IT EITHER PAINTS THE1 PICTURE IN A COMPELLING WAY Tree of Life (2011)
OR IT DRAGS2 YOU INTO A COMPELLING NARRATIVE Argo (2012)
A REALLYGREAT STORY DOES BOTH The Deer Hunter (1978)
THERE’S A SCIENCE TO IT. There’s a scientific reason why these two elements make for good storytelling…
PowerPoint presentationswith bullet points only activatethe language-processingparts of our brain.Bullet points only activate two little bullet points in your brain. That’s it.BROCA’S AREAWERNICKE’S AREA
But when we are told a good story… When we are told a good story, our whole brain lights up. It’s our imagination at work. #Eureka!
“ THE READING PROCESS IS AN INTERACTION BETWEEN THE TEXT AND THE READER’S IMAGINATION.”Wolfgang Iser was one of the first reader-response theorists, and heargued that our imaginations work on two levels:1. On the level of the sentence: we imagine the events that aretaking place currently in the text (e.g. on page 20)2. On the level of the narrative: we imagine how the story willproceed and anticipate how it will end (e.g. what will happennext and who might die, etc.)Turns out he was right.
OUR BRAINS CAN RELIVE THESTORIES WE HEAR… In terms of brain activity there is very little difference between experiencing something in real life, reading about it in a book, and hearing about it in a story. So… When we hear “that blueberry pie was delicious” in the context of a story, our sensory cortex lights up. When we read “John caught the baseball” in the context of a story, our motor cortex lights up. Stories are able to activate our imagination on the level of the sentence. This is why painting a good picture is important.
AND THEY RESPOND TOLARGER NARRATIVES AS WELL…But stories also activate our imaginations on the level of the narrative. Inhis book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker talks about how our brainis fascinated with the direction that stories follow. When reading orlistening to a story, we are constantly imagining what characters will donext, who will die, who will befriend whom.This is the power of narrative. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (1997)
WE ARE HARDWIRED TO RECOGNIZE NARRATIVESWhy do we like stories so much? Some anthropologists believe that we are actually hardwired to like stories.For thousands of years, stories were the key to survival. They were a mode of communicating vital information in a compressed form (e.g. informationabout predators, prey, enemies, etc.) Better storytellers and listeners stood a better chance of surviving in this famously brutish and nasty world.Narratives helped people tell and remember stories. Our brains are good at recognizing patterns, and narratives are basically story patterns.
MORE ENGAGINGSTORYTELLINGMAKES CONTENT… BETTER FOR SHARINGTo recap: good storytelling makes information much better for sharing and remembering. WITHAnd it functions on the level of the sentence and narrative. PEOPLE MORE MEMORABLE
WE ALWAYS TALK ABOUT WHAT MAKESGOOD TELLINGWe almost never talk about what makes a good narrative, oreven what a narrative is in the first place.
WHAT IS A NARRATIVE? First off, what is a narrative? Before we can construct a good narrative, we need to know what narratives are.
Countless genresLet’s start with what a narrative is not. A narrative is not the genre to which it belongs. There are countless genres. (Upstairs downstairs, fantasy, filmnoir, Robinsonade, coming of age, dystopian cyberpunk, spaghetti western.) They can refer to anything from the story’s setting to its period to its toneto its obscure literary technique. One story can be associated with multiple genres.Genre doesn’t dig deep enough. It doesn’t tell you how the narrative is constructed; it tells you how it is dressed. For example, a film noir andspaghetti western can have the same narratives and characters. They can be constructed in exactly the same way. They can be built with the samebuilding blocks, but still be dressed differently. This doesn’t make them fundamentally different stories.
