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Essential Elements of Storytelling Structure - Part 1: The Beginning


once upon a time storytelling structureThe single most important thing about storytelling to grasp is that all stories are told through its structure. Structure keeps everything connected in an orderly and predicted fashion. And, in this way, we recognize and become emersed in the mystery of "what's going to happen next, and how will this turn out?"

Understanding and applying the elements of structure in telling brand, industry or customer stories, whether through videos, blogs, eBooks, web site pages or any other form of persuasive communications (i.e. content marketing) is the secret to achieving maximum audience impact.

It's helpful to liken storytelling structure with what we're familiar with: a play with 3 acts, a movie with a beginning, middle and end, or even a letter with an introduction, body and conclusion. It's within this framework of 3 main structural elements that stories are told and remembered.

Here's the first essential element of effective storytelling structure:

The beginning

This is the, "Once upon a time..." moment when we are first introduced to the hero or heroine of the story and the situation or scene is set. Then something happens and the central figure, whom we are to identify with, encounters an event or circumstance that summons her to an adventure or cause. This is the transistion point or call to adventure element of the story.

In The Hunger Games, we meet a girl called Katniss, struggling to provide the basic neccesites of life for her mother and beloved little sister, Primrose...then the unthinkable happens: Prim is selected as the female tribute of District 12 in the annual Hunger Games, an arena where 24 tributes from the 12 districts will enter to kill or be killed. And just as she's about to step foot on the steps, Katniss sweeps her behind and gasps, "I volunteer!" And with this, the storyteller has swept us too out of a life as usual state and into a mysterious and potentially dangerous new experience.

This works for B2B content marketing, too. (Or  for that matter, any business-to-person communications, afterall, it's really about people-to-people.) Do you have a case study or customer success story to tell? What better way to get your audience engaged than by using the "in the beginning" element of storytelling structure.

Perhaps your launching a new product, service or event. Steve Jobs at MacWorld 2007 worked his way into the launch of iPhone by saying, "This is a day I've been looking forward to for two years. Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything...Today we're introducing..."

The beginning part of your storytelling structure doesn't have to be long and drawn out. In fact, it's much shorter than the middle part which I'll talk about in the next post. You just need to cover these 5 things:

  • Establish the when - "Two years ago..."
  • Name the who - a person or entity - the hero of your story...
  • Point to where it took place - in a meeting, division, city, airplane...
  • Tell what was going on - with the market, situation, status quo...
  • Make a transition - then something happened...

The beginning of your story must create a sense of wonder, curiosity, mystery, excitement or impending adventure to accomplish a worthy goal; something that engages and resonates with us and makes us want to, well, turn the next page and go on to see how things unfold.

Up next, I'll talk about the place where conflict and uncertainty takes shape in story structure: The dramatic middle.

References and for further insights: