Q and A with a Story Guru: Jim Signorelli: Sometimes NOT Overcoming the Obstacle Makes a Story Meaningful

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See a photo of Jim, his bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, and Part 2.


Q&A with Jim Signorelli, Question 3:

Q: You use a slightly modified version of Kendall Haven’s story definition (the one that also opened my eyes). How did you arrive at that one, and how important do you think it is to define story?

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A: Let me say up front that I will be forever thankful for Kendall Haven and his work. Storytellers, writers, teachers, leaders and now branding specialists owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Anyone familiar with Kendall Haven knows that he is a NASA scientist turned story theorist. In his seminal work Story Proof, he details his 10-year quest to prove the power of story as a learning tool. He amasses some 300+ studies that had been conducted prior to his writing. For me, the biggest take away was his insightful working definition of what a story is. tory is a word that we use very casually. But try to define it in a way that withstands debate? Hard to do.
Kendall pokes holes in many of the definitions that are often given for story, i.e., the very popular “something that has a beginning, middle and an end.” As he points out, this also defines a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After taking a few stabs at a workable definition, Haven arrives at a brilliantly simple definition for story that stands up to the hard questions: “A story consists of a character overcoming an obstacle to achieve some goal.”
“Of course,” I thought.
But as I began to work with that definition, I was faced with a slight problem. It was with the words “overcoming an obstacle “that are part of Kendall’s definition. As I later discussed with him, the word “overcoming” suggests a positive outcome. Sometimes what makes a story meaningful is the fact that the character does not overcome his or her obstacle. Shakespeare called these tragedies. So, and with limitless respect for Haven, I took the liberty of tweaking his definition. I replaced the word overcoming with the words “dealing with.” This just seems to fit better for me.
To an outsider my quibble may seem like dancing on the head of a pin. But if I was going to construct a planning model based on story structure, I had to have a definition that worked in the absolute. With this slight change in wording, it did. And regardless of the tweak, Kendall has graciously offered up a wonderful forward to my book.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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