What makes a great story?


I’m a weirdo

I am.

I’m a weirdo because I love to revisit the same stories again and again.

I’m a weirdo because I watch the same films and read the same books over and over.

I’ve seen Aliens (1986) about 30* times, delighted in The Thing (1984), Predator (1987) and Terminator 2 (1991) around 10 times each and watched both The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Casablanca (1942) at least thrice.

I’ve also seen every episode of Bottom at least as many times as I’ve seen Aliens, but I’m fairly sure that’s not for the story.

And I’m even worse when it comes to books, because not only do I read, reread and re-reread the same novels and novellas, I sometimes do the same for specific scenes or chapters.

So I’ve been trying to identify what it is about these specific stories that keep me coming back and I’ve come up with a theory….

*I might actually be underestimating here.  It’s this kind of behaviour that makes my girlfriend mutter about me “being on some kind of spectrum”.

It’s all about betrayal

My favourite series of books currently stands at 25 novels and the same number again of novellas and short stories. Tens of thousands of pages, 9 years of work, 2 months’ worth of reading – and all entirely concerned with the events preceding and following one colossal betrayal, which largely destroys civilisation.

In fact, when I think of the specific books and passages I reread the most, they often feature the moment true colours are revealed, or describe the first confrontation between betrayer and betrayed.

Similarly (spoiler alert!), the plot of each film I mentioned earlier pivots around one or more betrayals:

  • In both Aliens and Predator the men are repeatedly and fatally back-stabbed by their superiors (the Company/Carter Burke, and Dillon respectively) resulting in their deaths
  • The entire premise of the terminator universe is that mankind builds an artificial intelligence which then immediately turns on its creators, deliberately instigating a nuclear holocaust
  • The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is entirely driven by cross and double-cross, as each character continually switches their allegiances, leading to that unforgettable Mexican-standoff scene
  • Part of what makes Casablanca amazing is the ever-present threat of betrayal and death, which never actually occurs (mostly because Rick acts honourably)

It’s everywhere

In fact, it’s not just me that loves stories of turncoats and traitors; once you start looking for it betrayal is ubiquitous in fiction.

Take Shakespeare:

Macbeth, the trusted friend of King Duncan, murders him in his sleep:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red

Julius Caesar
recognises his friend Brutus among his assassins:

Et tu, Brute?  (You too, Brutus?)

s uncle ruminates on having murdered his own brother:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,

A brother’s murder.

Or what about Ephialtes betraying King Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae?

This legendary battle took place in 480 BC and saw King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans defend a narrow mountain pass against over 100,000 Persians. Leonidas and his 300 were unbreakable… until the deformed and corrupt Ephialtes led the Persian horde along secret shepherd paths, allowing them to surround and ultimately annihilate the Spartans.

And then there’s the Bible. The single bestselling book of all time, and three of its most important stories are of horrifying disloyalty: Cain slaying Abel, Abraham preparing to sacrifice his own son and, of course, Judas betraying Jesus.

It could equally well be argued that these stories are actually to do with temptation, or being tested, or of ultimate sacrifice, but that doesn’t change the fact that each still involves one person trusting another and paying (or nearly paying) the ultimate price.

In fact, being that Christ’s rise and fall has been dubbed “The greatest story ever told”*, it seems that stories of betrayal grip us like little else.

But why?

*A slight oversell. I’d go for On the origin of species, or Guns, Germs and Steel myself.

Amateur/Evolutionary/Group psychology hour

Here’s my suggestion: What if we’re all born with an instinctual revulsion of betrayal?

If that sounds stupid, read the next paragraph. If it still sounds ridiculous, feel free to hunt me down and slap me.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that we are born “primed” to fear things like snakes, spiders and heights, because they were likely to kill us if we weren’t careful. Being that our survival has always depended on co-operation with others, could we also have an inbuilt fear of betrayal?

If we do, then the reason betrayal is such a popular topic becomes obvious: everyone knows humans love scary stories (it’s why the horror genre exists).

Is that it?!

No, of course not.

Obviously I’m not suggesting that the formula for the perfect story is:

  1. Invent some characters
  2. Make sure absolutely everyone betrays absolutely everyone else
  3. Retire a millionaire

What I am doing is pointing out that betrayal features heavily in many of the world’s most popular stories, admitting that I certainly love plots that feature betrayal, and suggesting that there might be sound psychological reasons for why everyone does too.

But who knows, I could be wrong about all of this. Or lying.

Don’t trust me.

Or anyone….

– Kevin Morrison

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