In Los Angeles, where I live, everyone is a storyteller (or has at least one screenplay in the works). This is the land of entertainment, after all, where people craft tales to fill the big and small screens.
But I suspect stories and storytelling reach even further.
Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time, and writing them down nearly just as long (from 2,800 B.C on, with the epic poem of Gilgamesh). Our species has experienced rich patterns of traditional storytelling: written, oral, and visual. Stories of yore were inscribed on parchment or clay, told from generation to generation, and scrawled on cave walls.
Today we get the best of all three traditions – our stories are a hybrid of all of these methods. The written word is everywhere, seen in the proliferation of blogs and advertorials. Our oral tradition continues through memorable speeches and the boon of podcasts available for our earbuds. And let’s not forget graphics: infographics, emojis, and graphic novels. Thanks to Gutenberg’s famous printing press and today’s interwebs, we get access to a lot more stories … a lot faster.
What all of these forms have in common is a good story, something that excites, engages, and satisfies.
We are all, I believe, intrinsic storytellers – but we can all stand to use a little refresher course as well. Let’s look at the fundamentals:
Basic elements of storytelling
- Plot: What happens in your story? That is the plot. Your plot is the outline of the events of the story: who does what, and when, and how it unfolds. You snap it into the structure and you plot it into, well, the plot.
- Characters: Who are the actors in your story? They may be people, animals, robots, nature … the list goes on. What are their personality types – the good and bad? What are their desires, their passions, their flaws, and their prospects?
- Structure: There are numerous theories and methods for telling a good story, but the predominant structure is an arc. Or call it an act, if you will. Your story needs to begin with something unachieved, such as an unrealized or unfulfilled desire or need. It needs to force the main character to go through so much that he or she ends with irreversible change. The story needs to start somewhere and end somewhere different.
Getting a little deeper: adding layers to storytelling
- Conflict: What is the main character up against – and why can’t he or she get to the desired goal? What happens, both in their external world and internal mind? This is where you get to throw curveballs at characters and see how they react. Note: You could do this for not just your protagonist, but also for the other characters in your story. They can change by the end, too.
- Tone: What’s the feel of the type of story you want to tell? Is it silly, irreverent, and cheeky? Or is it stoic, serious, and instructional? This is tone. Tone helps you select wording, phrasing, and structure.
- Theme: What do you want to say? What do you want your images to say? What values do you want your hero to uphold? What values do you pit them against? The theme is the universal truth that your story conveys. Often, these themes don’t emerge until a piece is both complete and consumed. The others – scholars, super fans – study, discuss, and label your work with a theme. Sometimes you know what your theme is before you pick up your storytelling instrument. For example, if you have a burning passion for a social cause or societal truth that you wish to expose or comment on, you may easily have your theme. But it’s also OK to start writing something without a theme and let it develop organically.
A note on breaking the rules
Back in school, you probably heard your English teacher tell you that you can’t break the rules until you know them. It’s truth. I’m all for breaking or bending rules – it keeps our stories interesting and inspired. But, in order to tell an effective story in a non-traditional way, you first need to know what that tradition is. Study the classics and observe The Way Things Are, then fudge around with it.
Applying storytelling elements to marketing
Having a background in storytelling concepts, principles, and tactics can inform your marketing – from conception to execution. Let’s go through that list of storytelling elements now with a marketer’s lens.
- Characters: Are the characters caricatures of your customers? Are they personas – that is, customer types? They sure could be.
- Conflict: What are your customers struggling with (and, underlying that, how does your product or service help them solve those struggles?)
- Tone: This is where you align to your company’s brand – aesthetic, feel, word choice, and do’s and don’ts.
- Theme: What do you want to say? What do you want your readers to do? Theme, in marketing, can connote both emotion and action – as in the call to action. What do you hope happens after your customers and prospects engage with your story?
- Structure: How will you tell your story and unveil it? Part of that has to do with how much time you have. A 30-second ad, for example, is a different beast than a 500-word blog. Both can and should still have a structure to build tension, increase interest, and pay off with a satisfying end.
- Plot: What do your customers – er, characters – need to do, and how does your business help them do it? Now’s where you pull those pieces together, add a dash of Mad Man magic, and create your storyline. This may involve whiteboarding, and it most likely will result in not just one deliverable, but in an overarching campaign.
Notice that these story elements aren’t in the same order as above. That’s intentional. While all of this is storytelling, a tale told for a business will require a different process than a full-blown fictional creative effort. In your role as a marketer, you want to be thinking about your customers and your bottom line at the forefront.
Resources for the storyteller
There are a plethora of resources out there to help you further expand on the topic.
Both my husband and I are writers, and a friend recently asked me for our favorite books on storytelling. I actually sent her a video of our bookshelf – of the many shelves of our bookshelf, in fact. This was much easier than typing up a list because our books on writing take up a nice bit of real estate on the shelf (and on the bedside tables, and next to our writing chairs, and on the kitchen counter, and … you get the picture). Here are the highlights:
- Story by Robert McKee – a tome of wisdom
- The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler – to dive into characters and archetypes
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – how to architect big splashy “Hollywood” stories
- On Writing by Stephen King – sound advice from one of the most revered writers of our age
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser ‒ This is a favorite that I got in college (in a year I won’t confess).
For auditory learners, or those with time to kill while commuting, here are some excellent podcasts to listen to:
- On Story (Austin Film Fest’s look inside the creative process)
- Scriptnotes (a weekly podcast by scriptwriters John August and Craig Mazin)
If you wish to immerse yourself in learning, consider attending a conference. You can imbibe wisdom and walk away inspired.
- Austin Film Festival – Austin, October 2017 (I’ll be there!)
We all have stories to tell – both personally and in our marketing. I hope these resources help you decipher what kind of story you want to tell, and how you will tell it.