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What makes a bad story?

Posted by vince
Published on 23 April 2018

What makes a bad story? Is there such a thing? Well, yes, there is. We’ve all seen or read stories that seem to have all the ingredients for greatness, in more or less the correct order, but the whole thing doesn’t work – whether it’s a film, a play, a book, a TV programme, a speech or a presentation. Often, it’s a matter of letting the crucial elements of the story slip out of focus here and there. Maybe the script is wrong, or the main point is vague. Or perhaps the story is inappropriate for a particular audience. Or the characters don’t press the right emotional buttons.

Often a story starts well and sets out an objective that keeps the audience guessing. The set-up is exciting and fun, but what follows becomes dull, wordy, or confusing. If a story isn’t satisfactory, it won’t work. It’s like eating something tasty. One could argue that there are few bad stories, more lousy storytelling. You, as the storyteller, may assume that an audience will ‘get’ something but, if they don’t, then you’ve lost their interest. Also, if the listeners don’t know that they should care about something or someone, the story doesn’t clarify, the whole thing becomes flat, and the point is lost.

So, bad stories aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but they are not well constructed, written or told. A good story should make us ‘feel’ sad or happy, awkward or tense, excited or happy, hopeful or disappointed, or a combination of any of those emotions. A lousy story won’t do any of these things – or worse, it will make an audience feel the ‘wrong’ emotion. If an audience laughs when it isn’t supposed to or bursts into tears when you don’t intend that, then something has gone wrong.

If a story doesn’t show belief, fundamental belief, in its telling and its content, then it won’t be believed by an audience. Pretty obvious, you may think, but it happens when we can see that the executive standing on stage doesn’t believe what s/he is saying. Mind you, those who tell stories for propaganda or evil purposes are often good at showing passion and belief, even if it’s an act. Often, it isn’t an act, of course, and that isn’t very comforting.

A bad story is under-prepared or not rehearsed. It stands to reason. If you saw a play and the actors didn’t know their lines or where to move, you’d leave, wouldn’t you? A lousy story also doesn’t anchor the content to a particular place. Stories seem formless or vague unless positioned somewhere - where the action takes place. Again, that’s why the first ten seconds of some movies set up the starting location and time. Classic example: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...”

Bad stories are those that boast or are self-congratulatory. So, avoid: “Our brilliant EFG plc, founded in Basingstoke in 1979 where we soon made amazing software history by...” Better: “The management team in this company was a lot like you here today: plenty of great experience and industry knowledge, but perhaps a little sceptical of new technology...” Unfortunately, many business people are in the habit of using jargon that sounds impressive but is meaningless. These distractions weaken a story by making it vague or unintelligible.

A story that finishes in mid-air with no proper conclusion is terrible. That often happens if time runs out. (Remember somebody can deliver a good speech within thirty minutes.) Not every story can have a happy ending, but a story needs a conclusion that gives people hope and aspiration, even if the core news isn’t great. In every instance, it’s not the achievement itself that’s important; it’s how the hero (and the audience that’s been along for the ride) feels when the resolution occurs. So rather than: “In the end, they doubled their ROI in three months,” it would be better to say: “Doubling the ROI meant that, rather than declaring bankruptcy, we were able to turn our long-term objective, our dream, into reality.” And that’s from a real story.

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