What Constitutes a Good Story?

red_chairI’ve been doing some research for a project and received two autobiographies in the mail last week. God, they’re unreadable.

Both men worked with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and saw the revolution of the UK economy up close during the critical years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Exciting stuff … should make for a good read. Instead, both books are hard slogs through hundreds of pages that resemble the minutes of a local school board. “So-and-so gave their edits of the draft speech to Whozamajigger, who felt that Margaret would sound better if she said this part differently, but This Other Guy thought it sounded fine the way it was …” On some pages, every paragraph starts with “I,” and as if the summaries of the details weren’t enough, there are enormous block quotes from memos loaded with even more irrelevant detail.

At least both books have picture sections the middle to help illustrate the stories, but even these are incredibly boring. Here’s a studio shot of the author’s wife, for some reason; here’s the author stuffing corn in his mouth, and here’s a friend playing clarinet at a nursing home. And then there’s an endless parade of out-of-shape, pasty men in National Health Service-issue glasses carrying papers in and out of meetings. The one person I recognized right off was Margaret Thatcher’s husband, but this photo is out of focus. The photos are laid out differently on each page, randomly cropped, with various levels of contrast.

I’m not going to name the authors of these books, since I truly do respect them and am terribly interested in seeing what they saw at that time. Both men had incredible accomplishments and were some of the few people seriously thinking about what happened to the UK economy to send it off the rails. But both of their memoirs are so clunky, they have really made me think about the subtleties that separate good stories from a bad ones.

Completely by coincidence, I found something on YouTube which I had never seen before, which is the Red Chair segment of The Graham Norton Show. There are tons of clips of this on line, and they are completely addictive, especially if one is thinking about storytelling. What happens is that people have a chance to tell their best anecdote, and if they get boring, they get dumped. They can get flipped out of the chair for other reasons, like just being stupid or having an off-putting voice, but even this is interesting, for the whole point of the segment is to see who can captivate people, keep them interested, and tickle them at the end with a good finish.

Here is a little sample of Red Chair clips, two successful and two that ended in a flip:



Categories: Ron Clouse, Videos, writing

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