Come and have a seat (that is, if you’re not already sitting), maybe next to a window. It’s always an excellent spot.
You see, a good window seat has two things: comfort and a view. Looking out the window gives you a chance to appreciate what’s around you. You can gaze ahead to where you’re going or around at what’s passing by, providing opportunity to set your imagination loose to chase whatever captivates it. It’s a place to create stories or watch them unfold. The stories that we live, tell, and hear all have power to touch our souls, and we live in a time where the art of Story thrives. We have access to so many stories, good and bad, chronicling the lives of thousands of characters whose lives are both similar and different to our own.
Our culture is so filled with stories that it’s impossible to experience them all in a lifetime. Every day a new TV show, movie, book, web-series, or play is released for the public to enjoy. You can binge watch Netflix all you want, but there’s no way around it: choices must be made. The stories you spend your time on will reflect a set of values–a mix of conscious choices and subconscious preferences–that flows from your personality and experiences. The same applies to every fellow story-lover out there.
With this in mind we, Nathan (hey-o!) and Jordan (hi!), have put together our own lists of the top three traits (in no particular order) that we look for in a good story. Basically, think of this as our version of a blog icebreaker, to give you an idea of how we think.
Characters, of course, make up every story, and stories are only interesting if they have compelling characters. Sure, you can intrigue people with a premise, like suggesting an interesting route for a road trip, but the ride will only be fun with a great group of characters to enjoy it with. A story with an eclectic cast of likeable characters, all of them with distinct behaviors, unique worldviews, and relatable goals, draws audiences because people want to know what these characters will do next. Good stories naturally grow from characters being themselves, complementing them by building off what audiences already know and like about them: their strengths and weaknesses. I love Batman: The Animated Series for its large banquet of characters: Batman, The Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, and many more. Each one brings a unique flavor and gets enough screen time to share it with those enjoying the feast. In fact, there are a number of episodes in which supporting characters get more spotlight than Batman. A distinct cast is foundational to the world a story presents, their plights and interactions making their world all the more vibrant. Struggling to overcome challenges unique to them or learning how to better interact with one another, these characters are given chances to grow and develop, reflecting our own daily struggles and inspiring us to grow too.
The TV shows that I get the most excited about, the ones that I want to go back and watch over and over again and show to all my friends, are always the ones with the best Character Development. One of the greatest examples of this (and one of my all-time favorite TV shows ever) is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Every single main character from the first season of Buffy (and quite a few that get introduced seasons later) goes on a 7 year journey of discovering who they are, who their friends are, the world they live in, and what they (and others) are capable of. Season 1 Buffy is a tiny, scared cheerleader, miles away from the confident, badass, battle-hardened general she becomes in season 7. Season 1 Willow is awkward, shy, and insecure; season 7 Willow is powerful, generous, and wise (well, wiser. “Empty Places” was rough for everyone). Every character, from Giles to Xander to Anya to Spike has an organic progression of growing older and wiser throughout the seven season run. If you were to skip from season 1 straight to season 7 you would barely recognize these characters, but if you patiently follow along on all the ups and downs, the highs (season 3! season 5!) and lows (most of season 4), you will emerge alongside them bruised, broken, and scarred, but ultimately stronger, wiser, and more badass than when you started. And that’s something to sing about.
Dilemmas are the crux of a story’s morals and ideals, in which the writer makes his point. If he truly understands his characters (their roles, personalities, and worldviews), he has them face difficult choices–capable of bringing them to their breaking point and stretching them beyond it–in order to build the story off the consequences created by their decisions, evoking life-lessons from their struggles. Dilemmas add drama as well as a sense of intimacy, giving the audience deep insight into who a character really is and what he’s willing or not willing to sacrifice for a particular goal. A good dilemma promotes introspection, from both the character and the audience, by testing a character’s worldview, which can strengthen it or change it as the story unfolds around it. The best example of a dilemma I can think of is in the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Approaching his final battle with the evil Fire Lord Ozai, Avatar Aang is told by everyone, including his past lives and mentors, to kill Ozai in order to end to his global threat, but Aang is a pacifist who vowed to never kill because he believes that all life is precious, including Ozai’s. If he fulfils his duties as Aang the Avatar by killing Ozai, then he would be denying his duties as Aang the pacifist, but, if he lets Ozai live, then the world will suffer for his beliefs. From Aang’s perspective, both choices are right and wrong in their own way, and he has to think deeply about the best course of action. Dilemmas remind us that we each have our own ideals to uphold and challenge us to determine what we’re willing to do for them, especially when things get tough.
