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What Makes a Great Story, Anyway?

October 10th, 2015 | 3 comments

Why do we judge some stories as “great” and others as “nothing special”?


Is it mass appeal? Dramatic tension? Complexity? Simplicity? Meaning? Movement?


Three stories touched me this week. And this got me thinking…what makes a story “great” anyway?


What are the commonalities? Are they merely entertaining or told well or simply to my taste? Or is there something deeper at play?


Of the three stories; one brought me to tears; the second inspired me to reframe (and overcome) my paralyzing self-doubt; and the third “great” story reminded me I’m not alone and erased some shame and confusion I’d carried for years.


No, this wasn’t an unusual week.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
― Muriel Rukeyser


There weren’t more stories “out there” for me to consume this week.  Stories are around us all the time; ready to download and uplift, dampen our spirits or embolden our hearts….ready to provoke, persuade or put us down…

Some assumptions about “great” stories…


1.   I used to believe that what makes a story great comes down to mass appeal. The more people moved: the greater the value. Right?


But a story doesn’t have to be popular to be “great.”


2.   I used to believe that what makes a story memorable is the way it is told.


But I now believe that a great story can be told in any number of ways. It all depends on who is listening.


3. You may believe that what defines a “great” story is how dramatic or weird or confronting the lead character’s transformation is.


But I think what makes a story truly ‘great’ is much simpler.


Let me share these examples…


Story Number One: The One that Brought Me to Tears

Location: in motion; driving to meet a friend

Context: Now Hear This– ABC Radio feature


Listening to the true story of Mitch McPherson, a former tradie who now runs a suicide prevention charity, I’m moved by Mitch’s reflections on losing his brother Ty in the worst of ways. The family didn’t see it coming. And it was nobody’s fault. Yet, through his own admittance, Mitch didn’t see the signs, because he never knew the signs. As a self-confessed typical Aussie male, he didn’t think much of mental health – he never had taken it seriously. But through his own journey of grief, and in educating himself, he’s fuelled his clear love for his brother into something that is making a difference.


Why it moved me:


Suicide has impacted my family. And as a mother of sons, I live in fear of the statistics; Australian men are 3 times more likely to take their lives than women. So whenever a man speaks up about suicide prevention, I say a silent prayer of gratitude. Mitch expressed his story in his own words, with honesty and heart (and just the right amount of humour).


You can listen to Mitch’s story here or visit the StayChaTY website to learn more.  (The TY referencing the nickname of Mitch’s brother TY)



Story Number Two: The One that Reframed My Paralysing Self-Doubt

Location: in motion (again)

Context: Life Matters Interview |ABC Radio


“Everybody has a disability,” declares Breaking Bad star R.J Mitte.


And he’s right. While the Breaking Bad star who played Walt Jr does have cerebral palsy, he never let his disability define him, or the character he plays. If you’ve never watched or heard of the award-winning series Breaking Bad, it charts the journey of a high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to become a meth “cook” to provide for his family.


What struck me as amazing is that Mitte, who plays the lead character’s son, entered the fictional world of Breaking Bad for the same reason: to support his family. From the age of 12, Mitte took on the role as provider as his mother had become paralysed due to a car accident and, being a stubborn young man, he refused to let the family move back in with the grandparents.


I know… talk about resilience and strength. What a bad-ass!


Why it moved me?


Other than being blown away by the maturity and strength of this young man, his reframing of what it means to be disabled rocked my world. He explained that disability isn’t weakness. Disability is simply challenge. And from that perspective, we all have disabilities to overcome in this life. I started to think about my own “disability.” Paralysing self-doubt. It doesn’t have to make me weak, it is my challenge to overcome.


What is your “disability?” That is, what is the paralyzing force in your life that is here to challenge and strengthen you?


Listen to this incredible interview with RJ Mitte now. And then treat yourself to a Breaking Bad binge… you won’t regret it.


STORY NUMBER THREE: The One that Made Me Feel I’m Not Alone.


Location: Undisclosed

Context: Deep Friendship


Not all stories need to be blogged about. Some stories aren’t meant to be shared beyond one relationship. And this was the case for story number three. No less a great story because it wasn’t publicly declared. So thank you, my friend. (You know who you are.)


Why it moved me:


This story wasn’t told to “heal me” like I was a patient with a problem. But it worked like a miracle. If one’s life is composed like a unique piece of music, then everything that happens can inform it’s rhythm and beauty. My point? Don’t judge the worth of a story by how many people are moved by it. Only the receiver of a story can actually determine a story’s worth…and sometimes you’ll never know how much your story can heal someone who needed to hear it.


The Final Verdict


Stories become ‘great’ when they emotionally connect and heal the receiver. The storyteller can’t decide or measure the value of their stories. The storyteller can only make a choice; use their stories to heal or use their stories to simply puff themselves up and add to the noise…


If you’re still reading this, I believe you’re a storyteller who doesn’t want to add to the noise.


Your stories aren’t ‘great’ because they receive X amount of tweets, sell X amount of product or appeal to everyone.


Often I hear people minimise their own stories because they feel they’re not dramatic or weird enough. Underneath this belief is a sabotaging story that misses the whole damn point.


The point is that stories work like seeds. We never know how they will grow the people who receive them. But little by little, “great” story by “great” story, I know the world will be strengthened and renewed.

So what makes a great story?

1. A great story, as I define it, is something that has healing powers.


2. A great story achieves potency by providing a way out of or through whatever the listener or reader is currently dealing with.


3.  All stories can be great if they reach the right ears and embolden the heart of the listener.


So the questions to ponder..


Which stories are yours to tell? And which ones carry the most medicine?


Finally, how will you draw on the power of story today to heal the world that’s within your reach?  

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3 people have commented
  1. Susan says:

    Hi Kate

    I love reading your words, you are such a gifted writer. I’m glad I called in to your Mums those few weeks ago to learn (and connect) what you do. She glows when she speaks of your talent.

    Inspirational 🙂


  2. Mary says:

    Hi Kate,
    One day, not too far in to the future, I will send you my story that has been published in our little Cobbin Farm U3A book. I would like your honest thoughts. Keep up your wonderfuly, inspiring work. Love Mary

  3. Phil Baulch says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your site content Kate. I believe you’ve tapped into a crucial part of our civilization’s path to liberation – the end of suffering.

    Deepak Chopra said “all healing is the restoration of the memory of wholeness”. I think this the power of the examples you’ve offered.

    A story told freely, without attachment, and heard through deep listening, creates the conditions for remembering our humanity, the parts of human experience that are truly universal.

    Great work
    – Phil

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