Why can I simply not get this scene out of my head? Why does this old joke still make me laugh every time? And why can I hardly wait to watch the next episode of Homeland? This and many other questions have a common answer: a successful story!
We cannot get enough of them. Every day, we respond to stories, we are moved by them: long queues at the box office, sold-out first editions at the bookshop, gags, memes and viral videos that have you doubled over with laughter. We hear them and pass them on – and we just cannot get some of them out of our heads.
Good storytelling existed even in the Stone Age
Interested in finding out why some stories have such a long half-life, I discovered that humans have been fascinated by the topic since time immemorial – beginning with cave paintings. We all want to hear stories, we are addicted to them and we need them like the air we breathe. We want information, but preferably nicely packaged up in the form of story. So it is no surprise that scores of scientists and experts have devoted themselves to the topic, for example, in the form of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots or Bobette Buster’s Do Story. Better than anyone else, Buster succeeds in training the eye to see what is most important and to leave certain things open without further description.
The conclusion I came to in my research and reading is that if I manage to tell a good story, people will listen to me. When I succeed in simplifying something complex, capturing – and more importantly holding – the attention of my listeners, my message will get through.
But how do I write a good story?
Stories are based on archetypes; they tell of our primal images and of our deepest desires and longings. They are full of extreme experiences, poignant feelings and deeply-rooted images. When we tell these primal stories successfully, people listen.
Yet how do I develop a good story with a message that makes an impact? Why do some images, books, films or jokes “work” so well? Why do we find images like Picasso’s Guernica so gripping? Or take this successful example: why do spots like Hornbach’s “Sag es mit Deinem Projekt” (Say it with your project) work so well on an emotional level – and manage to do so completely without dialogue?
Get to the point or forever hold your peace
In our industry, we often receive briefings that would make every feature list in the app store pale in comparison – a product description adorned with a plethora of benefits. But by looking just a little beyond your own nose to see the competition, one often quickly comes to the sobering realisation that 99% of the vaunted features are already available in competitor products. But what about the other 1%? What is different about their product? So the task is to find the core, the detail, the unique advantage – and to make it the focal point of the story.
Pay attention! Now to the plot!
Once you have found the core, you weave the story around it. And so now the task is to find the right plot. The journalist Christopher Booker, mentioned above, developed a method for this. He analysed stories, old folk tales, myths, novels and even modern films over the course of 34 years. His conclusion is that essentially, stories are always based on one of seven archetypes or plots:
Overcoming the Monster. Good versus evil. The hero must fight the devil, the monster, or the enemy.
Examples: Lord of the Rings, Godzilla, Jaws, David and Goliath
Rags to Riches. The longing to become who you really are.
Examples: Rocky, The Pursuit of Happiness, Cinderella, Real Beauty – Dove, Johnnie Walker brand story
The Quest. Or simply saving the world.
Examples: James Bond, Odyssey, If you can imagine it you can build it – Hornbach, Make it count – Nike+
Voyage and return. Stranger in a strange world.
Examples: Inception, Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away, Happiness Factory – Coca Cola
Comedy. An exhilarating story, usually with a happy end.
Examples: Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral
Tragedy. The protagonist experiences a conflict fraught with failure – which usually ends in disaster.
Examples: Romeo & Juliet, Scarface
Rebirth. The protagonist undergoes a radical change, which often makes them a better person.
Examples: Shawshank Redemption, The Frog King
So you take an appropriate plot, describe the conflict, the situation, the polarity and let two ideas collide in order to arouse the interest of the listeners. Active verbs help, as does direct and indirect information on the place, time and situation. And of course the universal truth applies here as well: keep it as short and sweet as possible – it is about the essence of the story.
What can make the story even better?
The task now is to think about why the idea is exciting. Is the story gripping, does it trigger the desired emotions? Would it be more effective with a dramatic element, such as a cliffhanger or surprise twist? All of these aspects create a direct connection with the reader, listener or viewer and transform the story into a tangible experience that leaves a mark.
And now the task is to write, write, and write some more. Read aloud, edit, rewrite, and breathe deeply – and then tell your story to the world.