Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Selecting the Story

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 12:34 min

What makes a story worth pursuing? Malcolm talks through his criteria for spotting a unique story and the first steps of story development.

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Topics include: Look Where You've Looked Before • Expand on the Critical Details • Avoid the First Person Problem


I think all good stories have one thing in common. And that is they have an ending that-- I don't want to say satisfies. Because some great stories have unsatisfying endings, which is why they're great stories. But have an ending that transports you somewhere. You have to be in a different place when you end than when you were in the beginning. And if all the story has done is taken you back to right back to the very place you were when you read the first sentence, then it was a waste of your time. You have to have been challenged or transported in some way for the story to be a great story. [MUSIC PLAYING] This is a good example of how serendipitous story selection is. So this all came about because many, many years ago a criminologist at the University of Maryland approached me. And he wanted to use something I'd written in one of his classes. And so I chatted with him. And then I said, what kind of work do you do? And he told me, and it was completely fascinating. He was the first guy to start studying how to fight crime the way scientists study disease. So instead of just having random ideas or theories, he constructed experiments with-- where half of the people tried some new idea. And the other half were the control. And he would run the experiment for two years. And he would write up the results. The exact same way you would if you were testing a new drug for cancer. And he had come to all these incredibly interesting conclusions. There was one I remember that I've always thought was fascinating, which was that if there was a domestic disturbance, is it a good idea to arrest the husband if he's the one who hit his wife? You would think, of course, right? Get the guy out of there. Shake him up. Put him behind bars. He committed a crime. And what he discovered was it depends on the educational level of the husband. If the husband is reasonably well-educated and a member of the middle class, you should arrest him. If he's not, arresting him has the effect of making him so much more angry and ashamed that he will do even more damage in the future to his wife. Right? That's the kind of thing you only find out if you do formal study. Anyway, this guy was kind of fascinating. And I have been a kind of student of his work. And then I was returning to the question of crime in my new book. And I called him up. And he started talking about his friend, this guy David who's in Tel Aviv. So it's like, David sounds really interesting. So I emailed David and said, when are you next going to be in New York? And he's like, in two weeks. I said, can we have lunch? So we had lunch. And I had the tape recorder running the whole time. David told amazing stories. And he was like, but you really need to talk to my old boss, Ron. So I called Ron. And Ron's the guy who wrote the famous paper from 1988. So it's all of this kind of-- it starts with a kind of random connection with someone and me asking him, wait a minute. What do you d...

About the Instructor

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.

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Malcolm Gladwell

In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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