Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No.

Stories all the way down

I can’t deny the importance of storytelling in explaining (in other words, in technical communication), in persuading (marketing), and in connecting people together.

Sea turtleIn another place Mark uses the metaphor of a stack of turtles: the stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”

But, as I’ve argued before, a story isn’t a story without data — in other words, without information.

Nor can a story be effective without the right words. To tell a good story, I need words that work for my audience: enabling them to paint a mental picture and evoking the right emotional responses.

If a writer’s finished product is the story — like a baker’s finished product is the cake — then data and words are butter and flour: ingredients without which the story is drab and flat.

Without the words

I’ve never watched a film with the sound off. Never thought of it until Seth brought it up. But I can tell you a story….

The summer after my junior year in high school, a group of us students spent two weeks touring Germany. One night, looking for something to do, a few of us found a movie theater that was playing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (This was back when a theater would play just one movie.)

I hadn’t seen 2001 before. But I assumed it would be in English, with German subtitles. I was wrong. When the movie started and I realized it had simply been dubbed into German, I thought “Wow, this is going to go right over my head.”

HAL9000I was in for a surprise, though, and it’s one Seth would’ve predicted. Armed with only a third-year knowledge of German, I could follow along. It helped, of course, that 2001 is highly visual and doesn’t rely too much on dialog. So, in Seth’s words I “got a lot out of it” — until the last part, of course, which is hard to understand no matter what languages you know.

Yet even then, words mattered. In the English version of 2001, when HAL begins to shut down, he intones I’m afraid, Dave. I’m afraid. The scene is affecting. But in German it’s downright overpowering: Ich habe Angst, Dave. Ich habe Angst. Forty-plus years later I still feel chills when I recall that scene.

When I recall those words.

2001 is a great story. A lot of different ingredients go into making it great. But don’t discount the power of those words.

What do you say? Do you think it makes sense to talk about story without also talking about data and words? Do you see other ingredients coming into play as well?

HAL image by Grafiker61 via Wikimedia Commons

10 thoughts on “Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

  1. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Larry, Here you go again, provoking thought. So many elements go into story. There’s value in looking at each in isolation (words, images, sound, arrangement), but ranking them—as in “It’s not the choice of individual words. It’s the juxtaposition of words that achieved the effect”—seems to me unproductive. A delicious cake needs every ingredient, and it needs the baker to handle every ingredient in a certain way so that the batter does what it needs to do. Not that stories can be cranked out like recipes.

    Painting might be a better analogy for what I’m getting at. It would be a false trade-off to say, “It’s not the individual colors. It’s the way the colors are mixed and applied that achieves the effect.”

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Marcia. On the one hand, storytelling is innate to all of us and is as old as human society. On the other hand, good storytelling is art.

  3. Mark Baker

    Larry, absolutely words go into making a great story great. Nonetheless, the story marketplace makes one thing very clear. There is a huge market for good stories badly told. Much of the bestseller list at any given moment consists of work whose prose is pedestrian at best, but which tells a story that is compelling to many, if not all, readers. On the other hand the reject plies at publishing houses are full of works that a beautifully written but don’t have a compelling story to tell.

    I used to believe in the power of words alone. Then I read Robert McKee’s _Story_ in which he recounts his days reading the slush pile at a studio. Based on that experience, he reports that there are lots of people who can write beautiful prose — that beautiful writing is actually a fairly abundant commodity — but that very few can tell a compelling story. I’ve understood every since that story is the real backbone of literature. Any my experience in countless writing workshops and critique sessions has borne this out. Most of the people in these sessions are competent to exceptional prose stylists who can’t tell a story to save their lives.

    Great literature, of course, has both. But great story can survive without great writing; great writing cannot survive without a good story to tell.

    And it is doubly so in technical communication. What the reader needs is information that solves their problem. A beautifully written, beautifully laid out manual that does not contain that information (or in which they cannot find that information) brings no joy to their day with its aesthetic brilliance. But an blog post or forum entry in broken English with multiple misspellings that actually tells them what they need to know, lets them get on with their work. Perhaps that experience is not joyful either, but it is certainly practical.

    We have dramatic proof of this (if we needed it) in the form of StackOverflow, where answers are voted up and down based on their usefulness. It is the answers that provide the information needed to address the question that get voted up, not the ones most prettily expressed.

    The great thing about StackOverflow, though, and this should tell us everything about the future of technical communication, is that if an answer is useful but badly written or poorly laid out, someone will come along and edit it to improve the writing, fix the spelling mistakes, and tidy up the formatting. The number of people with the skills and knowledge to do these edits greatly exceeds the number of people who could provide the right answer. But the final product is an answer that is both correct and useful, and also well enough written and laid out to serve its purpose well.

    Now, given where my primary skill set lies, I have every reason for wishing it were otherwise. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. Great writing is the icing on the cake, but icing alone is too sickly sweet to be enjoyable. The heart of the matter is always the cake.

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