03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Storytelling Lessons From the Boy in the Balloon

Okay, so he wasn't really in the balloon after all. But there's no denying it: we were transfixed by the story of six-year-old Falcon Heene and the silver helium balloon that appeared to have carried him away. From 11:30 in the morning until just after 6:00 in the evening, bloggers posted about his apparent plight in realtime. Cable news stations aired live footage of the balloon drifting through the sky -- and crashing into a field. My students were so captivated by this story that at the mid-class break, one checked for breaking news on her iPhone. They weren't alone: CNN reported that, in a sign of the times (or of the apocalypse, depending on your perspective), updates on the "balloon boy" took up 7 of the 10 trending topics on Twitter, and over 6,000 balloon-boy-themed products were created on Zazzle.

I'm not sure what life-lessons we're supposed to learn from this whole crazy mess, which is still evolving. But the episode of the boy in the balloon tells us a lot about what we want in stories, and how to tell a good one.

1. Add some weirdness.
A silvery experimental flight device that looks like a flying saucer -- or, as one source called it, "a container of Jiffy Pop." A six-year-old, either shanghaied and terrified or off on a grand and bizarre adventure. The more details that emerged, the more ridiculously compelling this story became. The family had been on Wife Swap! The parents are storm chasers who search for extraterrestrials! Did I mention the boy's name is Falcon?

In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Tim O'Brien made the compelling argument that a good story needs not just verisimilitude but imagination:

For me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. [...] To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

That element of strangeness is what hooks us. Think of how many children go missing every day -- not in balloons but in heartbreakingly ordinary ways -- and how little attention we give them. Why did we pay attention this time? The weirdness.

2. Keep the suspense -- and the stakes -- high.
There were so many ways this situation could have gone terribly wrong. The balloon might have crashed or been hit by an aircraft. The boy might have gotten hypothermia. Authorities considered several plans -- lowering someone to the balloon from a helicopter, dropping weights onto it, blowing it downward with a helicopter, shooting it -- each inherently risky. Mistakes would end with a dead child. The drama played out agonizingly slowly: the balloon drifted for two hours, over 50 miles and two counties, leaving viewers to hold their breath. All that added to the suspense -- and made sure no one could turn away.

3. Make it complicated.
Consider these scenarios:
A. Balloon goes up with boy inside. Balloon crashes. Boy is tragically killed.
B. Balloon goes up with boy inside. Balloon comes down gently. Boy is totally unscathed. Everyone is happy.

When the balloon was up in the air, those were the two possibilities on everyone's mind. (A) is a tragedy. (B) is a happy ending. But -- let's be honest -- (A) makes a better story. We may not wish for it in real life, but (B) just seems so... boring. False alarm, everyone! They lived happily ever after! Gore isn't required for a good story, but adversity is. Stories work better when not everyone gets what they want.

As we all know, when the balloon landed, we discovered a third possibility:
C. "Balloon ran away, but boy, 6, never left home."

That was the title of the New York Times article describing the boy's reappearance. It was written in the brief lull when the story was still a heartwarming tale:

At last, near dusk, he was found, hiding in a box in his family's garage attic, fearful his father would be angry at him for touching the flying machine his father had built in their backyard.

The boy's journey, it turned out, had never begun.

Relief all around. But you'll notice that, with the complications removed, the story reverts to boring. Haha, innocent misunderstanding! And that leads us to Lesson 4:

4. Let the characters take action.
Narratively speaking, innocent misunderstandings are disappointing. Arbitrary events are also disappointing. The stories that really grab our attention involve not accidents but people doing things on purpose -- to get things they desperately want.

By the following Monday, the truth was out:
D. It was a hoax. The parents planned it as a publicity stunt. They wanted to get a deal for a TV show.

When young Falcon mentioned "doing this for the show," everyone's antennae went up. Gawker ran an exclusive: "I Helped Richard Heene Plan a Balloon Hoax!" The parents swore they were innocent but annouced they would turn themselves in "to avoid further spectacle." What kind of parents, everyone wondered, would pretend their child's life was in danger just to get a TV show? Who would do such a thing? And with that, our attention was hooked again. Because this was a story, and a good one.