From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

Selecting the Story

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

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


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

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

Malcolm Gladwell

Teaches Writing

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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...

Transform the ordinary

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This class has taught me numerous awesome new tools to incorporate into my writing!

A fresh take on the art and craft of writing. I would have happily listened for many more lessons.

So far it has been great, useful for helping me structure my book I am publishing and it's nice to get tips & suggestions from a master such a master.

So good. Great insight. Real. Charming. Humbling. Canadian ... yay (haha I bet you thought I was going to say : "Eh?")


Marc R.

The point about writing in the first person is insightful. It puts a fresh and challenging spin on book genres like memoir.

Stephen G.

Great hint - don't write in the first person my story is not that important!

Susanna S.

I'm writing a book. And this course reminds me of what a book can be all about. Thank you.

Ngu M.

So I signed up for this Masterclass more than 6 months ago. After several chapters, particularly this one and the point of not writing about yourself, I got disillusioned. I have always wanted to write a story about my relationship with my father who passed away from prostate cancer more than 14 years ago. Not specifically because I think my story is particularly interesting, but more because it may help our 3 boys better understand me. I have been living my life trying to honor my father since he passed and that has come at a cost to the relationship with my wife and our sons. I believe there is sufficient interest in writing about the complex dynamic between the first son of an African family and his father.. Particularly now living in America and facing a complex world.. Hopefully, when I am done, our boys will find it interesting enough to read.

Kristi D.

The thought of digging into the contextual sides of a story--uncovering details that can change others' perceptions--really appeals to me. I studied journalism for my undergraduate degree, and this is something we were taught. The full truth doesn't lie on the surface, and you cannot allow yourself to be distracted by the obvious. Gladwell's reiteration of this point is both important and timely; it's one of those 'evergreen' facts that remain a hallmark of good inquisitive writing.

Paul H.

Now I know why all of my friends are so boring---because I am boring. If I can be more exciting and interesting, I can find some more exciting and interesting friends.


I've always felt this way about older folks (friends) memoirs. I think to myself "Who'd want to read mine, other than maybe my kids?". There's so much good writing out there, that I am one of only a few in a writing class who isn't interested in publishing. I've also joined a "Storyworth" writing, as it was a gift from a son. That's fun too, but I really do this for the fun of it. Non-fiction writing of historical fiction with some research on the family member can be sort of a duo in the "make up" and genealogy, sort of category. I like Malcolm's idea about taking your reader on a trek and ending up some place different from where you started. Like this chapter.

Andrew B.

I think the answer to the question of self-absorption in first person writing is that it must and can only be done with extreme humility


I really like the idea that interesting people tend to create a tribe. Light shines in the corners of their lives, when there's a chance to use the curiosity as fuel in order to reactivate the energies that bond between us, there is a path of lightness there and profound discovery. In a way I feel grateful to be reminded of this.

Alexander S.

in this particular class I find a lot of what Gladwell had to say, about finding a story, to be in some cases reaffirming, and in some cases eye-opening. Obviously I am very interested in how he pursues the stories he writes because he does it so well. In terms of telling stories about oneself and the difficulty the difficulties envolved, I feel it would depend on the circumstances. And it would also depend on the lens through which you view yourself and how you use those stories. I tend to use stories about myself -- either my childhood, teen years, or adult professional experiences, to make certain connections with my readers, audience, or my students. At times it's my way of saying -- many of us have started from the same place. Or to say I can understand some of what you're thinking, feeling, or trying to accomplish -- because here's what it looked like for me moving along a similar trail. I think if I tell a story as if I'm the center of the universe then I fail in my attempt to share or explore with my students, or my audience, or my readers. But if I use it as a catapult, or a lever with which to open up the audience or the reader to more readily receive what I'm attempting to share, then I feel it's a more useful tool. Again in the end I think a lot of it depends on how you see yourself, the importance, or lack thereof, of your own life experiences, and for what reason you tell that tale.