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The Structure of Storytelling and Its Relation to Brand Content
Posted on May 15th 2014
One of the key tomes of storytelling is Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. First published in 1949, Campbell introduced the idea of the ‘monomyth’, the idea that all stories since the dawn of time have contained the same key elements, which he broke down into ‘The Hero’s Journey’, seventeen stages that occur in all tales. The concept has since been used by as a guide, of sorts, and in 1992, Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler adapted The Hero’s Journey into a more familiar setting with his book ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’. Vogler’s interpretation included modern examples of The Hero’s Journey in practice, how it’s applied in films like ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’. Now, this doesn’t mean every Hollywood screenwriter had read Campbell’s work, but what Vogler highlighted was that these common elements do exist, in every story – even in fractured narratives like ‘Pulp Fiction’ where most would not expect it.
The key point highlighted here is that storytelling is universal, it’s inherently part of who we are. While you might not be aware of the theory and philosophical elements, you are aware of structure, you know what ‘feels right’, what sequences work. Stories progress in a way that we are inherently familiar with and our emotional connection with them comes about because of those common elements. Campbell called this the ‘psychic unity of mankind’, the things that connect us to the collective human experience. Understanding these elements, and the important functions they play in the process, can significantly improve your ability to create resonant narratives and moments that will click with your audience.
Brand storytelling incorporates these same elements, though in a slightly different way. While a traditional narrative involves the seventeen steps, brand narratives often don’t have the time of scope to incorporate the full story arc. Brand stories are snippets, moments within that wider narrative structure - they still utilise the same inherent connections, but they do so in a minimised way. For brand content, what you’re looking for is a moment of resonance, that heartfelt scene that becomes more than words, more than images alone. You’re seeking to capture that emotional peak, the electricity of it, and in order to do that, you need to establish context to create the narrative engine.
The Context of the Moment
A key teaching of Campbell’s work is that we all know storytelling. It’s part of our DNA, we know what works and what doesn’t. You intrinsically know these elements when you experience them. Think about the scene in ‘Titanic’ when Jack and Rose are on the deck, arms out wide to the wind. That’s a beautiful moment, a human moment, and one which works because we’ve engaged with the characters, we know the full context of the scene. Two people standing on the deck is nothing, but the fact that we know the sheltered life Rose has lead, and we know the troubles Jack has faced - because we’re aware of their stories, we understand the resonance of that moment. That scene hits you because we’re linked to their experience. In ‘Jerry Maguire’, when Dorothy Boyd says ‘You had me at hello’, we feel it, we know the context of that statement, how we want to see these two characters come together in the end. It feels right, we feel satisfied that the story is complete – because that’s how stories have been told for all time, that’s what we know. We’ve shared the experiences of these two people, we understand the challenges they’ve overcome – those elements are what makes the scene so resonant and effective.
In brand storytelling, you’re attempting to do the same thing, but on a smaller scale. You need to establish that context in much less time – to do this, it’s often easier to work in reverse. In traditional storytelling, you build the story till your moments of resonance rise from the page. In brand content, with less time available, you need to identify the moment of resonance first, then establish the key elements required to heighten the emotional context.
The Heart of the Story
What’s the heart of your story? Where, as you go through the narrative, is the moment that hits you most, that emotional peak where you feel it gripping at your rib cage? Look at Guinness’ ‘Friendship’ commercial, where a group of guys are playing wheelchair basketball. It’s not till the end of the ad that you find out only one of the men is actually disabled, the others are learning to play in support of their friend. This is great storytelling as it gives you the context – shows the guys fumbling around, struggling to play, getting better as time goes on - then it gives you the moment. That scene, where they stand from their chairs, that’s the peak of that sequence, that emotional high point that grabs you - and it only works because of the establishing context that proceeds it.
Once you got your story idea down, you need to identify that peak moment. Why is that moment so resonant? What makes it work? In the Guinness commercial, the scene works because the lengths the guys have gone to in support of their friend. So what elements need to be highlighted to maximise the impact of that moment? Friendship and commitment. Guinness have done this by applying ‘show don’t tell’ story principles – they show you scenes of the guys struggling with the chairs, falling over, putting in effort to get back up again. They show you how hard they’re working, how their improving over the course of the commercial. Then they communicate the commitment element – the disabled character notes ‘you guys are getting better at this’, indicating that they’ve been doing this for some time, that they’re committed to supporting their friend. This is great storytelling, and you can see how just a few moments have highlighted the key aspects that make that emotional peak so powerful.
It’s the moment, then the context. Once you know the peak, you then need to find the most effective way to raise the stakes in order to build the best emotional pay-off. This is key to creating great story-based content.
Storytelling in Practice
We all know the peak moments of a story. If we’re paying attention and taking in the context, we can all identify the moment of most resonance, the true heart of a piece. We know it instinctively, we feel it, more than words alone. When trying to conceive story based content, go through your story options – look at stories of how your brand has helped people, the part your business has played in a major event, the role your company plays in the community. Look through your notes and identify that one key moment – where is that element that feels more than words, that gets you emotional or inspired or awakened? That’s the key, that’s the core of your piece, and from there you need to establish the context to maximise it in whatever time you have available. Break it down to the essentials, think over why it’s resonant. Those details - like Jack’s struggle in Titanic, Rose’s sheltered life - those are key precursors that will make the scene work. Highlight the required elements, build the emotional platform, then allow the story’s heart to come alive.
You know the emotional core of your story - whether you realise it or not.