Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

The Science of Story-Telling: Eurovision and 50 Shades of Grey

Eurovision 2014 Winner, Conchita Wurst (via Ailura, Wikimedia Commons)

Most of my blog’s audience live outside Europe. So, you wouldn’t necessarily know that Eurovision is the biggest song competition and one of the most popular annual cultural events in Europe. Each year’s a contestant represent their country in Eurovision and the winner’s country hosts next year’s show.

On the May 11th of this year, an Austrian act Conchita Wurst, in the scenic emploi of a bearded lady, won the Eurovision contest. Many argue that this victory is purely political and relates to Europe’s support of breaking gender stereotypes.

Here I suggest that one of the best songs has won the show and argue that the ingredients of the Eurovision success are the same of those of a best-selling novel.

Performing a song on stage is very much like telling a story. So what makes novels shine or slump and songs succeed or fail? The answer is emotional engagement.

But what makes us to engage with a novel or a song?

It’s an interesting character put in a great story. In a song, a character is an artist, the singer who channels the story through the singing. What is a plot in the song: first, it’s a story in the lyrics, and second it’s a melody that makes this story fly. A good melody that organically glues together the singer’s emotional performance and the song lyrics.

To make a better story, to evoke an emotion you need a conflict, a character should be overcoming an obstacle. A heartache that will not crush you but make you stronger is a common thing in pop music.

To summarise: a song works when it evokes emotion by means of an interesting character (a singer’s persona), lyrics and melody that tell a great story. But this is not enough. The second level is professionalism. Once the rough story is there, you need to edit it to perfection and present it like it’s a million dollar bill.

For a Eurovision hit, you need smashing vocals, relevant staging that fits the story and the relevant song arrangement that is either innovative or classy. The same applies to a novel: you need a great prose (that flows well, but not too sophisticated), thorough structural editing and proofreading done, and great cover and blurb .

In summary, your song’s or novel’s technical parameters should hone your creation into the new level. The more components you get right the bigger the probability of your song winning or your novel breaking through.

Now we can look at this year’s Eurovision winner and loser and see these components at work.
1st place:Conchita Wurst, Rise Like A Phoenix:

Persona: stands out (a cross-dressing act, a bearded woman).

Song: a classy JamesBond-esque tune, tells a story of a character  prevailing over massive shortcomings.

Presentation: minimal classy staging, all focus on the persona; song tune and arrangement that are not unique but classy. Vocals – outstanding, not just technically, but they carry the emotional weight of the story. Conchita was one of the few acts not using back vocalists at all.

Overall: a classy emotional song, outstanding vocals and a persona that attracted a lot of media attention.
Last place:Twin Twin (France) – Moustache:

Persona: an urban pop dance trio, very happy and cheerful, very extravagant. But not unique, since a similarly extravagant acts are also in the competition. Eurovision is a bit like a circus, everyone needs to stand out. But it’s important how you stand out. And, in case of Twin Twin – what does their image mean?  It is all over the place.

Song: it is about moustache. Movember came early? Hardly evokes emotions other than just a happy dancing. We don’t get the story though. The music and the lyrics are just quirky and about moustache envy I guess?

Presentation: great, colourful staging and dancing. Modern song arrangement, could see this song doing well in night clubs. But the live vocals are poor. This track would sound much better when recorded and properly mastered.

Overall: an interesting persona with no clear image, the song is happy but doesn’t tell a great story, weak vocals that further undermine the song’s effort.

As you can see, the first and last place are no brainer. What about acts in the top ten?
Sweden and Netherlands have their songs in the top 3. In terms of presentation, song quality, story and persona they almost nailed it. So what are their short-comings?

The Dutch song is rather relaxing and feels good, but not so emotionally charged. Their persona is an attractive middle-age couple in love, a very popular image, but far from unique. Mind you, in the absence of a competition like Conchita they could have won as easily as the similar couple from Azerbaijan did several years ago.

The runner-up from Sweden came up with a powerful emotional song with a great story and melody, very catchy. It’s a bit dated and repetitive with a key change in the end. The persona is an attractive singer portraying a fighter-character. Fantastic presentation. Acts like this won last couple of years, Denmark and Sweden again. So, the Eurovision audience simply wanted a change in my opinion.

Overall, I think any of the top 10 songs are strong contenders to win in another year. Additional parameters for song and novel successes are current fashions and political climate. For instance, this year’s Russian song entry scored high in my opinion in terms of persona, song, presentation, but didn’t receive many votes because of the country’s bad political image.

How does all this relate to a novel’s success?

All the attributes outside your story is your branding. If something damages your branding, then even the best story will flop. Alternatively, a great branding of a very mediocre story may shoot it into bestseller lists.


Take the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.
Persona: a BDSM-loving billionaire bloke (reader’s dream) and a college girl (reader’s self-image)
Story: not great, but a troubled relationship between Christian and  Anastasia sparks emotion in readers.
Presentation: many commented on the poor prose, but it’s highly accessible to mass-readers and reads like a soap opera. Branding is great – like it’s a some sort of a legal thriller rather than erotica, so it’s less shameful to carry the book in public. Also, the minimalistic cover easily attracts attention. The media label of it as ‘mommy porn’ and the media hype has helped this book to rise above similar novels.
However, the 50 Shades hype is short-lived compared to other bestseller analogues because several crucial components are missing here:

  • not a great story and prose
  • the characters lack sufficient depth or not representative of our time sociotypes to become cultural memes.

In comparison, The Bridget Jones Diary trilogy is more likely to enjoy long-term popularity because of the great story, a relatable yet standing-out persona, quality prose and emotional engagement.

The best-seller novel ingredients are:

  • an interesting character with depth and a problem realised in a fascinating plot, all of them causing our emotional engagement and resulting in a strong word-of-mouth;
  • good-quality prose (not primitive, not complex);
  • a brand (an author or a story) causing media disruption (an intriguing character (Suskind’s The Perfume, Larsson’s The Girl with a dragon Tattoo) or a setting (Rowling’s Hogwarts, Howey’s Silo) or a theme (women rights,The Millemium trilogy))
  • presentation (thorough editing, great blurb, book cover)

Get this right, then invest in publicising and the success is yours.


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