There are seven model plots on which all storytelling is based. Are you using one to tell an effective story?
No matter where we are from, we have shared points across cultures and histories that wire us to respond to one of seven basic plot lines.
Using these plot lines requires telling the full story, including those icky bits we don’t necessarily want to talk about. The parts we try to wipe from our memories, or gloss over when that part of the story comes up – those are the parts that are relatable, that evoke emotion, and that make a good story great.
So, an effective story contains all the elements that touch us as human beings, from 5000 years ago to our present selves. Your challenge is to include ALL of the elements of a plot structure in your story. No skipping the icky bits. Unearth the dirt and expose it. Be brave.
Ready to take on the challenge? Take a deep breath. Time to get down to the nitty gritty.
Plot #1: Overcoming the Monster
We’ll start with an easy one. This is possibly the simplest and most common story line: good guy beats the bad guy. Hero defeats a threat. The underdog holds steadfast to truth and defeats the stereotype. Think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
Before you start painting your brand as a hero and start to relax, there’s something to bear in mind. It takes courage to tell this story in full. Be ready to share moments of uncertainty, despair, and triumph over the odds. Admit everything that made you feel impending doom and failure, how your monster intimidated you, and how you kept going until you defeated the threat. In other words, you have to tell the scary parts to make an impact with the successful parts.
Under Armour’s ad featuring supermodel Gisele Bundchen, where she works out with a punching bag while comments made on social media about her teaming up with the brand fill the walls around her in real time (think along the lines of “she’s old,” “she’s too skinny,” “stick to modelling, sweetie”), paints the brand as a hero that will stand up to threats and stick to their truth – and shows that even supermodels can be athletes. Persevere through intimidation and defy stereotypes. Good beats bad.
Plot #2: Rags to Riches
Who doesn’t love a good rags-to-riches story? Pretty Woman, Cinderella, Oliver Twist, the stories that draw us into shows like American Idol or The Voice.
One of the ultimate rags to riches stories has to be Jan Koum, creator of WhatsApp. He grew up an only child in Kiev, Ukraine, in a house with no hot water. He and his mother immigrated, and he swept the floors of a grocery store to pay bills. Later he ended up working at Yahoo for a while and applied (and failed) to work for Facebook. He nearly gave up on WhatsApp after early versions crashed. He stuck with it and ended up signing a $19 billion deal to sell to Facebook in front of the office where he used to wait in line for food stamps.
Gets you in the feels, doesn’t it? Do you have a background you don’t fess up to? Don’t let it hold you back – use it to touch emotions. If you have a story of coming from nothing and establishing success, tell it with all the ugly details.
Plot #3: The Quest
The Quest plotline is all about the mission to overcome obstacles to find something specific and significant. Frodo’s quest for The Ring (specific) takes him through numerous obstacles and he never loses sight of the goal to save the world from evil (significant). TOMS creator Blake Mycoskie had a vision for helping people through the idea of One for One, a business model he applied first to shoes, then eyewear. TOMS Quest is to make the world a better place (significant) by encouraging social-minded business (specific). He shares his own story of giving through a for-profit business to inspire more people to do the same.
Plot #4: Comedy
Comedy in storytelling recognises the complexity of being human without being too threatening and finds a simple truth to clear things up.
If you haven’t seen it, you must watch the Rainforest Alliance Find the Frog ad. To sum up: You’re a regular guy with a regular life and you want to save the rainforest. Here are all the things you’re not going to do (from “cliché gringo fantasy of being an honorary native” to crying “Siri I want to go home”) and one simple thing you can do – just follow the frog. It is stellar comedy storytelling with a simple message.
We all relate to being human. Make people laugh with an honest story and give them a message to remember.
Plot #5: Tragedy
Thinking of tragedy in storytelling brings up memories of English Lit 101 and learning about tragic flaws that will bring about the character’s inevitable downfall. Sounds like an awful strategy for marketing your brand. Hey, here’s what’s wrong and no matter what we can’t do anything about it!
Or can you? Turn a tragic flaw into the thing you can change to reshape your destiny.
Now it’s getting interesting.
Think about it like this. Fortune said that Donald Trump’s tragic flaw is his need for fame, and that the things he was saying that were ‘damaging the brand’ (we’re all familiar) while increasing his fame could be his downfall. They said this in 2015, before he became President of the United States. Now that is using a tragic flaw to reshape your destiny (whether any of us like it or not).
Plot #6: Journey and Return
This one is all about how the journey changed you. You went away on a voyage, experienced personal growth and came back a changed person.
Let’s travel with Alice to Wonderland. She went away to a world where she had to admit she didn’t know who she was (“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then”) or where she was going (“Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” responded the Cheshire Cat. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”). She cried so many tears she nearly drowned in them. Eventually she returns with a new appreciation for home, and a belief that anything is possible.
In the world of marketing, this plot is most often recognised in travel themes – Airbnb being the most prominent example. They market experiences rather than accommodation. They invite you to see what it’s like to really live somewhere else and immerse yourself in the community. A bit riskier than signing up for the tour bus your five-star hotel recommended, but with a lot more potential for an experience that changes you.
Change is inevitable, yet we commonly fear it. Share a story of growth and how it brought about change, share the anxiety, the survival and the result.
Plot #7: Rebirth
Lastly, the rebirth or renewal. This one requires opening right up and showing why a rebirth is needed. Lay out all the faults and failures and invite people to have an up close and personal look. Show the depths of your despair and how transformation seemed impossible. Then lift them up with your story of rebirth.
Obvious examples reign for this plotline – A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life. Acknowledging the dismal state the characters reached before renewing themselves draws us in deep and makes these stories stick.
Do you have a story of renewal? A major change within your brand, where you were headed toward epic failure and reversed course?
No? Okay, so how about this: take a small piece of your story to elicit the feelings of the rebirth plot. For example, Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream company renowned for their creative flavours. Now not every flavour can be a winner (Schweddy Balls, anyone?) but rather than hide their failures in a dusty box and try to forget them, they have created Ben & Jerry’s Flavour Graveyard to celebrate their ‘dead’ flavours and invite votes to resurrect them. This may not be an epic rebirth on the scale of Ebenezer Scrooge, but once you’ve seen it you remember it – because it’s good storytelling that admits imperfection.
Stories lock into our memories. Great stories inspire retelling. They are relatable, inspiring, believable and evoke emotion. They show us all that we are capable of more than we think, that by speaking our truth we allow others to share their truths with us. We can create shared meaning with rich narratives that link us all together.