I plugged myself into an Ogilvy webinar on Mastering the Craft of Storytelling, presented by David Hofmeyer a few weeks ago and wanted to share some of his observations on story structures in particular.
One of the first points he made was around why storytelling is so effective as a transmitter of information. Human brains possess these wonderful things called mirror neurons, and they apparently seem to replicate the type of brain activity in an observer (reader, listener) that would be seen in an active participant.
Aristotle and Storytelling
The ancient Greeks had a great deal of time for good communication, and Aristotle outlined three elements essential to the creation of an effective oratory.
- Pathos – narrative, story, emotion
- Ethos – credibility
- Logos – facts, stats
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the first stop, and worth a full discussion on its own. The original Star Wars movie was written to closely follow the archetypal Hero’s Journey storyline and you can see similar story patterns in epics such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Look through this structure, you’ll find a huge number of our most loved stories and films follow this outline:
- Ordinary world
- Call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting the mentor
- Crossing the threshold
- Tests, allies, enemies – conflicts (there’s no story without conflict)
- Ordeal, death & rebirth
- Reward, seizing the sword
- The road back
- Return with elixir
Inner journey / character
- Limited awareness of problem
- Increased awareness of need for change
- Fear; resistance to change
- Overcoming fear
- Committing to change
- Experimenting with new conditions
- Preparing for major change
- Big change with feeling of life and death
- Accepting consequences of new life
- New challenge and rededication
- Final attempts; last-minute dangers
The essence of Story is opposites – yin and yang, their movement and opposition create the tension needed for a compelling narrative.
The Three Act Structure
Returning to Ancient Greece, the Three Act structure used in so many stories originates here and remains relevant and engaging today:
- Act 1 – Setup
- Act 1/2 crossover – 1st turning point, awakening/catalyst
- Act 2 – Conflict, midpoint/point of no return
- Act 2/3 crossover – 2nd turning point, death experience/major setback
- Act 3 – Resolution
“The pdf file of human information storage is the story” – Rory Sutherland
In other words, something we remember (especially over the longer term) is more likely to be stored in our minds as a story than a set of facts or stats. In fact, David said that stories are 22x more memorable than facts alone, something I can believe.
And to end…
The Seven Principles of Storytelling
- Know the end before you start
- Introduce a flawed hero
- Take me on a journey
- Create conflict
- Build anticipation mingled with uncertainty
- Show, don’t tell
- Make me care
I may have to print out that last list and pin it up over my desk.