What makes a good story
It's a question I get asked a lot, next to how do you write/write a good story.
I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time as you’d imagine as this is what I do and have been doing for well over three decades now. That said, I am no good at writing ficton, so if you’re looking for that secret I’d steer you in the direction of Barbara Cartland. Why her? Well, Ita Buttrose was speaking at an event I attended recently and share the memory of her meeting with Barbara. Ita was excited to meet her as she was thinking of writing her own book and thought she would ask Barbara what her secret was. Over lunch they chatted and Ita was offered a drink and selected a gin and tonic. Post the lunch while wandering around Barbara’s expansive library the opportunity came up to ask the question. Barbara’s response, delivered deadpan was, “Don’t drink gin, it dries your skin and makes you old.” So much for that secret.
Now, back to what makes a good story. I’ve heard and read lots of advice about this and some of the best, I believe, comes from Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, who has produced or executive produced films that, in total, have grossed $3 billion worldwide. He's also the author of Tell to Win, a book about how purposeful stories are the best way to persuade, motivate and lead people in business. While Guber’s comments are more related to the new wave of native content, sponsored content or plain old advertorial in my language, his comments have resonance to me as I research and write company and family histories.
Guber comments that, "Stories with emotional propulsion move people to action and naturally shorten the distance between companies and customers." I’d add in here . . .between companies/families and the intended readers.
He goes on to say you address three questions:
Who is your audience? Consider the gender, demographics, industry, interests and situation of your customers, employees or investors, then tailor the narrative to them. "If you're trying to be interesting instead of being interested in them, you'll never convert listeners into advocates.”
What is your goal? Make sure you know exactly how you want your audience to act after hearing your story. Do you want them to buy your product? Join the company? Invest? Stories can power you toward a goal only if the message is crystal clear.
To this I’d add a couple of other outcomes you might want. Enjoy, relate, understand more deeply, share . . . not every story has to be about a transaction. The key thing is to be clear to yourself and/or your client about what you want to achieve and write accordingly.
Is your story genuine? A purposeful story is emotionally compelling. Provide believable, personal context.
These three questions are quite powerful whether you’re writing a novel or a factual story/history/account.
I’ve also found screenwriting coach, Robert McKee’s advice really useful even in the space of corporate and business histories, biographies and stories. McKee’s advice is:
“Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance: You come to work day after day, week after week, and everything’s fine. You expect it will go on that way. But then there’s an event—in screenwriting, we call it the “inciting incident”—that throws life out of balance. You get a new job, or the boss dies of a heart attack, or a big customer threatens to leave. The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality.
A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth.
All great storytellers since the dawn of time—from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and up to the present day—have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.”
And, the last piece of advice I have is START. Just start writing and keep writing. And if you can’t find someone to help you write it. It’ll cost but if you really have a story to tell this is a good option.