How to tell good stories?

We all love stories. No matter what kind of story, there’s always an audience for it. 

Like I know that people listening to trance music in a shady room with Bob Marley’s poster and smoking weed all day is not my audience. Or is it? If you’re someone who does that, let me know. I’ll know my audience is quite diverse. 

I’m a sucker for good stories. A good story has all the elements to keep us hooked; it has emotions, drama, thrill, comedy and Jennifer Aniston.

And that’s why we should preserve good storytellers by wrapping them up in salt/sugar and just freezing them or something. 

We’ve seen great stories like Interstellar, Inception, and the repeated garbage bag stuffed down our throats in the form of Fast and furious. (Yes, F&F bashing continues from my last article

If we get into what makes a good story, there are many elements of it that I’ll get into soon. 

We are, as a species, addicted to stories. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

But the most crucial element is Tragedy. 

Aristotle once said that we are hard-hearted. We don’t give pity where it is deserved, and we are prone to either exaggerated fears or not getting frightened enough. So, Tragedy reminds us that bad things can happen to us. And, they happen to us as well, which is why we sometimes love or even connect to tragic stories. 

He also said we should be more compassionate (or even pitiful) towards people whose actions go wrong. Tragedy reminds us we are not protected by some walls and keeps us to the ground. Our happy emotions make us fly, but Tragedy brings us to the ground. 

What are the other ingredients of this storytelling cocktail? Let’s explore. 

  1. Predictability: One thing we hate the most is uncertainty. We like to believe that we know everything, how our actions will impact our (or someone else’s) life, and how we’ll deal with the consequences.

We hate this uncertainty. That’s why psychics and astrologers turn us on so much. Some of us are seduced by the idea of knowing what will happen next. 

I remember a great dialogue from one of my favourite movies, Tamasha, where the protagonist grew up listening to stories from a random storyteller by paying him. When later in life he’s going through a midlife crisis, he goes back to that storyteller to know about his life. The storyteller goes, “Apni Kahani mujhse poochta hai!?” (you’re asking about your life from me!?) 

This tells us how we look for inspiration in stories for our lives. We all have more or less the same stories, and our heroes and villains come in all shapes and sizes. 

That’s what we are. We’ll let people define us and make predictions about us which makes us think about it consciously or subconsciously. At times we allow people to narrate our stories and weave our life. And when that happens, people love to say “I told you so!” because we’re so fond of predictions. 

The bets, the gambles, the predictions; we run on it because we want to say “I told you so,” and there’s nothing better than that for someone.

Those who are okay with uncertainty and unpredictability in life tend to watch psychological drama and thriller movies because they don’t care if the dog comes back to the hero in the end after biting the villain’s ass 20 times. Instead, they want a good story that takes them away from reality. 

2. Authenticity – don’t leave this page if I mention Aristotle again, but the guy made terrific points. Even though they were made more than 300 years ago, they’re evergreen.

So, he wanted thoughtful, severe and well-intentioned people to learn how to be persuasive so that they can reach the people who don’t agree with them yet. 

We always relate to good stories. But, in a time where we’re almost always inclined towards popular opinion (guilty), it’s essential to think differently from others. 

To do that, we need to talk to ourselves more, know ourselves more and then decide what we want to be. 

3. Timelessness – in the constantly changing world of TikToks and Ice bucket challenges, it’s rare to see a timeless idea. But then, if I have to know if any of today’s ideas are timeless, I’d have to live for at least 500 years, and that’s too much. 

Some ideas made hundreds of years ago are still relevant enough to make us survive. 

Words stay. We can still read Shakespeare’s literature written 500 years ago, which goes to say that good stories are timeless. 

It can take a negative turn as well. Our society evolved by reading these stories, and all of our stories revolve around this theme only. We’ve glamorised love and happy endings. 

These stories lead to some good and, at times, horrible, toxic relationships where the guy is expected to make constant efforts to woo the girl. She refuses initially but gives in eventually, which might not give the best impression to some audience. Constant efforts (at time obsessive efforts) becomes the new normal for them. 

4. Overcoming problems – we looooooove biopics, don’t we? That’s why we notice a rise in biopics of the people who are still alive and relevant to this day. It screws my mind, but that’s how showbiz goes on. 

A cricket aspirant will see a biopic about a famous cricketer and pursue it even harder. But, unfortunately, we’re not good at predicting failure of our lives because in the movie, the protagonist’s life turned out to be fine and at times if our lives don’t go according to those stories, we get disappointed. 

We watch those movies again and again in order to feel good mentally that somewhere success is achieved. That’s why people love motivational speakers, books and articles. Even though we might not take the advice blindly, it feels good to listen or read. 

A quote I remember from the book “Show your work” says, “cat slept on the mat is not a good story. But cat slept on a dog’s mat is a good story.

A good story always has all the ups and downs, and that’s what we love the most. 

Amid the times where less compelling stories are thrashed to the ground, there’s a rise in quality storytelling. Independent media houses or individuals telling their authentic stories where thousands of people connect to them, I hope there’s more of that. And I hope I don’t live to see Vin diesel in F&F 98. Though 11 will be the last one. Sigh. 

Read the previous article - How are people and the stock market similar?

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