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A story can prick a conscience.
A story can motivate into action. A story can cause outrage or empathy. A story can take a reader off of her sofa and on an adventure across the world.
We often talk about using story in content marketing as a way to tell about our brand, our team, our product, or our service. We discuss how to use storytelling for businesses as a way to make themselves more human. We give pointers on how to write copy in a story-like manner that would make it interesting to read.
But what about telling a genuine story, free of the responsibility of overtly furthering your brand? In an age of long form content, it makes sense to delve into telling stories online.
Words that speak of action make our motor cortex buzz. Words that speak of textures get our sensory cortex alight. In other words, when we read a story, our brains light up like a meteor shower on a dark winter night.
Our brain, on a diet of stories, is intense.
No one will agree on what makes a good story completely.
We all have our own tastes that dictates which kinds of stories we are drawn to, and the kind of language we prefer to read. But there are a few ways to consider “good story” as you create your own. There are also a few generalizations that can tentatively be applied across the board, no matter which approach to story you take.
A simple plot is ideal. It is the convoluted plot that allows a soap opera to go on endlessly for 30 years.
A simple plot, with simple motivations, will always be easier for you to write and a reader to follow. A simple plot can be deceptively complex, depending upon how you tell the story. Unique and conflicting points of view, jumping back and forth in time–these all make a simple plot compelling and deep. Can you sum up the plot in a sentence or two?
Simple language that is clear and concise is also best.
Cliches don’t work.
Phrases that have become common don’t work. Our brain skips over phrases it is used to seeing without registering them as anything special. Common phrases (“tough as nails”) don’t light up our brain.
This isn’t a license to write purple prose that is extravagant and excessive. In his 10 Rules Of Writing, author Elmore Leonard ended his list with this: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Leonard understood how people read books, whizzing by solid paragraphs of purple prose to get to the dialogue. The dialogue, after all, is where the characters develop, where they interact, where the action happens. Avoid cliches, but don’t turn to purple prose to do so. Look for concise and unusual word pairings that readers’ brains haven’t become accustomed to yet.
When telling a story, you can’t avoid using literary elements, even if you wanted to. These include things like plot, dialog, setting, narrative, characters, mood, theme, and so on. Without them, there is no story.
You could, however, avoid using literary techniques, though that would be a shame. These include things like allegory, irony, personification, metaphor, etc. They make your story richer.
Even the simplest story becomes a real story when you use literary techniques. In The Old Man And The Sea, the plot could be summed up as “an unlucky fisherman finally catches a marlin.” Of course, Hemingway made that simple idea into much more than that, using conflict and allegory and imagery to tell something completely different.
Use classic literary devices in your story if you’re not sure how to make a “boring” story interesting. Once you realize how many literary techniques you can use to tell the same story, you won’t suffer from the “I don’t have a story to tell” syndrome that keeps you from giving storytelling a try.
Without conflict, your story is not a story. It is an article. A listing of facts. It is informative but not dramatic, readable but not eminently so.
Conflict is what propels and pushes a story forward, what keeps a reader guessing and reading.
Though there has been disagreement on what kinds of conflicts are truly legitimate (depending upon your philosophy), here is a list of possible narrative conflicts you might use in a story:
Even a superhero cannot be so super that there is no conflict, no thing that could stand in the way. There must at least be Kryptonite.
Along with having conflict, you need characters that your readers can cheer for.
Ever read a book and disliked the main character? You end up disliking the book, even if the story was good. It’s tough to be sympathetic with characters we don’t like.
Readers want to be able to root for someone. They want a character that at some point is a fill-in for the heroic or the noble or the daring or the adventurous–the things they don’t experience in daily life.
Sometimes the best way to tell your reader about a character is to create another character who acts as a foil. A foil contrasts another character in such a way that it highlights qualities that you could otherwise not reveal. For example, Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. You learn more about these two characters by how different they are when contrasted with each other.
Let’s look at a few different approaches that people have used to understand story, a kind of crash course on some storytelling basics.
In 2006, after 34 years of writing, Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In it, he proposed that all stories can fit into one of seven basic plots:
Others have come up with their own efforts to diagram story in a similar manner to Booker. Ronald Tobias wrote 20 Master Plots And How to Build Them, coming to a different conclusion than Booker and going into more detail (get a PDF checklist of these plots). Georges Polti created a list of 36 Dramatic Situations in which he came up with every possible situation that might occur in a story. These are not quite the same as categorizing an overall plot; they could be used in many combinations within one of Booker’s plots.
Whether you agree with Booker or Tobias’ understanding of plot, the key is to be able to familiarize yourself with available plots. Understanding these plots may help you tell your story better just by knowing how you are approaching what you are trying to say. Brands can also use these basic plots as a way to understand how to tell a story about themselves (and maybe understand they are not relegated to just being funny and inane).
In 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote a book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, that proposed that almost all mythical stories across culture followed a similar pattern. This monomyth was known as “The Hero’s Journey.” Everyone from musicians, video game makers, writers, and movie makers have used The Hero’s Journet as a model for their stories.
While Campbell’s theory on how to interpret myths has come under fire as being an oversimplification of complex myths, many writers still turn to his theory for their stories. You can see several of Booker’s seven plots as possibly fitting into The Hero’s Journey (quest, rags to riches, monster, etc.)
Modern mythology, such as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, reflect elements of this Hero’s Journey. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll recognize the plot almost immediately. George Lucas all but followed Campbell’s approach to monomyth to the letter. Movies have further refined and simplified The Hero’s Journey into a formula of sorts; you are likely quite familiar with the pattern you see here, even if in a simpler form.
