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What is a Story?

In the book Winning The Story Wars, author Jonah Sachs defines a story this way:

“Stories are a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview.”

Normally when we talk about a story, we think about character, plot, setting, dialogue — all the techniques we use to create a story, but taken on their own, don’t necessarily make a story.

A common criticism I’ve heard of books, movies, or TV shows is: “It had no story.” I’m sure I’ve said that a bunch of times about a particular movie I didn’t like. But looking more closely, all those media have characters, plots, settings, and dialogue. I might not like a particular character or plot, but I can’t deny their existence. So story must be something more. And Jonah Sachs’ definition gives us a little more to go on.

He uses three particular words that stick out to me as being vital to a better understanding of story: communication, persuade, and worldview.

A story is the author’s worldview — what he or she believes and values.

The author is trying to persuade the audience of his or her worldview. If an author doesn’t really believe in what they are trying to say, neither will the audience.

And the author’s argument needs to be clearly and honestly communicated.  He or she might have a great point to make, but if that point is muddled or hidden under layers of falseness, the audience will be unmoved by the story.

I think when these three things are in play, a story has a much better chance of succeeding. Is it a guarantee? Probably not. Even the most universal and honestly told stories of love, freedom, and justice sometimes flop. That’s part of the mystery of art and writing.

I thought I’d look at two of this year’s more successful movies (both commercially and critically) and see if I can break the stories down with these three categories.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Life of Pi was my favorite film this year. And after seeing it, I read the book and was impressed by how the filmmakers faithfully adapted it. Here’s my interpretation.

The author’s (and filmmaker’s) worldview: “Life is a story. You can choose your story. A story with God is the better story.” From an interview with Yann Martel.

How they persuade us: Without giving anything away, there is a very persuasive scene in the book and movie that illustrates the author’s worldview very clearly and asks the audience the question — what kind of story do you prefer? One with God or one without. (And to be clear, I don’t interpret the author’s use of God as referring to any particular religion, but as a non-denominational synonym for spirituality or faith.)

How they communicate: The themes of spirituality and faith, as well as the hero’s search for meaning as he explores the mysteries of life permeate the entire story.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum is Skyfall. It’s on my mind because I just saw it a couple nights ago. Normally, we don’t associate action movies with having deep themes, but I was pleasantly surprised that this one did and it resonated with me. And I think it’s why Skyfall became the most successful Bond film in history.

The writer and director’s worldview: The world is a more dangerous place than ever, besieged by new enemies with no ties to governments and we must adapt in order to defeat those threats.

How they persuade us: They show the audience that a hero like James Bond is not a relic of the past. Through character development and dynamic action, the filmmakers persuaded me that, yes, in fact, James Bond is still relevant (which I didn’t believe going into this movie).  Bond reinvented himself and adapted to meet whatever challenge came his way.

How they communicate: The theme “an old dog can learn new tricks” was made clear at several points through the film. In fact, a character pretty much says a variation of this. A cliché phrase maybe, but an idea everyone understands.

You could try applying this to your favorite books, movies, and TV shows. It might shed some light on why some stories resonate with you and some don’t. I’d love to hear if it works for you.

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