It is hard for me to find much artistic or entertainment value in a show if I don’t feel any Connection with the characters and story. This is obviously a very subjective trait and really tricky to pin down, but I think it comes down to those moments when I see a character act or react in a certain way and something in my brain clicks and says, “yup, that’s what I would do if I were them.” When I started watching Mad Men, I only got a few episodes in before I gave it up. I didn’t have that moment of identification, that moment where the show snapped into focus because I understood one of the characters really well. I finally decided to give it another chance, because it seemed like something that I should enjoy. This time, I got several episodes further, and when I hit episode 9, it happened. Towards the end of the episode, Betty Draper, the perpetually slighted and ignored wife of Don, finds out that her neighbor has been scaring her kids by threatening to hurt their dog. So, she strolls into her backyard in a nightgown, lights a cigarette, lifts her son’s BB gun, shuts one eye, and calmly fires several times at the offending neighbor’s prized pigeons. This dynamic portrayal of a combination of protective instinct, pettiness, and long-suppressed rage made the whole show feel so real. After that episode, I couldn’t stop watching.
As a guy who loves to laugh, I prefer to watch funny stuff. There’s much Humor can do for a story, its accessibility hinging upon how well it weaves comedy into itself. By spacing out the drama or action, humor helps keep the audience focused on the story and receptive to what it’s saying. Good humor can make even the simplest plots memorable because laughing feels so good. Spongebob Squarepants is just a show about the adventures of a goofy, undersea sponge, but its wacky comedy is so appealing that it’s still popular after 15 years. Frankly, I can quote more lines from it than I could the Declaration of Independence or any other American document or speech (God bless America!). However, not every story needs to be a comedy to have humor. Bust-a-gut gags aren’t viable to every story, but what’s great about humor is that it can take a variety of subtler forms. Samurai Jack follows a wandering samurai as he tries to find his way home and defeat an ancient evil, but, despite the epic premise, you can still laugh at the quirky characters Jack meets, usually acting as foils to his stoic, old-fashioned demeanor. The 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars is about a vicious, galaxy-destroying war, but that doesn’t stop Anakin or Obi Wan from making witty, sarcastic remarks while on the battlefield. Humor adds depth to a story because funny things always happen in real life, and every good story draws from life experiences. Keeping humor out of a story to make it more gritty and realistic only does the opposite. It’s always worth having a laugh.
They say there are no original concepts, that every great writer and creator borrows (or steals) heavily from others. While this is true, there are some shows that manage to do this and still capture a feeling of Originality, and that skill is something that I look for in new shows. Several of my friends, whose recommendations I usually appreciate, have told me to watch Arrow. I tried a few episodes without really enjoying it, and I finally figured out why. It felt like a sub-par remix of Batman Begins, John Doe, and Angel. I felt like I knew exactly what was going to happen, I could predict the broad strokes of the backstory, and I got tired of the dark, brooding, secretive hero in about 10 seconds (Angel really wore me out on this trope). The quality of originality is possibly the most subjective, because it depends not just on your tastes, but also on the order that you watch things in. If I had seen Arrow before Angel, I might have had the opposite reaction, but I didn’t, and here we are. This is why I’m entranced by shows like Wonderfalls, with its wax figurines who spout supernatural advice, Hannibal, with its gruesomely beautiful images and unique approach to the crime procedural, and Party Down, with its depressingly hilarious catering crew. I was willing to invest in them initially because they showed me something I hadn’t seen before.
There you have it. These are qualities, among many others, that we’ll be talking about a lot in the future, so keep checking back as we explore the art of storytelling within Pop Culture. Thanks for reading! If you have your own method of choosing which stories and pieces of culture are worth your time, talk about it in the comments!
Tune in tomorrow for more of Jordan’s thoughts about Mad Men.