The Why Question in Stories

Stories are usually considered to be either interesting or boring. Everyone tells stories and everyone has their own style. Some of the ‘worst’ stories told tend to also be considered the most boring, but what elements of a story might make it boring?

The element that makes a lot of  stories seem boring is actually a lack-of an element. This element is “tension”. Tension in the broadest sense of the word is simply a level of contrast in a context. For story telling this is a very accurate definition, as most interesting stories involve some level of contrast.

Interesting and boring are both subjective expressions and the context of how, who and why the story is being affects them considerably. Tension, however is not a subjective element in a story and by including it will answer one of the fundamental questions of story telling that a listener needs to know.

Why is this story being told?

In most stories this comes down to an event or series of events that revolve around the idea that something isn’t right and then suddenly this problem becomes the reason why a listener might think it’s interesting — they want to know why.

There are ludicrous amount of theories on human curiosity in regards to nearly every topic humans touch, and nobody quite knows how to explain human curiosity. We just know that we are curious creatures that like to know the answers to our questions.

With a story, simply telling a story with tension in it puts this question of why in the listener’s head. The listener wants to know the answer and will listen to an explanation or description relating to this why question.

This is the act of being interested in something, which for this context is a story. A story that has now captured the attention of a listener and attempts to satisfy their curiosity. I would say that everyone is curious in different ways, but for a lot of questions we like the feeling of satisfaction in knowing the answer to our questions. It gives us comfort that we know what’s going on.

Regardless of the medium of the story, this level of satisfaction it can bring a listener also helps promote the significance of the story. Why should we tell boring stories that lose the attention of the listener when we have the ability to tell interesting stories that captivate the attention of the listener.

Some stories will be boring, which is fine. There might be a dozen reasons for this, but more likely than not it’s because there isn’t enough contrast in the story to put this question of why in the listener’s head. A challenge to be made with any boring story is to understand what it’s missing, rather than what it has.


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