The Inverted Pyramid method of telling a story is most commonly associated with journalists and news articles. In it, you tell the most important part of your story right at the beginning and then gradually break it down with details as the story progresses.
This is because people might not read the full news story, but instead rely on the headline and the first paragraph or two to get a summary of the story. It is also a way to play your hand up front, trusting that the dramatic and explosive beginning will securely hook a reader and keep them reading.
The important questions–who, what, when, where, how–get answered in the first paragraph. The why is explained later in the article, as less important details and backstory trickle out.
Do you remember the delightful Choose Your Own Adventure books? As a kid, I loved reading them. A while back, I attempted a kind of CYOA on the Todaymade blog in the form of a social media adventure. A bit corny, yes, but readers had fun with it.
When you let the reader decide how the story unfolds, you get to write several alternate endings (a bit of fun) but have to keep everything organized (a bit tricky). You’ll write several types of plots, conflicts, and endings with the same characters, which can be a challenge. You will also write so that the main character is the reader.
There are other ways to make your story interactive. Michael Lutz’s story “My father’s long, long legs” is clever as a story and incredibly creative in how interactive it is for the reader (follow it through all the way to the end). Lutz uses methods you could only use in online storytelling.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
20 Master Plots And How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias
10 Rules Of Writing by Elmore Leonard
Snowfall. You’ll either think of this as something from winter, or you’ll think of an avalanche and a 2012 online article from the New York Times.
With “Snowfall”, the Times put forth an amazing effort to tell a story online like no one else had done before. They followed up their Pulitizer Prize-winning “Snowfall” with “The Jockey” and “A Game Of Shark And Minnow“; other publishers followed suit, covering stories about Greenland and the Iditarod.
Big and flashy stories seemed to be the direction the web was heading.
Let’s take a look at “Snowfall.”
In this classic “man vs. nature” true story, the Times started with the climactic moment of the avalanche. They got you hooked because you met characters in danger and distress and would hopefully keep reading to know what happened to them.
Next, they filled in the backstory, introducing new characters and telling us more about all of the characters in a personal way so that we could identify with their humanity. After revealing the climax, they started back at the beginning so that the reader could put what they just read in context.
They broke the story up into chapters, which helped keep the reader from getting confused. “Snowfall” is a long piece, and chapters help guide the reader through it.
The Times used interactive maps and graphics, pull quotes, photos, and video to flesh out the story in an attempt to create “extra” content that was related, but not necessary, to reading the story. Readers could plow on through the text and read just the story, or they could venture into these extra elements and learn a bit more.
This was no article. It was a story, a true one, and the Times meant to put you right there, on the mountainside, to experience it.
Is the “Snowfall” approach to telling a story online too much?
Some critics thought as much, and pointed out that not many people actually read these long-scrolling pieces because of the overload of information and multi-media. Not every reader loves this particular method of telling a story on the internet, wishing to avoid excessive scrolling and videos, wanting, instead, to just get to the text.
Perhaps the New York Times was listening. They created a more simplified version in “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” Though it lacks the sexy parallax scrolling and other elements that awed readers when “Snowfall” was released, it may have staved off some of those critics with a simpler approach.
Despite a simpler approach, the Times was still telling a story using elements not usually found in a blog post. They also left out a few things out that are commonly found in a typical blog post:
Maybe they decided that it was difficult to give your hero a proper journey when you’re selling and yelling from the sidelines. In that sense, if you choose to focus purely on story and cut the distractions, story is a risk. You miss out on all of your leads and conversions and trust that the story is good enough to get people to come back.
It took the New York Times hundreds of hours to hand-code “Snowfall” (and another fellow a few hours to replicate it). If you’re like me, you don’t have that much time, or the skill set.
Aesop Story Engine is a relatively new WordPress plugin that helps you tell these kinds of stories.
It comes with 13 unique story elements that mimic (somewhat) a few of the things you saw in “Snowfall”, giving bloggers (and even newspapers) the chance to tell stories in this different format. With Aesop Story Engine, you can create timelines, quotes, map inserts, audio snippets, characters, etc.
Keep in mind that in order to use Aesop Story Engine, you’ll need:
The plugin is relatively new, so themes and documentation are slow to trickle out. I’ve been playing around with UpThemes Aesop-compatible Worldview theme on a special story section of my own blog to try it out and get a feel for what it can do.
There are other WordPress themes that are specifically targeted to writers and storytellers. When it comes to letting your story shine, your blog has to be about the story, not the sell. The story is the sell. Anything that distracts the reader from the story
You should choose a theme with at least most of these qualities:
It’s a clean theme without a lot of distractions from the story. You can write an introductory summation of the post so readers know what they’re getting into. There are a few basic elements, such as pull quotes, and the theme is responsive.
The Editor theme is one of hundreds out there that are well-suited for telling stories.
Remember, choosing a theme isn’t about choosing what is cool. It’s about what will serve the purpose best. And when it comes to telling a story, your theme should be clean and deceptively simple on the front end while powerful behind the scenes. It should be a theme that gets out of the way of your story so your reader can read.
Not everyone is looking to be a storyteller. You might be perfectly happy to use story in your content marketing as a way to connect your brand with your audience. That’s perfectly acceptable, and many of these techniques will work for you, too. There are some bloggers and writers, though, who want to use their blog as a place to tell traditional stories in a non-traditional way.
Either way, tell a good story, and your readers will come. A good story markets itself.
The main thing to remember is this: there are never too many stories. What story do you have to tell?
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