VIRTUALLY EVERYNARRATIVE HAS ONETHING IN COMMON:A protagonist who is trying to achieve a goal What does almost every story have in common? A protagonist. And what is that protagonist doing? Trying to achieve something. This achievement can be self-improvement… the betterment of society… the betterment of a relationship… getting a haircut… what’s important is that the achievement of this goal leaves the character, or the world of the story, somehow better off. MUST. KILL. VOLDE- MORT. JENNAY! DON’T DIE! B A
B ATHE PLOT TRACESTHE PROTAGONIST’S BPROGRESS TOWARDTHAT GOAL. AAnd the journey can have different shapes BHow the character gets from point A to point B, though, can vary. It’s never aperfectly straight, linear path.Things can go badly at first, then very well. Or they can go badly for almostthe whole story. If we trace these paths in our heads, we start to recognizecertain narrative arcs again and again. A
THE FOUR ARCHETYPAL NARRATIVE ARCS… Over the years we’ve gravitated towards four archetypal narrative arcs. “Hero’s Journey” “Growing Up” epic, adventure, fantasy coming of age, bildungsromanSUCCESS SUCCESS “Hell and Back” “When it rains, it pours” confessional, memoir comedy, tragedy, horrorSUCCESS SUCCESS
HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILE… These narratives have been around for a long time. EPIC OF GILGAMESH GOETHE’S WILHELM MEISTER’S 15TH CENTURY BC APPRENTICESHIP 1795 ADST. AUGUSTINE’S CONFESSIONS SOPHOCLES’ ANTIGONE 397 AD 441 BC
…AND AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE And we still see them today. FINDING NEMO THE SANDLOT JUNO BRIDESMAIDS
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NARRATIVES HERO’S TRAGEDY + JOURNEY COMEDY ANCIENT GREEK (TRAGEDY +ANCIENT SUMERIAN: 15thc BC ANCIENT GREEK (EPIC): 8th-6thc BC COMEDY): 5th-4th c BCEpic of Gilgamesh Homer, Hesiod, Sappho Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophones HELL AND BACKMEDIEVAL LITERATURE: 500-1000 AD NEW CHRISTIAN TEXTS: 1st-4thc AD EARLY RELIGIOUS: 6th-1st c BCEpic poem, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, New Testament, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Confucius, Taoist, Sun Tzu, the TorahBeowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight religious autobiographies DEFOE’S ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719) GROWING UPELIZABETHAN/JACOBEAN ERA: 1558- ENLIGHTENMENT: 1700-1800 AD ROMANTIC ERA: 1800-1837 AD1625 AD Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe, Pope, Swift, de Thackeray, Bronte sisters, Dumas, Flaubert,Jonson, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Cervantes Sade, Cooper, Byron, Hawthorne, Austen, ScottPOSTMODERN ERA: 1940- MODERNIST ERA: 1901-1940 AD VICTORIAN ERA: 1837-1901 ADSartre, Camus, Beckett, Orwell, Mailer, Miller, Kipling, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Joyce, Dickens, Bronte sisters, Thoreau, Hugo,Pinter, Bellow, Achebe, O’Neill, Updike, Hemingway, Forster, Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Melville, Eliot, Carroll, Hardy, Wilde, JamesBarthelme, Pynchon Faulkner, Huxley, Woolf These narrative arcs developed in different eras, for different reasons.TODAY -THE HERO’S JOURNEY developed during the earliest years ofFranzen, Coetze, Allende, McEwan, Mitchell, conquest and exploration.Morrison, Roth, Murakami, Zadie Smith, -TRAGEDY and COMEDY became popular in Ancient Greece, during anBanville, Carey age of many gruesome, imperialistic wars. -HELL AND BACK developed shortly after the advent of Christianity and the confessional autobiography. -GROWING UP became popular because of our Enlightenment obsession with education and self-improvement.
HERO’S JOURNEYNarrative archetype that can be traced back to the very firstrecorded stories: Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf. These storiesfeature a protagonist who faces a virtually insurmountable goal andmust overcome several obstacles on the way to achieving that goal.Genres that typically have this narrative structure are: the epic, themystery, adventure, fantasy and sometimes the action movie.Finding Nemo The Lord of the Rings Kill BillProtagonist: Nemo Protagonist: Frodo Protagonist: The BrideGoal: finding his father Goal: protecting the ring/ vanquishing Goal: killing BillChallenge: jellyfish, dentist’s office, Sauron Challenge: Bill’s death squadfishing net Challenge: Nazgul, Watcher in the Water, orcs, etc.
