Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Essentials of a Strong Story

I've been digressing a little in the writing of my book on the multistory approach (see this blog, passim) and considering story more broadly.  Here's my draft notes for a digression on that subject.  I will be interested in any reactions...

The Essentials of a Strong Story
One of the fascinating things about story is the basic structure, which seems constant across times and cultures.  The other essentials in any story are setting and character: in nearly every story one hears, both setting and character are important, and we will come back to them, but for the minute, let’s focus on the structure.

At its most fundamental, the structure of story consists of:
  • a beginning: this sets the scene and starts the action, typically with the disruption of normality
  • a middle: in which conflict grows to a crisis (whether conflict of ideas, internal conflict, or physical conflict)
  • an end: how things are resolved (or not) often after an unexpected final twist in the tale (and tail).
There are variations, of course, on this basic three-act structure; but in most stories those essentials are there.

At the heart of story, then, is the escalation of conflict, and for our purposes that is an important realisation.

For a start, it helps us to understand why so many organisational visions and leadership attempts to create a positive narrative fail: they are not stories, because they lack that element of conflict.  A vision statement that simply expresses a pious aspiration for a better future is fine - but it will not engage people’s hearts and minds, it will not fire their imaginations, because it is a poor story.

Secondly, it helps us to understand why negative stories are so powerful.  If they are conflict-saturated, they are strong stories.

Thirdly, it can help us to understand the unhealthy dynamics of much competition.  In competition, the exciting narrative is our conflict with our competitors.  Too often, organisations set up competition between individuals, teams or divisions within the organisation - and then wonder why there is unproductive conflict instead of collaboration and creativity.  Competition can be a powerful motivator, but choose your competitors carefully, and notice the stories you tell yourself (and others) about them, and the ones they will be generating about you.

Perhaps most positively, this understanding of the structure of story helps us understand something of the nature of the stories we need to help people construct if they are really to engage them.  They include conflict.  So who is the enemy?  In my worldview, the enemies are things like ignorance, difficulty, laziness and so on.  One can construct great narratives with plenty of conflict based on these and similar.  That then has the added value of uniting us against a common enemy - but that enemy not being some other person or group.

Also, if one is helping people in a genuine conflict, it can be interesting to ask them how a happy ending could conceivably be attained - what twist it would take to allow the conflicting parties to learn to trust - and even like - each other.  As so often, placing these questions in the context of exploring possible stories frees people up to answer them in unexpected - and potentially valuable - ways.

The world in which the story takes place has a huge impact on it and how we understand it.  Part of the enduring power of Austen, Dickens, Tolkien, or Rowling is the world each has created.

Again, this has some valuable applications to organisational life.  Sometimes the negative stories are predicated on a much more interesting, intriguing (and sometimes more credible) world than the world of official organisational stories.  Is it any surprise that there is such an appetite for them?

It also suggests that when we are helping people to develop Rich Descriptions, being curious about the setting of the story, and inviting a rich description of that, may help them to recognise the richer description as a fuller and more accurate account than their (typically thin) dominant story.

The other essential for strong stories is interesting characters.  Again, this can drive organisational stories in difficult directions.  It is so much more interesting if the boss is an ogre than a reasonable person struggling to do her best in a complex and fast-changing world...

Having said that, once one reaches Thin Conclusions about others, they instantly become less interesting, so one can harness this desire for interesting characters by inviting people to consider that the people who populate their conflict-saturated stories are more complex and subtle than simply ‘malicious’ or ‘lazy,’ or whatever thin descriptor has been applied.

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