Searching for the secret to storytelling — How to make a good story great

Marloes Spekman  by Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a girl with golden hair and baby blue eyes. She spent her days fantasizing about writing the most wonderful stories that everyone in the world would read and talk about. She dreamed of persuading people of the importance of her research via mind-blowing narrative constructions. And she fantasized about sharing with everyone what fascinates her about the world around her. Thus, she went on a quest to find the Secret to Storytelling.

Along the way, she had to overcome many obstacles (such as the newest version of APA). After a long and exhausting journey, she finally found what she was after all along: the Secret to Storytelling. It was found in the last place she would have expected it. This is the story of her journey.

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©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

In reality, the girl with golden hair and blue eyes is ‘just another’ PhD student striving to inspire people by sharing her research findings in the best way possible. Yes, me: Marloes Spekman, a PhD student in the field of Communication Science/Media Psychology doing a PhD project within the SELEMCA project.

Strictness of rules

In the last few years, I realized that telling stories is not as simple as it often seems. Sure, there are certain rules for telling your story, in every field or genre. A fairytale, for instance, is expected to start off with “Once upon a time”, just like I did in the introduction here. Most research papers are expected to follow a strict set of rules, such as APA 6th. Conference presentations (at least in my field) usually follow the same order of elements (i.e., introduction, method, results, and conclusion/discussion). Even photography has certain rules, such as the so-called rule of thirds that most photographers keep in mind when taking their photos. However, strictly adhering to the rules often does not deliver the best stories. Rather, doing so usually produces utterly boring end-products. Still, we keep teaching these rules to next generations, so they must be making sense in some way or another, right?

What makes a good story great?

So, I started searching for the answer to the question: What makes a good story great?  To find the answer, I took a number of courses and workshops within the Graduate School and VU University over the years (e.g., Language and Interaction, PhD Success and Personal Efficacy). Surprisingly, I didn’t find the answer there, but it came to me during a talk related to one of my hobbies: photography. Our local Media Markt had invited Eddy van Wessel, a renowned war photographer and winner of the Silver Camera in 2012, to give a talk about his work. During his talk, he showed the amateur photographers in the audience many of his pictures and shared with them under what circumstances he had made the pictures. What struck me about his images was that all of them told impressive stories¹, but very little of them adhered to the ‘photography rules’. For instance, he took pictures in Aleppo, Syria, while the city was being bombed. The images show the devastation the bombs caused, people taking refuge for yet another bomb attack, and the casualties after such attacks. Many of his pictures are either skewed, contain noise, or put the subject somewhere in the middle (while, according to the rule of thirds, the picture would be more interesting if the subject would be placed at one- or two-thirds of the image).

Rules? Stretch and bend them!

And that is when I realized: Telling a good story has nothing to do with your ability to understand and apply the rules, but rather with your ability to be creative with these rules. Sure, you may have to stick to APA rules when writing up a journal article, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative in writing. Why not start out with a hypothetical situation to illustrate your problem? Why not use a metaphor to make an abstract idea more tangible? Why not refer to non-academic works that help you in making your point (e.g., movies, comedians)? Why not insert an image or flow-chart to visualize the procedure participants went through? A certain bandwidth exists around the rules, so stretch them, bend them, and use them in any way you like!

After returning home from her quest, the girl with the golden hair and baby blue eyes excitedly ran to her desk, took up her quill, dipped it in the ink pot, and eagerly started writing. As her quill started flying over the paper, she felt less and less restricted in her writing. And she wrote happily ever after!


¹ Many of his photographs can be found on Eddy’s website. Please be aware that some of these images may be rather shocking, so visit at your own risk.

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