us. If storytelling is a skill, we can improve it through study and practice. And who knows—one day, knowing how to craft a compelling tale might save your life.

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