How to Identify Junk Stories (Article 3 in a series of 8)

 

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By Rivka Willick

Stories, the stickiest form of verbal communication, are as essential as food and water. Instead of nourishing our bodies, stories feed our intellect, emotions, and spirit. The quality of the stories we consume affect us in fundamental ways. Quality stories challenge our minds, guide and strengthen our emotional growth, and inspire that element we might call our unique self; whereas toxic stories cause damage on all those levels. Junk stories are somewhere in between. In the first two articles of this series we’ve explored the concept of Junk Stories and the harm they can cause when you fill up on them.

Now let’s tackle identifying categories of Junk Stories. Remember, junk stories in moderation are OK, just like a sweet for desert or an occasional fast food meal, but a steady diet of junk stories should be avoided.

Formulaic Stories – This is the narrative equivalent of comfort food. The structure never changes, the characters are usually interchangeable, and the endings are predictable.  The modern TV Procedurals are great examples. The structure = An interesting, quirky, or odd character uses his or her oddness to investigate, faces at least one risk, and then helps the police solve the crime. The structure has become so predictable, that some shows will do two or three crimes per episode, but they do that every time.  The predictability is reassuring, it makes us feel good, but if we only stay with the sure things, we’ll become complacent.

Made for Binging – There’s a lot of money to be made in media, so if you can hook the reader, listener, or watcher through an addictive structure or content, you’ll have a customer base you can count on.  I’m not talking about compelling content or great artistry; I’m talking about tricks that keep people hooked. This isn’t new.  Harlequin Romance Novels began in 1949.  Many women throughout the decades have devoured them, sometimes on a daily basis.  Binge Worthy TV Series are designed to keep viewers hooked. Let me be clear- there’s nothing wrong with getting caught up in a great story, book, or show, but if the story is designed to be addictive, you won’t have much brain or heart space for anything else.

Stories with very little middle – All stories have a beginning, middle, and an end with some sort of challenge or movement.  This contained structure is what, I believe, makes stories so sticky. When content is over simplified or minimized the story will still linger in your memory but your understanding, curiosity, and natural compassion is reduced. The Modern News Story is a great example. It begins with a headline grabbing beginning, sprinkles in a few simplistic facts, and ends often with a conclusion meant to provoke a response. If we jump from one incomplete story to another, our view of the world around us becomes distorted and we can be controlled by those creating the news. I believe this is true of all news stories, no matter how they are delivered (internet, radio, TV, newspaper, or magazine) regardless of the viewpoint. However, if you follow up on these news spurts with research or a longer, more complex exploration of the same story, the junk story will become nutritious.

The Fixed Folktale (also known as Disneyfied) I’m a storyteller (and have been a professional teller for almost 2 decades), so I’d be remiss to ignore traditional tales. Both Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly spoke about the power and importance of myth and folklore. These stories endure because they provide structures we need for personal development. When we change the story to fit commercial needs or the rules set by let’s say a school administrator or party planner, we may take away its power and relevance. This is a topic needing a longer exploration, but for now, let’s makes sure there’s room on your plate (and our children’s plates) for a few traditional tales along with the Disney versions. (BTW-comic books are great-they are today’s folklore).

Me, Myself, and I Stories – I might get some push back on this one, but here goes.  Personal stories which are self-absorbed should be spoken and listened to in small doses. If everyone but the protagonist is unappealing, consider looking at it from a different viewpoint. Remember Narcissus died looking at his own reflection.

I know I’ve missed a few categories.  Drop me a note if you’d like to add to the list.

 

Next Blog: How many junk stories are too many?

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