Telling a Good Story

The other day my friend, Eric was over and started telling a story that had us all rapt, including my almost 7-year-old daughter and her friend who usually dismiss grown-up talk as boring. The story was about a summer job when he was in high school as a tennis instructor at a little neighborhood beach and tennis club.

One week they were short of lifeguards and asked him to fill in. He was neither certified nor a very good swimmer but this being the mid-1980’s, that was no problem because they just made him the shallow end specialist.

There was a group of 7-8 year old kids that showed up at the club in the mornings, had lunches their parents had packed and stayed all day. One sunny Seattle morning one of those kids, a 7-year-old boy announced he was going to catch a duck. Eric, as shallow end specialist of the week, said “No way, you are not going to catch a duck.” The boy proceeded to wade in to Lake Washington up to his neck and stand completely still for an hour.

Sure enough, the ducks got used to the boy and started swimming closer and closer until BAM, the boy caught one by the neck. Now Eric had both a boy and a duck, squawking in the shallow end and he was yelling, “Let go of the duck! Let go of the duck!” But the boy was conflicted because he’d spent an hour trying to catch the duck and now he didn’t know what to do.

At this point in the story, Eric had my daughter and her friend’s full attention and they were clamoring to know what the boy did with the duck. He let him go of course. But I was fascinated about what makes a good story.

According to journalist and author, Will Storr, there is a science to story-telling. As writers have worked to understand what captures an audience, psychologists have studied how our brains make sense of the world and both found the same elements. Stories have:

  • Change – good stories involve change because our brains are wired to identify change
  • Cause and effect – the wiring that makes the events understandable
  • Moral outrage – the motivation to act as seen in struggle between heroes and villains, the selfless versus the selfish
  • Effectance – humans like to be the causal effect on objects and the environment
  • Eudaemonic element – the happiness we get from pursuing goals that are meaningful to us but difficult
  • The God moment – how does the hero control the world?

These elements makes so much sense to me. We are all faced with change and we struggle mightily to define who we are in relation to it, what actions we take and how to be happy and ultimately control the world, or at least our perception of it. Stories are one of the tools we use to process our experience and follow the advice Maya Angelou gives, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.

I love watching how my kids have become pretty good listeners when a grown-up tells a story. I think it helps them try to understand all the factors that go in to how the world works. They listen because they want a happy ending where they can control their world. Chances are, if among other things, they learn to tell themselves a good story filled with their responsibility and agency, they’ll probably have it. Chances are that’s true for us grown-ups too.

Do you have a good story to tell? Do the elements of story ring true to you?

For most posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram @wynneleon

(featured photo by Pexels)


24 thoughts on “Telling a Good Story

    1. Hmm, Cheryl, I think you are a pretty good storyteller as your success as an author and blogger shows! But I’m glad you liked the post!

  1. I love this one! As a kid I was the one who was way more interested in listening to the stories told by my elders than I was in playing with my friends. I think I have the kind of brain that enjoys learning and growing. There is definitely an art to story telling and no two people can tell the same story the same way.

    1. LaShelle, you have a brain that likes learning and growing for sure! You are so right, there is an art to storytelling. Nice to see you in the comments, as always!

  2. Love this! I’d never heard of those fundamentals Will Storr laid out. Which, being a writer, you’d think I’d have done. Very cool! I also really liked you took the personal anecdote and used it as a doorway to discussing a larger experience. Storr should add that to his list.

    1. Ooooh, Jack – love this comment. Because you are right that many stories gives us a view of something larger. But I’d also add that you probably never needed to hear about those fundamentals because you are such a gifted writer that it comes naturally to you!

    2. Agreed! I once read a study that showed how much more we are impacted by stories than by raw data. More or less it went like this: the researchers created a “fake exercise” and paid the participants $10, really to make sure that they had $10 in their pockets.
      As they exited, the “real” study took place. Half were exposed to the horrific data of childhood mortality in certain regions in Africa: how many kids die every day from malnutrition, disease, wars, etc. Truly horrific numbers. And they were asked if they were willing to donate to help the children. On average, the donation was more or less $1.50. The second half was exposed to the story of one little girl from Africa. They saw her photo, heard her story, about her mom who has AIDS, her unknown father, the local warlord who poisoned their water source, etc. And on average, the researchers in that study found that the donations from the people who heard the story doubled or more.

      Stories speak to us in a powerful way!

  3. Shout-out to the carefree mid-1980s! I wonder what a boy who could stand still for an hour at 7 years old is doing now, and how he tells his version of the story.
    Great post, Wynne!

    1. The mid-80’s were so relaxed, weren’t they? And that’s exactly what I want to know about that little boy as well. Wouldn’t that be a good story? Thanks for reading and commenting, Natalie!

  4. When I was kid, I wasn’t much of a student. I had horrible recall and memory. I stumbled on a trick though that helped me. When I used stories to remember key history dates or simple grammar rules, my grades miraculously started to go up. Looking back, my stories included several of the elements that you mentioned. Yes, in most of my stories, I was the superhero who saved the day. I suspect those stories are a big reason I became a reporter/editor/writer and continue to write today. I’ve always been a sucker for a good story. Thanks for the post.

    1. Wow, Brian – that is a great story! Will Storr mentions that often we are the superhero in our stories – we have to be to belief we are the one who can take action.

      I love that stories not only improved your grades and also became your career! What a wonderful comment – thanks for reading and adding that to the conversation.

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