What Makes A Good Story?

by Thomas MORADPOUR on February 15, 2011 · 12 comments

What do shows like The Apprentice, X Factor and Hell’s Kitchen have in common?

Yes, they are all popular reality TV talent shows, they all start with many contestants and eliminate them one by one until the final winner has been identified.

But there’s more.
They are all organized around a very vocal and polarizing judge figure: Donald Trump. Simon Cowell. Gordon Ramsey.

Don’t deny it – what you really want to see when you watch these shows, is Trump point his chubby finger at losing candidates and say “you’re fired”; or Cowell harshly criticize poor singing performance (or better yet, co-judging performance!); or Ramsey smash a plate of half-cooked salmon in disgust and kick weaker chefs out of the kitchen.

These are all larger-than-life personalities with big egos and even bigger mouths. They are not briefed to be nice… in fact, the harsher, the scarier, and the more hell-bent they seem to be on making contestants lives painful… the better for the show.

Watching contestant “survive” the judges is where the entertainment comes from.
And it’s no accident - each of these shows has been designed purposefully with story-telling in mind, by building on proven archetypes.

According to author Christopher Booker, the whole history of human storytelling boils down to just seven basic plots. And no matter how creative you get, successful storytelling is a factor of how well you understand the rules of the particular story-type you are trying to tell.

Reality TV talent shows are all essentially “Rags To Riches” story – a very powerful arch we can all relate to. It tells the rise of an individual from zero to hero, through a series of character building challenges. The typical story involves fighting an evil “monster”, a particularly powerful bad guy like Aladin’s Grand Vizir, or Luke’s Darth Vader  - a task that feels daunting at first… the monster always wins the first rounds… but the true champion wins in the end, generally after getting as close as it gets to defeat.

With no monster, no merit, no “transformation” of the hero – an idea particularly important for shows intent to propel nobodies to star-level in a matter of weeks. Monster-judges give contestants fast-lane access to credibility, in the public eye. Each of these shows has deliberately created its own monster. Monsters with faces and names. Trump, Cowell and Ramsey are as hard as it takes to offer that scary counter-point to hero-contestants. Only then can we – the public – buy into the rags to riches scenario, and see merit in the winner’s accelerated journey to success and fame.

Successful engagement comes with an understanding of the timeless rules of story-telling.

In this case, that champions and heroes need monsters to slay. That’s how you make it work, even if you need to create the monster yourself.

A lesson for anyone – especially marketers – who want to tell good stories.

This post is part of #letsblogoff – Feb 15th theme “What makes a good story – storytelling”.

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  • http://www.dogwalkblog.com/ Rufus Dogg

    Americans love a rags to riches story more than any of the other plot line simply because that is how we perceive ourselves to be. It is what sustains our current state of “capitalism” because we all what to be “that guy” who rises up with a great idea to become a titan of industry. (One cliche too many.. sorry) Nowhere is the plot line used so effectively to the blithely ignorant than in the world of technology. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Zuck, Larry Page and Sergey Brin we could go on and on….

    My editor @gerardmclean is re-writing his own story and glossing over a lot of the facts, embellishing some, forgetting others. Hey, he is gonna be great some day… or not.. but if it happens, he is ready to go! http://gerardmclean.com/my-story-formerly-about Are you??

    • Anonymous

      Oh yes, who does not love a good old American dream rags to riches story? I think it goes beyond American culture – it’s human culture. The desire to succeed in our lives makes this a very easy story-type to relate to. At a deeper level, it tells the story of “growing up”, something we all experience as we mature from childhood to adulthood… with all challenges and rituals to go through. that’s really what rags to riches is about.

      It works because it’s universally human.

      Thanks for commenting, and inspiring me to write this post as part of your fantastic #letsblogoff initiative!


  • http://www.cft411.com Joseph

    I think your analysis of what makes a good story is correct. However, I do not agree that anything on these reality shows constitutes good stories. They are stories in that they are clearly contrived. Good stories… well, that requires some talent, and I’m pretty sure that’s in short supply on those particular sound sets.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Joseph for reading and commenting!
      You know what? I’m not sure I’m following you on lack of talent in reality TV – can’t create something that captures the passion and interest of the public for ten+ years without talent… creative genius even. Agreed, it tends to repeat itself, is formulaic, and will probably not go into posterity. But fact is it works because of… proven recipes. THere’s something to learn from there :-)
      Thanks again Joseph!

      • http://twitter.com/stairbundy Al Macmichael

        One thing to remember here is that the ‘talent’ are the judges. The stories and the hype are all about the hosts (Trump, Sugar, Cowell, Morgan etc).
        The other talent (the acts) are a by product of the story. I often get a whiff of the PR machine behind a lot of the contestants stories (maybe that is me just being cynical)
        These are 2nd rate rags to riches stories about people who want to be famous and on the front cover of every magazine and do it quickly over night. The real Talent (hosts, producers etc) prey on this to make the shows more watchable and entertaining.

        I bet that Trump, Ramsey etc didn’t set out to be famous, they just wanted to be the best they could be.
        They didn’t go out there looking to be famous from the start. That came later as they started to reinvent themselves and expand on to larger platforms.

        One last thing: I do enjoy the shows – they are pure entertainment.

        • Anonymous

          I would agree with you.
          There are certainl multiple layers of stoies n those shows… Which is why they work so well.
          Thanks for you contribution, Al!

  • http://toddrjordan.com/thebroadbrush tojosan

    Who doesn’t love a great story. This opened my eyes to why anyone watches those ‘loser’ driven shows.
    I have to admit to it going over my head.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this topic.

    • Anonymous

      I confess I am not a big fan of reality shows myself.
      Except The Apprentice and Hell’s Kitchen – there’s something about watching The Donald and Ramsey beat up the contestants…

  • http://twitter.com/skypulsemedia Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    These came just in time for the networks. It is expensive to make great shows with casts and writers. But when you had 4 channel choices and easily could have 20-30mil viewers you could charge plenty for ads. Now that most shows are less than 5mil viewers these fit perfectly into the networks cost structure!

    • Anonymous

      That’s true!
      Inventing a new and effective business model does not hurt!

  • http://hustream.com Nick Kellet

    Interesting. I’ve never read it, but I’m aware of the the themes, I think from reading Nany Duarte’s resonate.

    I’ve found that one thing that makes for a goog viral story is an incomplete story. Leave the ending untold. Let people pick it up and carry on the telling for you. We tend to over engineer our stories, which limits their viral potential

    I certainly experienced benefit from that approach with @gifttrap

  • http://carolweinfeld.com/ Carol L. Weinfeld

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The archetypes of storytelling persist although society quickly evolves through technology.

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