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Masters of Storytelling: American Idol and the Voice

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Caleb has been crowned the winner of American Idol, and Josh has taken the prize on The Voice. The producers of these shows are masters of storytelling and demonstrate just how powerful it is. The main story is the competition itself and the mystery of who will win. But, along the way, dozens of subplots keep our attention.

From the first nights of auditions to the finales, we get to know the contestants through the stories we hear about them. We learn about their families, their struggles to make it in music, and their home towns. With each bit of information, we develop affinities for one contestant over another. We can relate to them. We understand them.

Even though we may not dream of a career in music, we can understand having a dream that seems impossible to achieve. Through the stories of the contestants we begin to understand their personalities. We learn what motivated them to try out, and we witness their insecurities and triumphs.

It all serves to get us invested in their dreams. Most of us know how it is to have a dream that seems too big to wrap our arms around. And these dreams are big. This is a high risk, high reward game, and we are carried along as the contestants, coaches and judges tell us one chapter of the story after another. We are amazed, watching 17-year-olds command a stage in front of millions. We can't help thinking about what we were doing when we were 17 and how it compares.

The structure of the show keeps the story moving along. Just like in a written work, structure is necessary -- it gives us a beginning, a middle and an end. The show's rules put someone in peril each week, imposing a structure into each episode, with an arc of who will win. We are compelled to keep "our" guy or girl going.

Millions vote to keep their favorites on week to week. Sure, we like one performance more than another, but we become fans of the individual character, just like in a book or movie. We pick favorites because we can relate to them in one way or another. Maybe we grew up in a town as small as Jessica's home of Slapout, Alabama. Maybe we were taught great manners like Jake, who, when gifted with a car, chose one for his grandmother instead of for himself. Maybe just like Jena we would have liked to have a fun date for prom.

We see contestants struggle to learn a song, or be overwhelmed by meeting a performer they've admired from afar. We may not be experiencing those exact things, but we understand the emotions. Those stories pull us in, and make these people real to us, although we only know them from the screen.

The other subplots are the judges and coaches. We get to see these superstars in a new way, how they interact with each other and the contestants. The Adam and Blake bromance has taken on a life of its own, and it's hard not to appreciate Harry Connick Jr.'s knowledge of music.

Stories give us a way to relate to the contestants, to begin to care about them, and invest in their success. The stories take them from people we've never heard of, to winners we celebrate with at the end of the season. The millions of tweets, downloads and votes confirm there is no doubt that story can engage us like nothing else.