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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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Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
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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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.



Reviews

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

I have decided to just listen to all the lectures and then go back and listen again and do the assignments. I want to take the luxury of time to hear.

Great tips for anyone considering to take up writing seriously. Recommended.

So many takeaways to improve my nonfiction writing! Malcolm's energy and story telling ability make this a must-watch Masterclass for anyone who likes to write.

This course was so informative, beyond just exploring Malcolm's own work. I write both fiction and non-fiction and have found his advice and most of the topics covered can apply to both.


Comments

Sheila S.

This was incredibly helpful as I do not like writing about myself wanted to become science journalist when I was young but had no role models being a girl.

A fellow student

I'm loving this masterclass! My absolute favourite yet. I can see his point about writing in the first person. Having said that, I am very interested in psychology, consciousness, meditation etc. If we only write about places/ things/ activities which are outside of ourselves than the expression of 'direct' experience is not conveyed. What is considered a 'great' life? What about all the ordinary human experiences that have so much richness in them? Is that not the same thing as Vermeer painting portraits of milkmaids, or Van Gogh portraits of peasants? Not only the stories of kings, states men and people of apparent high social importance should be venerated. I think this has knock on effects in society, like when ordinary people do not see themselves and their own small yet meaningful experiences reflected back to them.

Brian H.

9:41 “Avoid the First-Person Problem.” Memoir has become an ubiquitous genre these days, and mostly not from people who have done great things. Some of them are cute, some are homey and comforting, but most are more like reading someone’s journal. And most of those journals are much like my own: Boring! For every “Angela’s Ashes,” there are several dozen dull memoirs.

Regina N.

Loved all of his points, specially the first-person one. I see it a lot with my classmates (I'm studying journalism) and a great part of them want to make the things they're writing about something personal; I think the story is all wrong from there! Though, it's not a bad start to look around your personal experience to find a detail that's able to reveal a much more larger argument; as long as you don't make it about yourself.

Jeff B.

Have a story about software designed to solve crime in Los Angeles that started in 1998. The software evolved to Homeland Security level. Then the engineers pivoted from building surveillance and security to designing surveillance and security for the human body. If systems can be developed for a building, could it be done for the human body. The answer? Yes.

Nicola

People love stories about average people. One that comes to mind is 'Marley and Me' a book about a family's everyday life with their dog. Stories like these are very relatable. It taps into what people are thinking about and dealing with all day every day. Considering this in light of Malcolm's comments, what you choose to write about yourself and having a very good awareness of your reader is what makes the story appealing. Observational comedy works this way too.

Phedre J.

I liked how he investigated player health and safety to discover a bigger story lied beneath investigating the head of the department.

A fellow student

Never knew there were reasons for trying not to write in the first person, it is interesting to write in such style but like he says, unless youve done something great its not worth telling. Also real good point about the journalistic factor of noticing little flaws or inconsistencies in a story or report.

Kristin D.

I am a researcher and we write all our papers in the first person (typically using "we" as it's typically a collaboration). Thinking about the expectations is interesting, because typcially our story telling in scientific articles is non-existent.

Elizabeth R.

I know what the job is as a journalist, but as a political activist, I've seen that journalists really overall do not scrutinize or think critically about the information they receive, and often journalists take dictation from the powers that be. Corporate media is not always about the details, and is not always about the truth. Regretably. As a citizen journalist, I certainly ask those questions, so I'm with you there.