HELL AND BACKNarrative archetype that has its roots in early confessional andautobiographical literature. It follows a character along a two-stepjourney: first away from success, then back toward success. (Inearly religious texts, this was seen as a wandering away from Godand pilgrimage back to God.) It is frequently used to tell stories ofsurvival and self-discovery. Genres associated with this type ofnarrative are: autobiography, memoir, war story and travelogue.Juno 127 Hours Saving Private RyanProtagonist: Juno MacGuff Protagonist: Aron Ralston Protagonist: Captain John MillerGoal: self-discovery Goal: survival Goal: saving Private RyanChallenge: her pregnancy/society Challenge: the boulder on his arm Challenge: WWII
GROWING UPThe coming-of-age story is an enduring narrative that speaks to ourpotential for growth and improvement. It usually follows a youngerperson as he or she matures in some way. This maturity can beeducational, emotional, financial or even artistic. Because the maturationand self-discovery processes are internal (inside the protagonist’s head),she is not always aware of her progress. Genres associated with thistype of narrative are: bildungsroman, early American rags-to-riches,western and even the modern high-school drama.The Sandlot Almost Famous My GirlProtagonist: Scotty Smalls Protagonist: William Miller Protagonist: Vada SultenfussGoal: gaining acceptance among friends Goal: becoming a respected music writer Goal: coming to terms w/ her mother’s deathChallenge: new kid in town Challenge: only teenager in the group Challenge: her father, adolescence, TJ’s death
WHEN IT RAINS IT POURSNarrative archetype on which many comedies and tragedies arebased. At the beginning of the story, our protagonist is going about lifeas usual. If anything, life is good (he finds a stash of money, she findsout she’s the maid of honor). As the story progresses, however, theprotagonist faces a series of challenges, one harder than the other,almost to the point where she loses hope and gives up. In the case oftragedy, things often end badly (with everyone dying). In the case ofcomedy, there is usually a happy ending that restores normalcy in theworld. Genres associated with this type of narrative are: comedy,tragedy, horror and thriller (in all their various forms).Bridesmaids Halloween No Country for Old MenProtagonist: Annie Walker Protagonist: Laurie Strode Protagonist: Llewelyn MossGoal: doing something successfully Goal: surviving the night Goal: running off with the money he foundChallenge: Helen, Todd, financial Challenge: Michael Myers Challenge: Anton Chiqurh and gangstersconstraints
MANY KINDS OF PLOTS CAN BECONSTRUCTED FROM THESE ARCHETYPES HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURS Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? DisasterMany kinds of plots can be built on these narrative models. (Plots are the series of eventsthat make a story. You can have different plots that still follow the same narrative arc.)
A CLOSER LOOK AT PLOT HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURS Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? DisasterYou’re far away from home, and there Someone has wronged you, hurt you, You’re shipwrecked, deserted, all alone Maybe you’ve done something wrong,are many obstacles (known and made your life miserable. Sure, you’re in a faraway place. To survive and return or maybe you haven’t… what matters isunknown) in your way. To get home, down… but you’re not out. The story home, you must build a temporary that 500 government droids are chasingyou must keep the faith and keep isn’t over until you get your retribution. shelter and learn basic life skills. you and you must get away.fighting. Homeward Bound (1993) Gladiator (2000) Cast Away (2000) Minority Report (2002)
A CLOSER LOOK AT PLOT HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURS Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? DisasterThere are bad guys on the loose, and You’re down but you’re not out. You’ve You’re not one of the cool kids. People A huge tidal wave is coming. Martiansyou (yes, you!) need to step up and suffered a harsh loss, but there’s still a are skeptical and resentful of you. To are circling the White House. You needrestore peace in the world. To get to the glimmer of hope. You must believe in establish yourself in this world, you to survive this event and help thoseboss, you must go through a number of the dream and fight hard to get back in must assert yourself and show your around you survive.smaller foes. shape. worth. Batman (2001) Rocky II (1979) Never Been Kissed (1999) Independence Day (1996)
