What makes a good story?
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- I had to admit that I miss Andy’s writing. Every day for over a decade he would blog. Every morning he gave you something to read …
Andy just laughed as we sat at the sidewalk cafe sipping cappuccinos and I told him that he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever followed. While he has greatly improved as the years went on, his grammar and spelling are historically atrocious, and this seemed to have always made him a little bashful to label himself a writer. However, his technical deficiencies never impeded his ability to do the most important thing of writing — something that very, very few writers are able to do: tell a good story.
I don’t just mean a good story as in retelling something interesting that happened, but the technical packaging of a string of events and thoughts as “a story.” A story is not just some words strung together — there is an order to it. A story, more often than not, starts with a problem (or an objective), continues with ways to solve that problem, and then ends with a solution.
Humans are inveterate problem solvers, and even when being entertained we want to consume the experience of problem solving. It’s what we do, we’re all quality control stooges down deep — to not tinker, come up with new solutions, complain, devise new ways is to ostensibly die. We’re just hardwired to experience the world like this, and while narratives do not need to follow this three act structure, when they don’t they tend to come off as not as engaging.
It’s not the act of going to places that’s addictive about travel, it’s the stimulation of the problem solving.
Andy was a master at the three act structure, which neatly meshes with the natural arc of the travel experience. Travel is ultimately a continuous exercise in problem solving spread out over space and time. This is what’s interesting about the lifestyle — when you travel you give yourself a string of little problems / challenges/ tasks to solve each day, kind of like a game. It’s not the act of going to places that’s addictive about travel, it’s the stimulation of the problem solving.
The problem solving aspect of travel was a game that Andy really seemed to delight in — even regularly going out of his way to come up with new problems to solve — and this is what Andy showed in his blog. He would come into a town / hotel room / restaurant / country, find out what was wrong with it, what could be improved, and then work towards finding solutions … He would analyze his own methodologies, his own philosophical positions, his own morality, his own sense of the status-quo, challenge them, and come up with new ways to live, experience, and process the constant stream of information coming in.
While delivering technically ideal three act narratives, what really added to Andy’s stories was the fact that he was always extremely unpredictable: you never knew what he was going to do.
The story that resulted was a piling up of three act narratives that could be followed as Andy moved through the world. It was the optimal use of the blogging medium, which allows for linear stories to be told over a period of time via regular installments.
While delivering technically ideal three act narratives, what really added to Andy’s stories was the fact that he was always extremely unpredictable: you never knew what he was going to do. One day he would be knee deep in some project in some country, getting all kinds of people involved, getting the momentum moving towards the climax just to liquidate everything the next day and get on plane to Thailand.
“What happened?” we’d all ask.
“The prime directive of travel,” he would answer.
The solution to the problem is often leaving.
It was the deep engagement of people, places, as cultures as he went through the process of problem solving that really made what Andy did as a writer different. This guy was never a tourist; he could never just sit on the beach. While he would often brag about the amount of leisure time that he has and make it seem as if he’s just hanging out all day, it is my impression that he could never really do it:
He’d sit down on the proverbial folding chair under the umbrella, check out the girls, and then start wrestling with something …
He’d sit down on the proverbial folding chair under the umbrella, check out the girls, and then start wrestling with something — an element of culture, an event that would allow him to explain something better, a person that he couldn’t understand the mentality of, a new invention, or simply just start asking questions to the people around him. Andy used travel as a platform to have the time and space to better understand his world, and this was the story that he told through his writing.
While Andy still blogs it’s a little different now. He transitioned to mostly making videos, which is a different form of storytelling entirely, and blogging is a form of writing that really needs to be done everyday — it’s impossible to construct the proper narrative structure if you don’t. I asked him why he stopped blogging daily, and he thought about it for a moment.
“I’m not angry anymore,” he replied. “It’s easier to write when you’re angry.”
Andy published a new post yesterday that’s classic Andy Graham.