by Kelsey Ruger at TheMoleskin
WRITEWORLD NOTE: This article was originally written for using narrative to tell business stories. We think it’s pretty broadly useful, though, so when you see the word business in the titles, just know that the methods and advice found in the article are helpful for everyone. Without further ado…
When you hear the names George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg, what comes to mind? Most people would answer ‘movie director’, but with movies like Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, The Color Purple and E.T under their belts these directors are also master storytellers. How did they become so good at telling stories? While both Spielberg and Lucas are fans of Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology you don’t have to become an expert in mythology before telling your story.
The biggest lesson we can take from these two directors is that stories shouldn’t be just a string of events mashed together. The result of properly using basic elements like plot, character, throughlines, setting and mythic structure is a story that the audience can connect with on a deep subconscious level.
Good stories don’t just happen. An audience really connects with your story when the plot, characters and other elements fade together to create a unified narrative. This idea of “unification” was first discuss in Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, Aristotle says that a good story is unified and focuses on an extended action with a beginning, middle and end.
Over the centuries Aristotle’s basic definition of story has evolved and now, some stories are character driven (the character moves the story forward because of their choices) while others are plot driven (the action moves the story forward and the characters react), however all good stories still have a hero (“your main character”) and some type of mission(“journey” or “challenge”) that the hero must complete. Why? Because it still works and audiences are still drawn to story structures they can connect with.
How many times have you watched a movie only to say to yourself, “What was the point of that?” That shouldn’t happen. Great stories don’t stall, sputter or leave the audience wondering what happened. The sequence of events should make sense and assist with the development and movement of the story. You keep stories moving with what Victoria Lynn Schmidt calls a dramatic through line. A through line helps answers “what’s the point?”. There are 5 basic throughlines that you can use.
Notice that I said that the through line helps answer the question. Your story still needs structure to make the journey toward answering that question seamless.
The structure you choose helps ties the pieces of your story together seamlessly. Whether you realize it or not, stories that succeed do so because they evolve according the audiences expectation of unity (beginning, middle and end). There are lots of story structures that you could use, but I recommend the ones that are commonly understood archetypes across all cultures and can be applied easily in a business setting (e.g. they present universally understood ideas).
You always want your audience to be emotionally engaged in any story you present. The best way to make sure that happens is by creating well rounded characters. The audience needs to be able to identify with the characters because it is through them that the audience relates to the story. Look at the following example:
When I graduated from college I thought I was on top of the world. I had been in the top 10% of my high school class, done well in college, and was one of only a few college students that had been hired by the consulting firm I was working for. I hadn’t experienced a lot of work failure at that point in my life, so I felt pretty good about how I was progressing.
In this segment from the story I used in the introduction, I was the character. My goal was to give enough detail about who I was at the time to allow the audience to identify with the ‘character’ in the story. Don’t spare the detail here. Use as much detail as needed to draw your audience in.
A story must have a location or setting to orient the audience. It sets the place, time and circumstances of the story, and helps the audience gain the context needed to understand where you are coming from. As with creating your characters, don’t spare the detail when defining the location.
Again, using stories takes practice. At the end of the day if you want them to work you have to think about what people really care about. Instead of asking “what do I want to present?” ask yourself “what can I do to help them relate to the message I have?” In every case focusing on our need for connection will be more successful.