Storytelling Structure for Business - Part 2: The Middle & Ending
There's much we can learn and apply from storytelling structure found in folk lore, fairy tales, literature, modern works of fiction, in the theater or movies. We can learn, for example, how common structural elements are used by storytellers to shape the protagonist's journey from the beginning to the ending of a tale.
Once we understand the basic structural elements and plots of storytelling we have a framework from which to tell business- and brand-related stories. Not only that, we may also find parallels between the story structure found in fiction with that of our real-world experiences to inspire and guide our own storytelling efforts.
In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker lays out how and why we tell stories. With thirty four years of examining and classifying stories, Booker suggests all stories fall under one of these plots:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
Within each type of plot are found a series of common stages. For example, in 'The Quest' we see the stages unfold as follows:
- The Call: The protagonist finds himself in an unfulfilling situation and is summoned to a worthy, life-renewing goal
- The Journey: The hero embarks across hostile terrain in pursuit of the ultimate destination
- Arrival and Frustration: The hero comes close to the goal but is thwarted as forces are at work which he must overcome
- The Final Ordeals: There is a final series of tests that "culminates in a last great battle or ordeal which may be the most threatening of all"
- The Goal: There comes a "thrilling escape from death" before the life-renewing state, princess and/or kingdom treasure are finally won
You'll find some variation of these stages in all types of stories and story plots. In a recent article on FastCompany, Using Great Storytelling to Grow Your Business, the author references a five-step structure referred to as the "story spine.":
- Reality is introduced
- Conflict arrives
- There is a struggle
- The conflict is resolved
- A new reality exists
In addition to these 'story stages' all story plots include the basics of storytelling structure: A Beginning, Middle and Ending. In part 1 of the essential elements of storytelling structure I covered the beginning. Here I want to discuss some of the key elments in the middle and end parts of storytelling.
In the example of 'The Quest' plot outlined above, the middle section kicks in at The 'Journey' and continues through 'The Final Ordeals.' In the 'story spine' example the middle commences when conflict arrives and is dealt with until the conflict is resolved. The middle part of stories is much longer than the beginning and ending parts. And we can be sure this section of our story structure will characteristically be marked by elements and techniques that capture and carry our interest all the way through to some kind of conclusion.
Stories without conflict and uncertainty would be pretty boring. Booker says that "without some measure of both there cannot be a story." Quite often what we find is contrasting events or forces - a struggle. The up and down or back and forth experiences create a rhythm of suspenseful tension we know must somehow be resolved - one way or another.
A promo for the movie, Thin Ice released last month declares: "Critics are calling Thin Ice a roller coaster of twists and turns." This is a central element that has a powerful effect in all stories. There's a growing sense we have that our hero or heroine is making progress towards the goal, but then it's like a rug is pulled out from under sending him crashing back to reality, and new challenges that must be overcome.
The shape of conflict & relief
Booker calls this storytelling rhythm "constriction and release" where as the story unfolds there is a series of alternations between tension and relief. Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate, has graphically depicted what she calls a 'sparkline': a contour or shape of 'what is' with 'what could be' in persuasive presentations.
Above: Illustration of a Sparkline
These can be thought of as contrasting turning points involving losing and gaining ground, resistance and acceptance, pain and pleasure, conflict and resolution. And all the while interest and a deepening engagement is created with the audience. We identify with the hero's plight and find our own spirits rising and falling throughout this period. In business communications you may also look at this as contrasting viewpoints, approaches or solutions.
More often than not, your audience comes to consider you with their own set of beliefs and biases. They are in conflict or contradiction to your "big idea." You must find a way to acknowledge their opposition, call it out and deal with it in the telling of your story.
Life imitates art. This back and forth doesn't just make for great storytelling in the make-believe world. It makes for authentic business and brand storytelling, too. For example, stories of customer success (aka: case studies) where challenges, difficulties or obstacles were ultimately overcome with your product, service or solution can be a powerful structural element in connecting with and persuading others to consider doing business with you.
Incorporating contrast and resolution elements in other forms of business communications and marketing can really help to tell your story in a very authentic way. Try using it on your about page, in customer-facing presentations, service/product pages and videos, and in your blogging. Showing a little vulnerability and honesty about the challenges you've faced in your journey and how you overcame them can go a long way towards building credibility, trust and believability with your audience (target market).
A final ordeal
Ultimately, there comes a time in all great stories we commonly refer to as the climax or the final ordeal. It's a point where the protagonist must face one final and great battle: a fight to the finish.
In a classic 'overcoming the monster' story, David faces Goliath and amidst much scorn topples him with an incredible blow to the giant's forehead with his slingshot. Likewise, businesses and their customers quite often face a most difficult challenge - a significant turning point and ordeal that must be faced and overcome.
Perhaps it's a devastating setback or significant change in the market, a strong competitive challenge, a product recall, a social media campaign gone awry, or the unexpected loss of a company visionary and powerful leader. It could be anything. Chances are, however, in the course of your journey you and your customers (and your customers' customers) have faced nightmarish-like ordeals. Tell us about the stuff that kept you up at night and how you fought through it.
The unknotting (denouement)
At last there is the unraveling of the knot, tension is released and our hero or heroine is freed from all struggle and conflict. And so we move into the final (ending) phase of the story where the goal is realized, the kingdom is won, life is renewed and of course, the princess is safe.
For business storytelling, the resolution of conflict elevates to a new plane of improved operations, growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
The challenge has been met and we can now go on to reap the benefits and enjoy the rewards of what we struggled so hard to obtain. Fresh hope in a new beginning or renewal of life (or business) is the new reality.
In a 'rags to riches' story our hero emerges in full recognition by all parties of how exceptional they really are. We see the their true attributes and qualities, and how they have been transformed.
Likewise, in business storytelling we see the transformative results and come to understand the central idea of making a similar journey. Change is indeed not just plausible, but could be the best choice for us to make. And so we are moved to take action. To answer the call, to begin our own adventure.
A call to business storytelling
Can there be anything more persuasive than telling authentic stories? Creating our stories with the help of basic plots, structures and elements provide a recipe for business storytelling success.
"The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest...their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people."
- Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakesh
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