What is a Story? Amber Sandberg

According to Kendall Haven’s “Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story,” a good story must contain five elements: 1) a character; 2) intent, including the character’s goals and motives for achieving those goals; 3) actions; 4) struggles; and 5) details.

Since learning of this definition, I have inventoried several of my favorite stories to see if they follow Haven’s definition. As it turns out they do. One such story is “Stranger Than Fiction.”

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a terrific movie with a spectacular story. It’s also among my favorites due to its endless supply of everything: a tax man, a baker, a literature professor who lifeguards, a writer, and a best friend who wants to attend space camp.  It has writer’s block, death research, flours, Fenders, narrative, a sterile filing room, cubicles, psychiatrists, tragedy, music aspiration, bikes, comedy, clever dialog, apartment demolition, honesty, teeth-brushing, cookies, apples, sacrifice, and an awkward bus ride with awkward small talk.  It references Greek literature, seven fairy tales, ten Chinese fables, King Hamlet, Scout Finch, Miss Marple, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a golem.  It has watches, dry humor, Animal Planet, calculations, romance, integers, musical hits from Wreckless Eric, Spoon, and another catchy, tear-jerker from that “Chariots of Fire” genius, Vangelis.

“Stranger Than Fiction” has just about everything. But having just about everything doesn’t guarantee a story, let alone a good one. So what makes a good story?

According to Kendall Haven’s “Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story,” a good story must contain five elements: 1) a character; 2) intent, including the character’s goals and motives for achieving those goals; 3) actions; 4) struggles; and 5) details.

As was mentioned above, “Stranger Than Fiction” is well covered in the detail department, but how does it fare among Haven’s other essentials?

Harold Crick, a tax auditor for the IRS, is your typical number-loving, pencil-pushing, single professional who is schlepping his way through life one step at a time. He’s not sad or lonely but is comfortable in his habitually mundane routine. Harold, a man of honor and innocence to contrast his tall and bold physical appearance, continues his humdrum existence, content to continue as planned. He sees no need for change.

Character? Check. Intent? Check.

One day, however, Harold hears a narration, a woman, with a stylish, high society British accent, who effectively presents details of his life as they occur. Details such as the brushing of his teeth, the steps to his bus stop and the effects of his wrist watch. Harold begins to think he’s crazy, consults a psychiatrist who suggest he consult with a literature professor. During his search for the cause of this narrative madness, Harold hears the author broadcast his doom after the malfunction of his wristwatch: “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

Actions? Check. Struggles? Check.

At this point, things change for Harold. His intentions and goals change. He tosses his predicable life aside, decides it’s time to discover music and love, learns to play guitar, chases the woman of his dreams, and lives like a man who’s going to die. All of which is not easy because there’s a woman in the background giving the play-by-play of his eventual end.

With a newly colored life, Harold is determined to find the woman before she kills him.

Character, intent, goals, motive, action, struggles and details. “Stranger Than Fiction” has what it takes to make a good story.

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