What makes a good story

I was listening to a Radio Lab show called “Fate and Fortune” on NPR today in which there was a conversation about what makes a good story. Under discussion was the success of the Road Runner cartoon. The speakers contended that the power of that cartoon comes from the coyote’s story: the coyote is always unsuccessful against elements like gravity, and the leveling effect of that ongoing failure makes him a sympathetic figure–a very human one.

I started to wonder whether this is another of the elements that we can watch for as we do storytelling, especially when it’s successful. Is the failure of the main character something that makes the learners buy in to the story more, because then they draw a parallel with their own lives? And if the main character succeeds, does that give us all a feeling of relief because we see how a hero can prevail in the way that we hope we can prevail?


PS The particular show, which is a series of vignettes mostly about whether we can predict a life’s trajectory by early indicators (including whether four-year-olds can delay eating Oreos), is here.


6 responses to “What makes a good story

  1. Hi MJ. I’m a reader not a scholar but I do think the flawed hero is powerful in narrative. Harry Potter is a good recent example. His main difficulties are often caused by his own weaknesses rather than ‘he who shall not be named’.


  2. Yes, now that you mention it, I can think of many examples. The flaws make us like the characters more, and then we want even more for them to win. In the stories that we tell for TPRS, the main character always has a problem. Now I’m thinking that the problem could be something that is a flaw of some kind rather than a deficit (person wants blue apples, not red ones, and so on). Maybe that flaw could emerge in the re-telling of the base story.


  3. Expand a bit, if you don’t mind, on the difference you see between a flaw and a deficit. Let’s see if I”m getting you right. Deficit: Can’t find any green apples so he goes out on a quest for them. Flaw: is genetically wired to only desire blue apples. Whereas the deficit is something that is missing in the exterior environment, the flaw would be something intrinsic to the personality.

    But what about the blue apple lobby? They’re people too!

    I see the potential of making a less than perfect character who might get reformed or redeemed over the course of the short story (so who redeems him? Is he self-aware about his need to change or do others take action? Maybe either/or/both at different times to add variety), but at the same time you would have to be careful in picking your flaw so that you don’t alienate any class members (who just might be blue applers themselves).

    Then again, maybe if you can let your story evolve without a solution, and then find out who is secretly a blue appler among the people in your class, but has found a way overcome it (you could have a great time-out from the story sorting this out). If somebody or more than one person rise to the bait, you can introduce them into the original story and let them help out the poor lost soul there in overcoming the problem.


  4. Exactly! The idea rang a bell with me because we’d had one very successful story this year about a boy who was too shy to talk to a girl…we’ve seen that before, but it takes on new meaning when it’s our own story. We also had a funny one about Brad Pitt not liking his hair. That’s not quite a flaw, but it’s a similar idea. You’ve used that kind of stuff too–kids not knowing how to invite others on a date and other such real life issues. Being allergic to certain animals, foods, or being vegetarian is not a failing, but would also be obstacles. Not knowing how to ski, writing numerals the American way instead of the German/Russian way and being misunderstood or failing a test…all these might be the things that add personality to our characters.


  5. I think flaws could make our characters more real, give stories more depth and possibly make them more entertaining. Nonthreatening flaws… Like kryptonite. A tic might be fun to work with. Maybe a tic that occurs when someone says a certain word that the character knows but the rest of the class has to figure out, or some other secret cue. Or a distracting craving for blue apples while searching for a large rainbow colored chicken who can’t dance… Comedies might be a good source of nonthreatening flaws… I saw a movie where the character’s biggest flaw was that he was actually a character in a novel and the author was trying to kill him… talk about your fatal flaws… He also had some quirks, like counting absolutely everything.

    I wish I could be at NTPRS this summer. It’s going to be so much fun with everyone there!


  6. I do too, Carla! I’ll wait for great blog posts on it upon return (hint hint).

    By the way Carla, shoot me an email; I want to follow up on the PQA planning initiative with you.


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