Brewer’s Requirements for Story
- Worthy Protagonist(s)
- Epic Stakes
- Exceptional Structure
- Engaging Setting
That seems like a simple list and you are no doubt thinking, “Hell! That applies to, like, ANY story!” and you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because there are some very subjective words in there: worthy, epic, exceptional, and engaging.
Worthy Protagonists or The Woodchipper Postulate
The very first thing is I must care about the protagonist. Protagonists need to be heroic, and that doesn’t mean brave knights being brave. It means they need to be overcoming some sort of adversity. And they need to overcome that adversity by generally doing the right thing. Basically, I need to at least bat an eye if the protagonist were sacrificed by being tossed into a woodchipper.
This is why shows like Breaking Bad cannot capture my attention. Walter White is a shithead. While I sympathize with his plight (cancer + teacher’s salary = suck3), I cease caring for him when he takes an obviously horrible path to overcoming his adversity (cooking meth). Yet, when it’s well done, I can swallow the hero’s descent into darkness because he truly believes he is doing right (it just has to make sense, and there must be redemption). I have no fucking issue with Walt being thrown into a woodchipper, in fact, I think he deserves at least an appendage lost to a 50 gallon drum full of acid.
Epic Stakes or The Relationship Corollary
Second, the story can’t only be about intimate relationships or daily life. I don’t care who’s fucking who or what bullshit life event is tearing a friendship apart, unless it involves aliens (either fucking them or anal probes). There has to be something epic, something larger than personal interest, at stake. I know relationship stories are big sellers, but you know, maybe I’m not interested because I don’t have (or want) relationship issues. I already got the girl, my kid is awesome, and I’m friends with who I want to be friends with and everyone else can take the boat to Fuckoffity Land.
This is why I ignore relationship-based dramas or comedies, à la Girls, Sex and the City, Days of Our Lives, or even Friends. Not only do I not give a shit how they are navigating their mundane daily lives, my give-a-fuck meter concerning the characters usually registers “E.” Throw ’em in the woodchipper. This is why my interest in the much lauded Battlestar Galactica quickly faded. It seemed to be more about who got who pregnant than about killing the goddamned Cylons.
Exceptional Structure or The Storytelling Factor
Finally, the storytelling must be keen. A lot of people think storytelling is an art, but I think there’s a science involved. An algorithm for creating compelling stories exists. The human mind loves to consume stories because it’s our way to virtually gain experience (a primary evolutionary key that led to our survival and dominance as a species). That’s why we have patterns like The Hero with a Thousand Faces that dominates mythology and continue to capture our attention (exhibit A: Jesus Christ, the most beloved myth of modern America).
This means a good story better not be feeding me a bunch of information that’s not relevant. It means they need to foreshadow important events. It means every setup needs a payoff and there better not be any deus ex machina descending to save the motherfucking day. Characters can’t just pull some bullshit because the writer needs it to happen for the plot… the goddamned plot should serve the protagonist’s struggle and also make sense. Which is why now that The Walking Dead has declined into dull drivel. The storytelling of TWD has become a festering corpse flinging its rank innards towards who-the-fuck-knows-what.
Engaging Setting or The Trappings Catalyst
This is probably the most nebulous and subjective of my requirements. Trappings are setting elements or window dressing. Some people might actually consider trappings the things that define a genre. I’m a bit more flexible than that. Trappings include things like the world design, magic, lightsabers, aliens, zombies, warp drives, thrones, motorcycles, or an FN P90 with ACOG scope and a bandolier of magazines loaded with armor piercing 5.7x28mm proprietary rounds (see that techno-thriller stuff can be a little tedious at times).
I’ll also throw things like themes and diversity into Trappings. If a story also includes themes that touches on things I’m passionate about (conservation, breaking stereotypes, atheism, etc.) then I am more likely to be engaged. If it makes me think about important concepts without being preachy, then that is big bonus points. Also, I like to see the protagonists be people who do not look like me. Stories featuring women and non-white protagonists are desperately needed and rare.
Flexible Sliding Scale
These are not hard and fast rules. My preferences are a moving target and these requirements are not all or nothing. I like to think of them as sliding bars or dials. If the story happens to be full of less than savory characters who fuck each other over more often driving an epic plot forward, then crank those other dials to 11. Phenomenal story mechanics and a large dose of motorcycles or cutting people in half with swords could go a long way in retaining my interest (looking at you Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones).
Disclaimer: I originally wrote the requirement rant for another blog, but I own the content, so I’m reusing it here. I just figured I’d give a shout out for those who recognized it.
Listening to: Walk with Knowledge Wisely – Crowbar