A CLOSER LOOK AT PLOT HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP IT POURS JOURNEY AND BACK Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? Disaster You’ve lost your way and you don’t even You’ve messed up, and you’re A killer is on the loose, hiding in theYou’re not a typical hero type (strong, know it. You’re conceited, pretentious, or miserable. But you’re determined to set shadows. People are dropping leftconfident, determined), but you’ve maybe you mistreat the people around things right. To make amends, you must and right. Your goal is to look out forbeen thrust into the role. Now only you you. To become a better person, you first re-earn the trust of those closest to you yourself. Avoid the killer and comecan save the world and set things right. need to find yourself and acknowledge and show them what you’re worth. out on the other side. flaws.The Lord of the Rings (2001) High Fidelity (2000) Groundhog Day (1993) Friday the 13th (1980)
A CLOSER LOOK AT PLOT HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURS Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? Disaster One moment you’re a fairly well liked You lacking something in your life, you It’s sometime in the future. You’re livingDavid vs. Goliath. Rocky vs. Drago. It’s member of society; the next moment have an urge to explore the world. in a fascist, totalitarian state run byan age old premise. You don’t have all you’re a pariah (deservedly or not). You Whatever it is, you take to the road and sophisticated computers. Computersthe skills or might, but you’re able to must swing the scales of public opinion drive off into the sunset. Along the road, that can track your every move. It’s yourdefeat a stronger opponent due to in your favor and show people who you you meet new friends, see new places, job to overturn this government andsheer intelligence or will power. really are. and meditate on the meaning of life. destroy the computers. The Fighter (2010) Mean Girls (2004) On the Road (2012) 1984 (1984)
A CLOSER LOOK AT PLOT HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURS Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? Disaster You’ve been charged with first degreeYou were the king that everybody loved. A man is dead. His wife is missing. And It’s not quite the end of the world, but murder, you’re awaiting trial in aBut now you’re hiding in a dark cellar, his mistress isn’t talking. It’s a mystery, it’s dangerous nonetheless. Tornado, holding cell, but you didn’t do it. To getpowerless. For the sake of the crown, and it’s your job to figure out what plane crash, sinking boat… to survive a not guilty verdict, you must convince ayour legacy, and your people, you must happened. Little by little, you’re going you need to have your wits about you jury of your peers that the evidencetake back the throne. to find clues and get to the facts. and luck on your side. against you doesn’t hold water. Star Wars I (1977) A Few Good Men (2000) National Treasure (2004) Titanic (1997)
YOU CAN ALSO COMBINE AND MASH-UPTHESE STORYTELLING ELEMENTS. “Comeback Kid” boxing story (Rocky II) “Escape” story (Minority Report) + + downward-spiraling “when it rains it upward-trending, adolescent “growing up” pours” narrative narrative Million Dollar Baby (2004) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)The goal is not necessarily to choose a narrative and plot combination that is conventional.It’s to play around with these narrative and plot combinations.Some of the most interesting, experimental stories mix and mash-up thesestorytelling elements. That’s what makes them innovative.
AN ENDLESS ARRAY OF STORIES CAN BECONSTRUCTED FROM THESE ARCHETYPESNarrative HERO’S HELL WHEN IT RAINS, GROWING UP JOURNEY AND BACK IT POURSCommon Plots Homeward Bound Revenge Plot Stranded on a Beach Escape Vigilante Justice Comeback Kid The Outsider End of the World Unlikely Hero Second Chance Find Yourself Survive the Night Classic Underdog Unjust Accusation On the Road Big Brother Reclaiming the Throne Courtroom Drama Whodunit? DisasterSettingPeriodTone
Narratives aren’t just theoretical. The author must construct them from the ground up, with a number ofdifferent storytelling tools. Keeping with film as an example medium, these tools are…
THE SCRIPT(Blocking out the plot points) Almost Famous (2000)
WARDROBE(He’s all grown up!) Almost Famous (2000)
IT’S NOT ABOUT FOLLOWING A MODEL This is a storytelling model I encountered last year in a similar presentation. His argument was that all stories have the Hero’s Journey structure, and that we need to craft all of our stories this way. (False. Wrong.) The takeaway: storytelling isn’t about following a strict model. It’s about understanding the narrative tools at your disposal and using them.
IT’S ABOUT BEING CREATIVE WITH THEINGREDIENTS IN FRONT OF YOU
HELL AND GROWING UPBACKImported from Detroit Frank Reardon Can’t Use KayakPlaces us In the middle of a “Hell and Back” narrative. References “Coming of Age” conventions to tell the story of why Kayak.com was founded. The story of Kayak starts years after the story of Frank ended. HELL ANDWHEN IT RAINS IT POURS BACKDon’t Have a Grandson with a Dog Collar ReplaySeries of comedic spots that spiral downward quickly, dramatizing what Turns fifteen years of disappointment and unfinished business intocan happen to you when you don’t have DirecTV. There is no hope from a two-part “Hell and Back” narrative. By organizing a rematch, two teams create an opportunity to redeem themselves.the very beginning, just (funny) misery.
