How to tell a story

Frogprince_crop Stories lie at the core of human nature. They're as important to our humanity as language and opposable thumbs. Storytelling doesn't belong to an exclusive group of novelists and screenwriters. We all tell stories, but some of them work better than others.

Persuasive stories have a long history. In the 70s, soap operas emphasizing family planning were broadcast in Mexico—leading to lower birth rates in the areas where they were shown. Similar soap operas have been produced around the world to promote birth control, AIDs awareness, the status of women, and better treatment of children. In the 80s, U.S. television writers were asked to work anti-drug storylines into sitcoms and dramas. And in the 21st century, Rupert Murdoch will be asking writers for his television shows to think about storylines that warn against global warming. Many writers hate didactic fiction, but it's probably as old as human language—certainly predating the bible and Aesop.

Today I thought I'd unpack a couple of tools used by professional writers to create stories that are memorable, engaging, and satisfying.

You probably know that the protagonist is the actor in your story. More specifically, the story happens as a result of the actions he takes. Readers in the English-speaking West have virtually no patience for protagonists who don't take concrete action.

Whether you're writing an ad, a 600-page novel, or an interesting blog post, the reader must empathize with the protagonist of your story. Typically the protagonist of an ad is some version of the customer. Very often in a story told by a nonprofit organization, the protagonist is the client—the person helped by the organization. But the reader still has to put himself in the shoes of that protagonist. This gets challenging when your typical donor is a multimillionaire and your typical client is a mentally ill homeless person wrestling with addiction. Stories are, in fact, probably the only vehicle powerful enough to make that kind of psychological transition.

There, but for the grace of god
Your protagonist does not, despite what many people think, need to be likeable. The reader needs to be able to empathize with the protagonist, but might not like him.

A tremendous example of this is found in the movie Monster. While you probably wouldn't want to invite Aileen Wuornos to a dinner party, the filmmaker constructs the story so that you can understand how she got there. If you have an unlikeable protagonist, you need to work out the "there but for the grace of god" factor. Find the storyline that we can relate to, even if our lives are very different.

Protagonists don't act until they want something. There is a gap between what they really, really want and what they actually have. The actions of the story move them closer or farther away from the object of that desire.

Taut, exciting stories usually spend a good chunk of time keeping the protagonist tantalizingly close to reaching her desire, then moving it just a little farther away. Stories tend to be most satisfying when the protagonist's strengths move her toward her desire and her weaknesses move her away from it.

To create the archetypal happy ending, your protagonist should achieve her heart's desire when her central strength overcomes her central weakness. Again, it's all a matter of empathy. Aren't those the most triumphant moments of your own life?

More resources
The craft of telling stories takes time to learn; the art takes a lifetime. Here are four exceptional resources if you want to explore more:

  • Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting is probably the most important storytelling manifesto you'll find today. (You might remember McKee as the writing guru in the movie Adaptation. I would say "fictionalized writing guru," but in fact the character was spookily spot-on.) McKee has exhaustively analyzed how good movies work, and boiled the important factors down for thousands of wannabe and successful screenwriters alike.
  • Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This is a close second to McKee, outlining elements from myths and fairy tales that endure in popular stories of all kinds. Special bonus: you'll be able to annoy your friends while watching DVDs as you call out the by-now inevitable steps on the hero's journey. "Look, he's Refusing the Call! Hey, why are you throwing Doritos at me?"
  • Seth Godin's All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World. Godin provocatively uses "lies" for "stories," which probably sold ten times as many copies of the book. He walks you through how stories can be used in a marketing context. My favorite quote from the book: "Fraud is marketing with side effects."
  • Chip Heath and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, an amazing list that describes what makes some stories (like urban legends) so much more likely to be passed around and remembered.

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  1. lizthefair says:

    I just read another blogger write about stories–specifically their ethical use and I thought you and your readers would be interested.

    Here’s the link:

    and the follow-up

  2. Anne Z. says:

    Very interesting! I just skimmed The Halo Effect, which mentions how business books can succeed by telling compelling stories, even when they’re based on faulty reasoning and research.

  3. I would also add Annette Simmons book, “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins” as a great resource on storytelling.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Chris Bonney says:

    What’s Your Story?

    There has been quite a bit of talk over that last few years about businesses telling their story as part of their marketing efforts. The idea being that you’ll connect with your potential customers if you communicate with them emotionally

  5. Another Here says:

    Podcast #21: A pod-tastic week

    Oh, what a week its been! Its fantastic! It involves podcasts! You might even call it pod-tastic! Except that it wasnt really all that fantastic; it was pretty much the same as any other week, just with more gaming.

    This week

  6. Owen Lawson says:

    I like the article…must admit it scared me because it is challenging me to take my organic approach to developing posts and subordinate it to a more mechanical approach. I’ll try it and see how it works for our community.


    Owen Lawsons last blog post..Harnessing the Muscle, Magic and Muses of Mastermind

  7. Gabrielle says:

    This has become a theme this week over at Copyblogger and digging through your old posts. I was intrigued by the “James Simone” used by the post on stories at Copyblogger. I knew I had to visit your site and see what resources could be excavated. :)

    I love how you guide through your article and tell how the character should overcome using strength. That is very clear.

    Thanks for your listing of books on the subject. I did not realize Seth Godin wrote a book about telling stories. I will have to check that out from your links.
    Gabrielle´s last [type] ..2 Ways to Not Get Fired from Freelance Writer Jobs


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