4. How to tell better stories

"Storytelling" has become a little bit of a marketing buzzword. Which is a shame, because everyone loves stories. It's a word that should generate excitement and anticipation, not a roll of the eyes.

My two under-5s certainly love stories, and so does my 85-year-old Dad who has dementia and attends a Football Memories storytelling group back in Scotland. During the sessions, volunteers talk to people with dementia about old soccer games to try to spark memories and improve their wellbeing.

Psychology Today illustrated the power of stories by describing them as a "Trojan Horse" into your psyche. 

I teach a course online for UBC called Writing for Content Marketing. The topic that generates the most engagement with students and gets the most positive feedback is "Story," where we look at content marketing examples and break down what makes good stories, according to the storytelling greats.

Students write a short story about an everyday object. The inspiration for the assignment was the Significant Objects Project, which added a story to items for sale on eBay to see if it raised the perceived value. (It did.)  It's the most popular assignment of the course. 

We all instinctively know what makes a good story. Even toddlers getting their bedtime story know when you're phoning it in. (Not enough dragons usually.)

When it comes to writing better stories, like anything the best way is to learn from the masters—in this case, novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, film-makers, broadcasters, and journalists, and the academics and writers who have studied their work.

How to structure stories

Playwrights and novelists gave us:

  • The 3-act structure (Set-up, Confrontation, Resolution)
  • The 5-act structure (Exposition, Rising action, Climax, Falling action, Resolution or Revelation)

Most stories follow these structures. In marketing speak, the 3-act structure can be seen in marketing videos and case studies as "Intro, Problem, Solution."

What elements make up a story

According to the experts, most stories need at minimum:

  • Characters
  • A setting
  • A plot
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

If you read up on it a bit more, you learn about how other elements contribute to great stories, such as dialogue, theme, and pacing. 

What types of story are there?

In Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker identifies seven stories or plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

How to develop stories

When it comes to digging out a great story, I wrote about the focus sentence in another post. A similar idea is the Story Spine, an eight-question exercise that helps you develop a story:

    How to tell better stories

    These books explain the emotion, art, and science behind great stories in movies, books, and magazines, with lots of tips for writing them. You can't help but become a better storyteller, and writer in general, by reading any of them. Plus, having them on the bookshelf behind you when doing Zoom calls looks impressive.

    • Into the Woods - John Yorke
    • Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate - Brian McDonald
    • Story - Robert McKee
    • Telling True Stories - Various
    • On Writing - Stephen King
    • Storycraft - Jack Hart

    You can also do what Pixar do. They know a thing or two about telling a good story. A Pixar storyboard artist put together Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling.