What makes for a good story?

Good Story - Alice in Wonderland

There is no single formula for a good story, but there are elements that many a good story has: There are people in it, the people want something, they face some difficulties, they decide what to do, they undergo a change, and there is an ending. That’s it. A shorter way of putting this is that a person or people undergo a struggle that has an outcome.

Establish who your protagonist is and what he or she needs.

Tell your audiences a bit about your protagonist, the person who guides them through the action. Let’s say your group works to fight hunger. Is the protagonist an 8-year-old who goes to school hungry every day? Is it the teacher whose students are distracted all morning because they haven’t eaten breakfast? Is it the mother who has no car and lives miles from the nearest produce market?

Narrative’s power stems from its complexity, indeed, its ambiguity… Following a story means more than listening: it means filling in the blanks, both between unfolding events and between events and the larger point they add up to. – Francesca Polletta, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics

Nonprofits may hesitate to name individual protagonists, because they are dealing with social problems, not personal ones; or because they want to give credit to more than one person for addressing those problems. And indeed, personal stories should be used with caution. For example, a dramatic account of how one man worked his way out of homelessness may lead readers to sympathize with him, but it may also lead them to think that the path out of homelessness is all about individual pluck.

You can tell stories about communities—or specific people in a community—working together to solve social problems. Other chapters in this guide will help you decide which stories to tell and how, as well as how to put personal anecdotes in the context of larger social problems.

Identify what your protagonist wants or needs and the obstacles in her way.

Desire and conflict are part of what makes a story more than just a sequence of events. Social-sector groups are generally practiced at identifying needs; just about every grant proposal they write has a statement about the need or problem or opportunity they’re addressing. Without desire or need, there are no stakes. What will happen if your protagonist doesn’t get what she needs?

Obstacles are no less important. There’s a Twilight Zone episode in which a career criminal named Rocky Valentine is killed while robbing a pawnshop. He finds himself in a place where his every wish is granted by a smiling man in a white suit. Eventually, Rocky bores of getting whatever he wants and says he doesn’t want to stay in heaven anymore but instead go to “the other place.” The man in the suit replies, “Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”

Hell is knowing exactly what’s going to happen. And yet, far too many nonprofits leave us in precisely this storytelling hell of no obstacles, no struggle. In the case of a homeless organization, maybe the protagonist is a disabled veteran. He needs a home, but why can’t he get one on his own? What is a rough patch he encountered even after he reached out to your organization for help? Such obstacles give texture to the story and justify the value of the organization. However, these obstacles must not be the only thing we learn about the character’s life. If we know little about his background or what he wants, then we as the audience have nothing to identify with. He himself becomes a “problem.”

Give your story an ending.

I once binge-watched two seasons of V (short for “visitors”), a reboot of the 1983 TV miniseries in which space aliens come to Earth. The prospects for humanity were grim as the end of season 2 approached; optimistically, I figured either the series would wrap up with a big win by the rebels, or there was a third season in the offing. But the show was canceled after season 2, and it didn’t so much end as stop, with the story left unresolved. Don’t do the same to your audiences, or they will eat you alive on message boards—if the response to V is any indication! An ending gives shape to your story, and it points your audiences in the direction you want them to go; or at least it makes them ponder questions you want them to think about and justifies the time and attention they gave.

Clarify the essence of your story.

If you get confused about the story you’re trying to tell, try distilling each of the following points into one sentence. (1) Before and after: Who your protagonist is at the beginning of the story, and then at the end of the story. (2) Turning point: What caused the change from beginning to end, or what the moment of change was. (3) Stakes: What stands to be won or lost in the work you’re doing. The idea of this exercise is not to reduce your story to a series of bullet points but to help you clarify it. Keep whatever serves the essence of your story and discard the rest.

Further exploration:

  • Radio host Ira Glass’s manifesto and notes on what makes a good story.
  • This American Life has resources on how to make radio, including four short videos from host Ira Glass, and another one from producer Brian Reed on “action, reflection, and stakes” as the key elements of story.
  • The 22 Rules of Storytelling, According to Pixar.” A former Pixar storyboard artist reveals what she learned about storytelling in her years with the company.