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Story vs. Spectacle (Hint: The Winner Isn’t What You’d Expect Me to Say)

Flickr Creative Commons: Norm Lanier

I love roller coasters.

There’s nothing like the anticipation of riding up to the first drop, or being caught in that hover-quiver breath-holding gasp of time when you know you’re about to plummet three hundred feet after just a few more slim clicks of that chain on the track beneath you.

And then.

You do.

Over the years, as a coaster connoisseur, I’ve been to both Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.

Two very different parks.

Two very different experiences.

Cedar Point is the roller coaster capital of the world with 18 world-class coasters. From what I understand, it was the first park to build a complete circuit roller coaster with a two-hundred-foot drop (Magnum XL-200), the first three-hundred-foot drop (Millennium Force) and the first four-hundred-foot drop (The Top Thrill Dragster).

As you can imagine, I’m right in my element at Cedar Point.

Disney World, on the other hand, is more interested in creating an immersive experience while you’re waiting in line. Sure there are coasters, but the emphasis isn’t on building the world’s fastest or tallest, but the story that goes along with the thrill.

Everything is centered around story. The buildup to the rides, the rides themselves—it all fits into a narrative that begins the moment you get in line. As you come closer and closer to boarding the Tower of Terror, for example, there’s a specific mood that’s introduced: a setting, a character, all laid out to tell a story.

At Cedar Point, each ride is unique and exciting. Sure there’s a clever name and a cool logo, but there isn’t such an emphasis on narrative as there is at Disney.

So which approach is better—spectacle or story?

Recently, as I reflected on this question I was surprised by my answer.

As a novelist who is also a huge proponent of raising the bar of excellence in storytelling, I naturally suspected that I would fall into the story camp. (I have a master’s degree in storytelling after all, and have spent the last twenty years teaching it around the world, if that’s any clue to how addicted I am to story.)

But, after a recent trip to Cedar Point, I realized I was torn.

Yes, while you’re waiting in line, Disney’s theme-based and intricately-told stories are more engaging, but those coasters at Cedar Point are just so dang fun.

The parks appeal to patrons in different ways. And, for me, there are different reasons to go to the two destinations.

Entertainment—Disney.

Anticipation—Cedar Point.

It’s sort of like when I go to a movie theater to watch a film that’s action-packed with amazing stunts or impressive special effects. I go in knowing that the plot might not be the best in the world, but I want that thrilling experience—to be blown away and not to think too hard about everything. With this in mind, I’m able to enjoy some movies that have lots of explosions, car chases, fight scenes, and intense sequences but little character development or a well-synthesized plot.

There are just those times when I want to fly down a 400-foot drop at 120 miles per hour and that’s all I want.

Three takeaways from all of this.

So, to all of you spectacle writers, I welcome you in. Sorry I’ve been so judgy and given you a hard time in the past.

Now, I know that there will be some people who’ll be quick to point out that the best stories provide both an amazing thrill ride and an emotionally resonant, masterfully plotted storyline. I wouldn’t disagree and I totally get where you’re coming from. After all, that’s the kind of stories I’ve been trying to craft for the last decade of my life.

I’m just saying that once in a while all I want to do is sit in the front car, lift my arms, and drop straight off a coaster-created cliff screaming with pleasure on a cool summer night.

About Steven James [1]

Steven James [2] is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of more than fifty books, including seventeen novels. Publishers Weekly calls him “[A] master storyteller at the peak of his game.” His groundbreaking books on the craft of fiction, Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel both won Storytelling World Awards of Excellence. When he’s not working on his next book, he teaches fiction writing at conferences spanning the globe and hosts the podcast The Story Blender. For all things Steven James, click to stevenjames.net [2].

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