HELL AND GROWING UPBACKBack to the Start Walk Around the World2-minute branded entertainment that tells the Hell-and-Back story of Tells the coming-of-age story of Johnnie Walker, his rise fromAmerica’s farm industry. local farm boy to respected businessman. This story gives depth to the brand and informs everything that they do.GROWING UP HERO’S JOURNEYNIKE+ FUELBAND Small Business SaturdayNike+ FUELBAND gives you the ability to write your own story of self- A once-a-year event, a nationwide movement. Though not an adimprovement in real time. It tracks your movement throughout the day per se, this project rallies people and businesses against the big bad corporations that dominate the holiday buying season.and charts your incremental progress. Perhaps this narrativization ofyour life will help motivate you to achieve your goal.
GROWING UP HELL AND BACKKenny Powers MFCEO The Taste of CoolnessViral campaign announcing the new CEO-ship of comic A lagging Romanian chocolate brand fakes an American takeover,“sportsman” Kenny Powers. Step by step, he transforms K complete with heavy-handed propagandist advertising. TheSwiss from a standard, corporate shoemaker into a loud and enemy has come ashore, and it’s up to Romanians to fight back.boisterous sports company.HELL AND BACK WHEN IT RAINS IT POURSBraddock, PA Getaway StockholmLevi’s didn’t just make an ad about a recovering town, they donated Games can have narratives too. This game puts you in the middlemoney and resources to help it recover. They invested in shaping of a Bourne Identity-style “escape” story. It’s capture the flag, and the last person with the car wins.the second half of the archetypal “Hell and Back” narrative.
HERO’S JOURNEY GROWING UPThe Girl Who Could Fly Raise Our FlagA precocious, intrepid fifth-grader wants to make a video of Fundraising campaign for the US Olympic Committee. Everyherself flying for class. The process is a lot of work, but it all donation buys a stitch that goes into the American flag. The flagcomes together in the end. is a representation of all the hard work that went into preparing our athletes for competition.GROWING UP WHEN IT RAINS IT POURSSCREW*D 7th WheelInteractive reality show about a hapless, helpless, non-DIY guy who Three couples (and Matt) head out on a lovely weekend getaway.is placed in various uncomfortable situations… from which he must They go to the beach; they go canoeing; and they go sightseeing – and Matt has to suffer through the whole thing on his own.use his Craftsmen tools to escape.
…EVEN WHEN THE STORIESAREN’T TOLD IN FULL Big BrotherApple: 1984Doesn’t set Apple on a Hero’sJourney, it lands the final blow. Itlaunches Apple into a newpost-dystopian world.When you only have :30 or :60 seconds to work with, it’s hard to tell awhole story from start to finish. But it’s easier to tell a scene inthat story. The rest of the story is implied. If you don’t have timeto tell the fully story, it’s worth thinking about how you can tell ascene and imply the rest of the story.
STORYTELLING EXERCISE #1Step 1 Select your character (e.g. a precocious fifth-grader, an average Joe, your brand)Step 2 Decide what her goal is (e.g. learning how to fly, becoming president, solving global warming) List out the obstacles in her way (e.g. the skepticsStep 3 and nonbelievers, blue-collar upbringing, a corrupt government) “Hero’s Journey” SUCCESS Decide what narrative arc best tells the story of her epic, adventure, fantasyStep 4 progress (e.g. Hero’s Journey, Hell and Back, Growing Up, When it Rains it Pours) Write the story accordingly, bringing out plot points toStep 5 shape the narrative and mark its inflection points (e.g. green screen, recess, Eliza Jones)
STORYTELLING EXERCISE #2Step 1 List out the potential characters and stakeholders connected to your brand (e.g. your employees, your heroes, your customers)Step 2 Decide what their respective goals are (e.g. learning new skills, traveling outside the city more often, feeling a sense of national pride) Map out all the obstacles in their way (e.g. stiflingStep 3 bureaucracy, lack of adventurous friends, the global recession and austerity measures) “Hell and Back” SUCCESS Try writing their “ideal” story a few different ways (e.g. confessional, memoirStep 4 Hero’s Journey, Hell and Back, Growing Up, When it Rains it Pours) Brainstorm ways to help them or encourage them toStep 5 overcome these obstacles (e.g. a mobile game, an online forum, a Washington protest, a fake American takeover of the brand)