Why “Hell is Story Friendly”

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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).

The STORY

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:

Placement Diagram of inside truck

Tetris-mo-bile

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.

The MORAL

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

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at marketingwithstory.com.
Showing 3 comments
  • Bruce Wesley Chenoweth
    Reply

    Ouch! You reminded me of my worst year out of all 72, Maybe the worst year of moving in the history of man!

    It started out great! In January, ’63 I returned from Okinawa to be discharged from the Army. My “life,” up to that point, all fit neatly into one shipping crate and a dufflebag. Moving from Yaetake to Sukiran (1), then to Oakland (2) then to my parents home (3) within just a few days was simple and exciting.

    Even more exciting was re-connecting with my first “real” girlfriend, Karen. It was only weeks before deciding to marry.

    This THRILLED my father. Not that he was pro-marriage. No, he was an auction addict. Couldn’t stand to watch a bargain purchase pass him by. Problem was, the garage was full. He built a shed. That was full. He stacked stuff behind the garage and covered it with tarps.

    But NOW he had my new home (4) to load up. Bed, tables, chairs, couches, electric range, refrigerator, easy chairs, rocking chairs, huge TV … At the time this all seemed very cool. But, we were moving again. (5) This time into a one-room lookout tower. 12′ x 12′, completely furnished, no electricity or running water. All of my father’s gifts had to be stored. This is kind of like moving twice at one time.

    The lookout job is only for three months of the summer. We moved back to the house in the valley (6) and spent the weekend moving everything back in. By working well into the nights, we managed to get everything out of the boxes and put where it belonged.

    Given how stiff and sore I was Monday morning, I thought about staying in bed. I managed to drag my butt into the bathroom and take a hot shower. It was sooo nice to have plumbing again after three months of a wood stove and wash basin!

    When I arrived at work the office assistant gave me a message from the General Manager of Mountain States Bell Telephone. I had applied for a job with them before I went to the lookout. He offered me a job in Twin Falls, Idaho.

    I swear to this day that he said Twin Falls, Idaho …

    I was to report, ready to go to work, the following Monday. Not having a home phone, it wasn’t until that evening that I told Karen. She had spent the day fine-tuning our home. Fortunately, we had not destroyed all the boxes.

    By Thursday morning everything was packed up again and loaded in my father’s truck. Being just under 200 miles to Twin Falls, we had rented a home by telephone. Off we went to see it for the first time. (7)

    When we arrived we were quite pleased, The home was very nice considering the rental price. Although tired, we managed to get completely moved in by Sunday night. My father had driven his truck back to their home in Boise. I was able to get a good nights sleep before reporting to work the next morning.

    I am still certain that I was told “Twin Falls!”

    My appearance at the telephone office Monday morning was met with confusion. The local manager told me they were not expecting any new employees. He made a call …

    “Idaho Falls?! Oh, CRAP!”
    “Do they still want me to come?”
    “Okay. I’m on my way.”
    “Dad! Could you please bring your truck back?”

    I’m not even going to mention that the Ford Fairlane overheated on the way, leaving us stranded in the Arco desert for three hours before a guard from the nuclear plant found us and gave us some water. That would just be too much …

    So, while I was on the job, Karen and my parents found us a basement apartment and moved us from Twin Falls to Idaho Falls–my eighth move in less than 9 months. Unfortunately, the owners of the home were Mormons and lived upstairs. Because we were smokers and drank coffee and alcoholic beverages they asked us to move out soon thereafter.

    We found a ranch hand house for rent in the potato fields within driving distance from the telephone office (9). Well. at least it was within driving distance during the summer and fall.

    Once the snow depth hit 2 feet, and the incessant wind constantly drifted snow into all the roads, there was no driving unless it was following closely behind a snow blowing truck.

    In order to get out the 1/2 mile long driveway to meet the snow blower, each morning the farmer would fire up his tractor and chain it to a drag plow that he made from two huge steel I-beams. I would dress as warmly as possible for the 40 degrees below zero weather, then sit on that steel plow, shifting my weight back and forth to keep it from swaying over and wiping out the fence.

    Being late every morning didn’t sit well with the people who were still thinking me a total moron for reporting for work in Twin Falls. I was given an ultimatum: Show up on time every day or don’t bother coming back at all.

    We rented an apartment in town. By that time, the driveway at the ranch had so much snow that even the tractor couldn’t get through. Our car was still on the road at the end of the driveway, so Karen and I carried our mattress and a few necessary items through the snowdrifts to our car and began the move to town (9) We stayed in touch with the farmer by phone, and any time he was able to clear the driveway we would go get more of our stuff. Finally we had it all, and were able to stop paying double rent.

    Needless to say, by then I had not been voted the Employee of the Year for Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph! Preferring to work where I was appreciated, and not wanting to EVER spend another winter in Idaho Falls Idaho, I accepted the offer to return to the lookout for the Boise National Forest and we moved back to Crouch, where we had started 12 months before. Ten miserable moves in 15 months, and I was essentially right back where I started.

    There is a lot of value in having a year like that. It gives perspective to “better” times. Although the better times may not be great by some standards, when compared to that year, the rest of my life has been magnificent!

    • Scott McKinstry
      Reply

      Yikes, Bruce! That puts things into perspective.

      I’m curious … that look-out tower job — were you watching for forest fires?

      I recall a story from Frank Herbert, who had a similar job early in his marriage. (I think he was tucked in the tower with his young wife and an infant, IIRC.)

      • Bruce Wesley Chenoweth
        Reply

        Yes–our job was to gaze out over a magnificently beautiful forest from the top of one of the highest mountains at least once every 15 minutes to be certain that it wasn’t on fire. Tough duty, but someone had to do it.

        Although I had to haul water up in 10-gallon cream cans, it was water from a high-mountain spring, fed from wilderness area snow melt. No human-made beverage could ever compare to it in flavor!

        Basically, we were on a three-month, all-expenses paid deep-forest retreat, and they paid us on top of that. For newlyweds, it couldn’t get any better …

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