What makes a story? And is it helpful to think of the unfolding US Presidential election contest as an example of one?
The usual advice on how to create a great story or narrative is too general to be useful: stories have a beginning, middle and end. So does an ice cream cone. Stories have tension. So does a final exam. Stories have an arc. So does the Golden Gate Bridge. Stories have conflict. So does an argument. And so on down the list. All true enough, but not particularly actionable.
Here’s what you really need to create a story. You need a hero – the protagonist. You need someone or something for the hero to struggle against – the antagonist. You need three key scenes to define the arc of the story. You need to pose and answer a final question. Finally, a great story has a theme that relates somehow to the character of the protagonist.
That’s a story. If you’re missing any of those pieces, you may have a story fragment, or an anecdote, or a bill from the dentist, but you don’t have a story.
Let’s look at the pieces in a little more detail. The hero can be anyone, but should be flawed in some interesting way. Even Achilles had his heel. The hero should want something enough to go on a journey – physical or metaphysical – to try to get it. The antagonist should function as the blocking agent for the protagonist, out of jealousy, or hatred, or misplaced love, or some other recognizable emotion. Antagonists can also be, in essence, heroes of their own stories.
Creating the three key scenes separates the true storytellers from everyone else. The first scene typically involves a meeting, one that sets the hero off on his journey. Good scenes are irrevocable – once done, they can’t be undone. So, for example, Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love. Once that’s happened, Romeo can’t unmeet Juliet.
The second scene builds on the first, once again in a way that can’t be undone. Again, for example, Romeo and Juliet: Romeo marries Juliet in secret. In Shakespeare’s day, getting unmarried was not an option.
The third scene brings the action to a head and poses the question. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo duels with Tybalt, Juliet’s relative, and kills him, thus invoking the wrath of the Prince of Verona, who banishes Romeo. This unfortunate event poses the final question of the narrative: will Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after? The answer is no despite their best efforts (read the play), and so the play ends, a tragedy, with Romeo and Juliet dead.
The theme in this case is love – the passionate kind of love that leads to impulsive acts, the deep kind of love that leads to commitment, and so on.
That’s a great story. Does the US presidential race meet the criteria and do we get any useful insights if we think of the race as a story or stories?
Yes and yes. We have two heroes, each conveniently with each other as antagonists: Secretary Hillary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump. Both want the presidency enough to go on a very long, very difficult journey to try to win the White House.
Each declared his/her candidacy, and that became the first scene in the story. Hillary released her video, and Donald descended his escalator. Once you’ve announced that you’re running, you can’t un-announce. You can drop out, but you will always be someone who ran.
The rest of the narrative structure will be clearer in retrospect, because we don’t know the final shape of the story for each of the two candidates yet. Of course, one will win and the other lose, but that’s not the most interesting aspect of their stories.
Story is character-driven, and we like to think that, at some level, the fittest character will be elected to the presidency. So if character drives these stories, then according to the narrative that has developed for both of these candidates, there are many possibilities for the second scene in their stories. In Secretary Clinton’s case, the story is about trustworthiness and openness. And so the second scene can be one of a number of moments where she responded to accusations about her email arrangements, or Benghazi, or her health. In Mr. Trump’s case, the story is about narcissism and impulsivity. And so the second scene could be any one of a number of moments where he insulted and attacked various people that got in his way, from Megyn Kelly to Judge Curiel to Mr and Mrs Khan, the Gold Star parents.
Thus, in both cases, the presidential debates are set up to be the third scene, potentially, for one or the other of them, posing the final question. That’s what makes the debates, in part, so interesting – they can become the climax to an unfolding story about the next US President. Is Secretary Clinton holding something back? (Is she trustworthy enough to be President?) Is Mr. Trump going to have a meltdown? (Is he steady enough to be President?) If either of the two candidates fulfills the demands of their narratives, we will complete the story and the election will merely confirm the story structure we already know.
The strength of the narrative in both cases is enough that it’s almost impossible to write the story in any other way. The press pretty much only reports on the two candidates in ways that feed the two arcs. We don’t get stories about Clinton’s steadiness or Trump’s trustworthiness – or anything else. It’s very difficult for either campaign to change the story.
And yet you might think, if the job is as important as we seem to believe, given all the time, expense and effort put in winning it, that it’s the job of the press to question the narrative in each case, and the job of the voters to resist the narrative arc at least until the election.
Are we electing a president, after all, or simply the best fairy tale?