Some people think a story is just a series of events retold, whether verbally, in writing or on film. But it’s not that simple. For a story to be a story, certain elements must be in play. We must have a protagonist – out main character. We also must have an antagonist – the character or force our protagonist must overcome during the course of our story. And we must have conflict – the problem created by the antagonist that our protagonist must solve before our story comes to an end. Without all of these elements, instead of a story, we’ll instead have a series of seemingly meaningless events that will undoubtedly fail to capture our audience’s attention.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take one of the most beloved movies in history, remove the moment that the main conflict begins, and see if it holds up.
Let’s say the cyclone hadn’t struck Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farmhouse in The Wizard of Oz. Instead of ending up in Munchkinland desperately trying to find her way home, I suppose we’d watch two hours of Dorothy trying to keep Miss Gulch from finding Toto and singing us songs about how much she wishes she could get out of Kansas.
That’s not much of a story.
That crucial event has a name in literary terms — the inciting incident. When students first learn this term in English class, they often mishear it and think it’s called the “exciting incident,” which is not untrue! This crucial moment in the story when the main conflict is introduced is exciting, as it piques our interest and makes us want to find out whether the problem will be solved during the course of the story. Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas, or will she be captured by the Wicked Witch of the West? It also helps us develop empathy for Dorothy. And because we find ourselves imagining how we would feel in her ruby slippers, and we become emotionally invested in her plight. As she learns from the consequences of her choices, we learn right along with her by using not just our minds but our hearts as well.
Unfortunately, when it comes to learning experiences, this key literary element is often missing from traditional courses. Instead of a story, we’re presented with a series of mind-numbing workplace situations from which we’re supposed to learn a lesson. But since we’re so bored and disengaged, we tune out —and we don’t learn.
Let’s say you’re creating a learning experience about workplace harassment. Which do you think would create more engagement — a series of disconnected slides explaining giving examples or acceptable and unacceptable behavior, or a video that tells the story of a woman who is harassed by a fellow coworker and must figure out how to handle the experience? While the former gives us no reason to invest ourselves emotionally, as we watch the video, we experience the woman’s harassment vicariously, which causes us to invest ourselves emotionally and consider the effects of harassment first hand. We empathize with her and become engaged as we watch her deal with the effects and try to resolve the conflict. While harassment is obviously a hot button issue that easily lends itself to conflict and emotion, stories with conflict — no matter how brief — can be crafted around any topic, from legal compliance to workplace safety.
So the next time you’re creating a learning experience, ask yourself whether you want your audience to care about the topic you’re presenting and walk away having immersed themselves in the topic and digested it fully. If the answer is yes, then make sure you have a well told story that includes an inciting incident that introduces a conflict that will inspire empathy and engagement.