Why Are You Wasting Our Time?

To tell a great story, you’ve gotta tell your readers why you’re telling it.

Photo: Flickr/ The Library of Congress

This is Writing Tips Ripped from the Headlines #15.

Facts don’t change our minds; stories do. Yet too often, I see writers working in social change use examples instead of stories.

Writers will do the admirable work of mentioning a real-life person whose life is touched by the broader social issue at stake — e.g., Jane is covered by the ACA, or Joanna is drowning in student loan debt. But they will skip the crucial elements that make a story a story. Without those facts, they may as well be spouting facts or statistics. To change a mind, you have to tell a story.

By “tell a story,” I mean you have to include three things:

  • A Character
  • A Goal
  • A So What?

This is just my quick-and-dirty rubric; there are many useful definitions of what constitutes a story, but in my experience, these three elements are the core of what you need in social change writing. A quick overview of each element:

The character is the specific person at the center of the story. This is more than just A/S/L. What is this person’s hobby? Who are their friends and family? What do they care about?

The character’s goal is what makes them relatable. Audiences sympathize with characters’ hopes. By explicitly stating what your character wants, you’re giving your audience an excuse to root for them. (Bonus points for also including the steps the character takes to achieve their goal).

Between and after the character and the goal, you might include some action or context or other details, as you feel are necessary. The only other thing you must include is the So What? — which is the most-often skipped. But take it from Ira Glass, you need it:

At some point, somebody’s gotta say, here’s why the hell you’re listening to the story. Here’s the point of the story. Here’s the bigger something that we’re driving at. Here’s why I’m wasting your time with all this.

We skip the So What? because, as humans, we tend to assume that our stories’ meanings are obvious. But different people see things differently. You have to tell your audience what you want them to take away. Otherwise they can get the exact opposite impression.

That’s what I saw happen this week. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote about the precariousness of the gig economy, and how startups are shamefully rebranding that precariousness as “hustle.” One of Tolentino’s examples was published on the ride-sharing app Lyft’s blog last year:

Lyft saw this as an “exciting Lyft story.” Tolentino (and many readers) saw it as horrifying proof of ruthlessness of the gig economy — a nine-months pregnant woman who’s already working overtime (note that she’s driving for “a few hours after a day of mentoring”), who squeezes in one more fare on her way to give birth. From this perspective, the meaning of this story is: Lyft is an out-of-touch profiteer.

Lyft’s writers might have avoided publishing this mistake if they had followed my storytelling rubric. Notice that while the story does have a character (Mary, nine months pregnant, long-time Lyft driver and mentor), it doesn’t have an explicit goal.

We can certainly infer a goal, but it depends on our perspectives. Lyft saw Mary’s goal as “be a good, committed Lyft driver.” Readers like Tolentino saw Mary’s goal as “somehow scrape together a living.”

The story also lacks a So What? Nowhere do the writers explicitly say, “This story just goes to show that Lyft drivers are committed!” or “Lyft drivers love the flexibility of their work!” Which is probably what the writers intended — but is not the meaning I got.

Writing is thinking. If Lyft’s writers had taken the time to explicitly state Mary’s goal and the story’s So What?, I believe they would have done more critical thinking — and maybe decided not to publish. I’m not sure there’s a way to tell this story in a positive light, but I do know there’s a way to spot the inherent contradictions that always come through in a first draft.

Writing Tips Ripped From The Headlines #15: When writing a story, make sure you spell out your Character, their Goal, and the story’s So What?. Adding these elements will strengthen your persuasive powers (and avoid mistakes).