Why “Hell is Story Friendly”
My parents had a great baby making strategy:
Produce four strapping boys.
That way, when they’re ready to pack up their house and seek greener pastures, they’ve got their own personal moving company.
Okay, so they didn’t exactly plan it that way — designer babies are a few more years off.
But my bro’s and I did recently assemble to help my folks move out of their 3-story house (packed full of towering book shelves, unwieldy mattresses, and fragile mirrors).
My brothers and I did our share of grumbling (“hey, we’ll gladly pay for some movers”) but we finally left our computers behind on a cloudy Saturday, donned thick gloves to protect our smooth hands, and plunged into some brawny work.
Luckily, my dad had it all planned out. He had meticulously drawn a packing diagram that specified exactly where each piece of furniture would go in the 27-foot U-Haul.
(To do this, first he tasked my little brother to measure the exact dimensions of all the furniture; then my mom dumped the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet, giving my dad the raw ingredients he needed to computer-draw the diagram to a 1/12 scale.)
Here’s a snippet:
It was beautiful. Left just a thimbleful of free space.
So at least my brothers and I could turn off our brains and just lug what my Dad pointed at.
(Moving drives me nuts the moment I have to wrap my head around All That Stuff; a clear plan cuts right through that confusion.)
But as the German war strategist Helmuth von Moltke observed,
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Our enemy that day wasn’t a box that broke or a thunderstorm that struck …
… it was a pair of metal wheel wells.
The 12 inch raised wheel wells inside the U-Haul — poking up like the two humps on a camel’s back — threw into confusion my father’s carefully crafted plan.
(The wheel wells were not in the truck diagram he had studied.)
The big furniture destined for the middle of the truck suddenly wouldn’t fit. And that meant the whole packing plan was off.
So there we were — my brothers and I twiddling our thumbs and checking our phones as my Dad scrambled to rearrange the plan, the seconds of the short weekend swiftly ticking by.
Now, these kind of roadblocks are no fun to experience …
… but they’re the only kinds of stories we like to read.
This is a point my dad likes to make when things don’t go as planned:
It’s only those experiences that have some sort of conflict — the lost piece of luggage … the scary dude in the dark parking lot … the dress that slips during the middle of our half-time performance — these are the stories we remember.
And we love to retell these yarns of Murphy’s Law in action – they rope in the laughs, even though they might have drawn tears at first.
(Now I feel myself getting paranoid … maybe my Dad planned it this way all along, just to create a memorable experience.)
I know we’ll be telling this story for years to come – and because my brothers and I are a pack of smart asses, we were already throwing around the phrase “wheel wells” the rest of the weekend.
Hell is Story Friendly
The story scholar Jonathan Gottschall says that “Hell is Story Friendly.” We just can’t stop talking about our troubles.
In his book, The Storytelling Animal, he recounts stories that children invented, and nearly all of them involve some kind of conflict (instead of happy rainbows and worry-free heroes). Here’s an example from a five year old boy (p. 34):
“The boxing world. In the middle of the morning everybody gets up, puts on boxing gloves and fights. One of the guys gets socked in the face and he starts bleeding. A duck comes along and says, ‘give up.’”
Yikes. Talk about dark.
But as I’ve written about before, we need to experience that darkness before we can enjoy the light.
We want to live in heaven, but we’d rather read stories about hell.
Or at least stories where the hero is thrust into hell and has to climb his way back out — following the pattern Dan Kennedy labels the “Problem, Agitate, Solution” strategy of writing a sales letter.
But conflict in a story is more than just a way to demonstrate the need for the ultimate solution of our product.
It’s also a way of holding fast to the reader’s attention so she doesn’t check out before the big payoff in the end.
Our brains are wired to pay attention to conflict – probably because the virtual danger in stories prepares us for real-life conflict. Stories function as “flight simulators” for life, according to psychologist Keith Oatley.
So we rubberneck when there’s an accident on the freeway (maybe causing a fresh collision) because our brains demand to learn about dangers, in hopes of avoiding them.
We flock to “fail” memes for the same reason.
And we positively devour scandal and gossip.
(Yes, we may also enjoy a perverse pleasure at seeing the mighty felled, but part of the reason we like scandal must surely be a survival advantage buried deep in our brain. So don’t feel so guilty the next time you sneak a peak at TMZ, okay?)
Conflict is the proven way to keep our stories flowing. After all, the master story formula can be boiled down to this: Crisis + Response.
And like a fractal, each phase of storytelling contains this same pattern (Crisis and Response). To move our stories along, we make each crisis worse and worse until the climax, when finally, we reach sweet release.
Conflict is King and Queen of stories (hell, it’s the whole royal family). Conflict is memorable and it demands attention. Make sure your sales story has a helping and a half of this sticky substance.
What favorite story of yours has the juiciest conflict?
Let me know in the comments below. And as always,
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I revisit the magic of office supplies