Stories are the way humans connect to others. Storytelling has been around far longer than blogs, spreadsheets, databases, and even civilizations that have come and gone.
We have inscribed stories on cave walls that have lasted for millennia and will continue for millennia more.
We have handed down stories for generations that tell of our origins and predict our future. We use stories to educate (parables), warn of danger (fables), and woo potential lovers (poetry).
We tell stories because they allow us to relate our own experience to the background of our audience. They don’t have to go out and face the saber-toothed tiger themselves; they can simply listen to the victorious hunters returning after the kill and partake of the adventure without the danger.
And stories are powerful, because they trigger emotions, and emotions inspire action much more than pure data ever will.
Learning to tell stories is, therefore, a critical part of being an effective human, no matter what your role in society – parent, authority, or cog in the wheel just trying to get along.
Learn How to Tell Good Stories and Increase Your Influence
Okay, but what makes a good story? How can you tell whether the story you’re about to tell is a good one or not?
We all intuitively know what a good story is, when we read, hear, or watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, Murder on the Orient Express, or even Aesop’s Fables. We see these as great stories because they resonate with us, as readers, and they make us feel something. They intrigue us, they draw us in, they provide us with a compelling reason to continue reading (or watching). Will Harry triumph over Voldemort? Will they find out whodunit? What’s in that big bag, exactly?
All good stories share a few key elements, and they’re not really related to the plot.
The plot is the events which unfold. Mysteries have a plot archetype that’s going to differ from adventures which are going to differ from romances. But no matter what points get touched on and where the betrayals and heartbreaks occur, all good stories have 3 basic elements in common.
If you can learn to embed these three elements into your communications, will make the stories you tell (with or without the supplementation of data) much more effective.
The easiest way to remember this is to thin of the 3 Ps:
The 3 fundamental Elements of a Good Story are a Person, in a Place, with a Problem
A Person (aka “Characters”)
This is the most basic of all. You absolutely need some kind of character with something to do. (Usually people but sometimes animals or AI stand in. I use “person” to be able to have the repetitive Ps. You know what I mean.) The narrator is often the main character (who the story revolves around), but sometimes it’s someone close who’s describing what the main character is doing.
A Place (aka “Setting”)
This is the setting or the location of the story. It could be a city, or a magical castle, or a library. It’s also may be a specific time in history: just before the battle of Agincourt, or in the year 3001. The point is, you don’t want to have things happen just “wherever”, they will need to be grounded in some kind of location. Your readers will want to know some specific, relevant details about where this is taking place.
And be careful – don’t overkill by giving loads of minute descriptions that only serve to bore the reader. Make sure you follow the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little… just right.
A Problem (aka “Conflict”)
This is the challenge that the person must face and either overcome or fail to overcome at the end of the story. It could be that there’s now a dead man in a train car, and the characters need to figure out who did it before she or he does it again. Or it could be that your everyday kid has been bitten by a radioactive spider, and now he’s got to figure out how to harness his powers to stop an evil mastermind from destroying the city, while not accidentally using those powers to destroy the city.
You’ll need all 3 in order to have the basics of a good story. It’s not guaranteed, but let’s take a look at what happens when one of these elements is missing.
What Happens When One Element Is Missing?
Sure, you could try to write about a generic person and try to make it relevant to everyone across the world. But would it be that effective?
Let me say it again.
No. Definitively. Here’s the problem that arises when you miss out on just one of these elements, even if you include the other two:
A Person In a Place With No Problem
Well, now you just have a character sketch. And it might be a beautiful, literary portrait of what this person looks like and wants and believes. But without a problem, there’s nothing for this person to do. There’s no reason for the story other than presenting a bit of information. And just more information really isn’t that compelling. It’s like a picture on the wall. You can look at it for a minute or two, but then you’re ready to move on. If your writing has no problem, then the readers aren’t going to stay engaged.
A Place and a Problem, but No Person
Generic, all-encompassing stories about problems that affect nations or whole planets may be okay for making a point, but not for keeping a reader interested in finding out what happens next. If you’re telling a fable (a morality tale), maybe you can get away with this. “The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were horribly wicked in all their depravity.” Okay, again, that tells me of the place and the problem, but I don’t really care about anything that’s going on. So what if it’s a problem for that city? There’s nobody for me to connect with, and I won’t continue to read much beyond a page or two.
A Person with a Problem, Without a Place
You may think this is a possibility to still make a good story, but you’d be wrong. The lack of place means that, again, there is no way for the reader to make connections with the person and the problem. The reader’s going to think, “Yeah, but there’s no way that could happen to me. All that is happening in some far-off galaxy.”
Remember, even Star Wars, that was set in a galaxy far, far away, had people, places, and problems we all could relate to: cities and homes, personal relationships, angry youths rebelling against the “unjust” structures of their families, and threats of destruction from without.
When you have no place (no location), it’s sometimes called “white room syndrome”, i.e. “These people were just kind of sitting around in some blank room.” It’s hard to imagine it’s real without those critical, specific details that bring it home for the reader.
Applying the 3 Ps to Nonfiction or Business Writing
Above I promised to include some tips for how to apply the 3P principle to nonfiction or business-related writing. However, this article has gone on longer than I thought it would. So I’m going to give just a teaser and say that the next blog post (I promise no later than 2 days from now) will have those tips. Until then, remember to include the 3Ps when you’re telling a story: a person (character or characters), in a place (setting), had a problem (conflict) to solve. Tell us how they solve it (or don’t), and that’s the basis of a good story.