A good story is more about the audience than the plot or characters
"Know your audience" they say. A good story has to emotionally and intellectually connect with the audience. So how do we do that?
A good story should be able to relate more to what is common between us, than to what differentiates us. So, go for the highest common denominator among us. Weed out the lowest common denominators (as far as possible), without having to compromise on the integrity of the story. In other words, for a story that has to cross boundaries and touch the hearts and minds of people across the world, it has to be about the humanity that is within us responding to issues that matter across the world.
Not just the story, but how you tell it is important as well. For which, any emphasis in story telling on the way we differ will stop the story from going across boundaries with different cultures. So, if you take a genre of story and strip off all the ways it emphasizes the cultural difference between the boundaries and focus more on the humane ways that connect us all together, that will make the story readily reach different parts of the world.
Take for example, the movie Slumdog Millionaire. This rather small production made on a shoestring budget of $15 million from Fox Searchlight was released on November 12th, 2008, was at a total lifetime worldwide gross of about $378 million as per Box Office Mojo, on last count. It took 11 Oscar nominations that year, of which it won 8, including Best Picture.
The story is set in India. Why have so many people across the world gravitated towards this film? According to director Danny Boyle, the film's message of hope is particularly resonating with people in the dire economic climate leading to the global financial meltdown in 2009. "I think people need a way out. We'd all love a way out of the bad news that is coming, cause it's just continual," he said. "Movies have always provided that. I think it's connecting with people on that level really, they find a message of hope in it, really, in adversity."
Screenplay writer Simon Beaufoy echoed similar sentiments, suggesting that the film's ironic lack of emphasis on making money may be speaking to people who have less cash. "[The movie] says you don't have to be a millionaire to be happy and actually all that money doesn't matter compared to love," he argued. "It's come out at a very interesting time in the world, and I think that's what's going into people's hearts."
That was the resonating common humane thread that captured the interest of audiences everywhere. Instead, if the story had emphasized on the orphan in the slums of the Mumbai it would not have connected globally. It was the human spirit of survival and the message of hope in times of adversity (albeit with the backdrop of the Mumbai slums) that resonated with global audiences. You could have changed the backdrop of the slums of Mumbai with the run-down locale of New York city, and the story would have connected just as well.
When you select a story to tell, remember, the audience matters much more than the plot or the characters (or, even the story world) in the story. In this day and age, all the unstructured data flowing in through digital engagement, combined with advanced analytics, can bring story tellers much closer to what really matters to the audience. So let us tell the stories that really matter!