Essential Story Elements: Are They All the Same Thing? And Do They Require Manipulation?

Read a couple of articles recently that talk about elements that make stories work.

In Atticus Finch Would Not Approve: Why a Courtroom Full of Reptiles Is a Bad Idea, Stephanie West Allen, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Diane Wyzga offer Seven Tips For Creating the Motivating Story, in which they declare that:

A story is always about a conflict.

We expect a story to be about change.

Meanwhile, in an interview of Ira Glass by “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz in her blog The Wrong Stuff on, says that most of the stories on the radio show “This American Life,” are about “wrongness.” Schulz writes:

Most people shun or ignore error; storytellers exploit it. They understand that virtually all good narratives contain some element of hoodwinking — that however much we might dislike being wrong in daily life, we relish red herrings and plot twists and surprise endings in our stories. Accordingly, in This American Life (as in life more generally), things seldom turn out the way you expect.

Then, Glass’s explanation:

I don’t go looking for stories with the idea of wrongness in my head… But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we’ve talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: “I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way.” … [I]f the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong.

Interestingly, Glass denies that “that people automatically narrate their stories in a way that pivots around these moments of wrongness and surprise;” he interviews them and draws the stories out of them in a way that achieves the manipulation he cites.

So: Conflict. Change. Wrongness.

Going back to Aristotle’s concept of story structure, a story is about a change of fortune for the protagonist. Change: check. Wrongness: The change of fortune could result from wrongness. The protagonist may have thought things would work out one way, but they worked out another way. Conflict: The change could result from overcoming conflict.

I find it interesting that both Glass and the authors of the Atticus Finch article are talking about story elements that require some sort of manipulation. Glass, speaking on radio stories says: “In the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong.”

The context of the Atticus Finch piece is a Web site about juries, and the piece is about using stories to communicate with jurors. Manipulation might be a bit too strong a word for what the authors describe here:

… [T]o meet the jurors’ expectation, the story must bring to life early on the change you want them to create. This requires you to set up a bridge from the evidence (content) to the context (what situations or circumstances allowed the event to happen) to the emotionally meaningful story your jurors are already carrying in their heads.

The point is that in some contexts, stories need to be manipulated to meet desired objectives. The ways people naturally tell stories probably wouldn’t work in these contexts.

Of course, the idea of manipulation puts some people off the whole concept of storytelling. In his Q&A on this blog, Stephane Dangel noted that storytelling is disdained in France as being manipulative:

There is only one and major book dedicated to storytelling in French, and it has been written by a man who hates storytelling (Christian Salmon: Storytelling)! His message is very raw: “storytelling = fiction = manipulation.”

What do you think? Is it OK to manipulate stories to include certain elements to achieve specific objectives?