Three vital ingredients for a great story

Everywhere you turn, everyone is talking about storytelling. In the corporate world, sales, social media, the arts, even sports. Everyone is talking about storytelling. As the focus and influence of storytelling continues to grow one of the risks is that as more and more people start telling stories, they miss three of the most vital ingredients for making their stories impactful memorable and meaningful.

So what are these three vital ingredients? Details, emotions and people. Let me show you the profound difference that adding these three ingreidents to a story can have.

Suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause of death globally.

On top of well-established risk factors for suicide (e.g. depression, negative life events, socio-economic disadvantage), there is considerable evidence that the way the media reports on the suicide can significantly impact on the number of subsequent ‘copycat’ suicides.

The occurrence of copycat suicides following media stories is known as the ‘Werther effect‘. This is taken from Goethe’s novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ published in 1774. In the novel, Werther the hero, committed suicide causing many young male readers of the book to also kill themselves with exactly the same method as Werther. This lead to the novel being banned in many European states.

In their 2010 paperRole of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects” Thomas Niederkrotenthaler et. al. undertook research in Austria to understand how the way stories were told by the media impacted on copycat suicide rates.

They obtained reports from the 11 largest Austrian newspapers that included the term suicide between 1st January and the 30th June 2005. They found 497 items on which to base their research. They then examined these reports based on several media reporting characteristics they have previously been shown to be associated with an increase in suicides.

These characteristics were:

  • Quantity of reporting (i.e. repetition and density)
  • Main focus of the article (i.e. completed suicide; attempted suicide etc.)
  • Reported method (how the person actually committed suicide)
  • Prominence (where in the paper the story was i.e. located on the front page)

They then did a quantitative analysis aimed at measuring associations between item contents and suicide rates. They got daily data on suicides for each Austrian federal state and measured the difference between the suicide rates in the week preceding the publication date and in the week after publication.

A summary of their main findings were:

1. Suicide rates went up when:

  • there was repetitive reporting of the suicide
  • there was reporting on the method of suicide (especially if it was jumping)
  • items explicitly stating that societal problems related to suicide are increasing
  • items reporting several independent suicidal acts
  • there was language referring to a suicide epidemic

2. Suicide rates did not go up, or even went down, when there was:

  • a main focus of the item was on suicidal ideation
  • a main focus on suicide research
  • items containing contact information for a public support service
  • the reporting of expert opinions

The things that made suicide rates to remain the same, or even go down, after reporting of a suicide, the authors have labelled the ‘Papageno effect‘, after a character in Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’. In the opera Papageno becomes suicidal upon fearing the loss of his beloved Papagena; however, he refrains from suicide because of three boys who draw his attention to alternative coping strategies. They believe this is where the media should be focussing their attention.

So what you focus on, and how you tell the story directly impacts whether other people who read the story will, or will not try, and commit suicide.

The more:

  1. human you make the story (i.e. by using the the name of the person) the more likely you will trigger other suicides
  2. detailed you make the story (i.e. the method used, the location) the more likely other people will use the same method or go to the same spot
  3. you talk about the emotional impact of the event (i.e. the effects on the family or friends of the victim) the more likely people will commit suicide to make their family and friends feel that way too.

These are three vital ingredients in a great story – about people, contain and trigger emotions and are full of details.

If you ever wondered about the power of a story that contains these things, versus one that doesn’t, in some cases it’s the difference between life and death.


For advice on media reporting of suicide in Australia please refer here.
For help or information on suicide (within Australia) please visit here, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

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