“We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brains. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us…the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for survival…and tells us a story about it.”
-Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
If I asked you to identify methods or mediums of storytelling, I would likely hear back answers such as films, TV, and books. Some of the more discerning might also shout out suggestions such as music, art, the news, and perhaps podcasts. What if I asked you to identify some surprising storytelling avenues? Would you think of commercials, jokes, conversations with friends, and social media sights such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter? How about speeches made by politicians seeking re-election? From teachers as they lecture or tech tycoons as they present new products for the masses? The truth is that story surrounds us. We are often blind to the numerous narratives in our lives, yet they sink into us, touch upon our empathy, and live on in our memories far longer than simple argumentation. If we wish to persuade, inspire, motivate, inform, entertain, or elicit any kind of reaction from our fellows, we need to open our eyes to the depth and importance of storytelling.
Storytelling, however, goes beyond telling someone about something that happened. I can tell people that I “went to the grocery store and bought peaches,” but why do they care? What about this event is worth their time? What value does this provide to my followers? Why would they take time out of their day to read it?
At its heart, story consists of three essential elements, which I like to call the Three C’s of storytelling: context, conflict (check out our video class about The Key Elements of Story Conflict), and conclusion (resolution). Without even one of these three elements, the story falls apart.
Read the following example and try to identify the context, conflict, and conclusion:
“Feeling swollen, tired, and hormonal, I went to the store to buy peaches after work. As I walked into the store, I knew that people were staring at the fat pregnant lady with the milk stains on her blouse. I hated them all. I just wanted to get in, get the peaches, and get out. For some reason, this child only wanted peaches. Apples would not do to cure the cravings, and oranges made me sick. Of course, I entered the wrong entrance of the massive shopping complex and had to waddle the entire length of the huge store to get to the grocery section. My feet were already swollen from a long day of standing under the weight of a little human nearly done baking. With one hand on my aching back, I hobbled along as fast as possible. But when I got to the fruit section, there were no peaches. Apples and oranges everywhere, but not a peach to be seen. I wanted to cry and curse at the nearest person. I wanted to blame them for buying all the peaches. It wasn’t their fault, of course, except perhaps for the woman walking to the check-out line with the last five peaches. I could go home in defeat; maybe we still had a peach or two at the house… But no, I had taken the last one to work with me this morning. Such a puny thing it had been. I decided to go and find an employee.
"Maybe there were more peaches in the back. I wandered the superstore searching for the telltale signs of anyone who looked like they might know anything. The first guy I ran into looked about twelve and was completely clueless. The second had merely referred me to a more experienced female employee. She told me that they were completely sold out of fresh peaches but directed me to the canned goods section. After walking the store three times over, I made it to the right section to see a man picking up the last can. Definitely in tears now, I picked up a can of olives and another of canned pineapple. Perhaps one of those would be enough. Trying to get out quickly, I queued up in the shortest available line at check-out. My back and feet ached more and more as I waited, watching the longer lines around me dwindling as my line remained unchanged. I was just about to move to another line when it picked up. I made it through, walked out to the car, and drove home tired and depressed. As I walked into the house, I heard my husband say from the kitchen, ‘I saw we were running low on peaches, so I ordered some from the store and picked them up on the way home.’ I saw him leave the kitchen holding a beautiful, plump peach. I cried harder. He handed me the peach, took the grocery bag from me without a word, and hugged me. What would we do without [enter superstore brand name here]’s online shopping and curbside pickup?”
This promotion is mostly a story that makes us sympathize with the protagonist and keep reading eagerly, waiting to see if she accomplishes her goal. When the pitch comes in at the end, our empathy is fully activated, and it makes the reader more susceptible to the message. This story would not have worked without the three C’s. Imagine if we didn’t know the woman was pregnant (context). The story would not be as compelling. For most people, if the store doesn’t have what they are looking for, they might go somewhere else or wait until next time. But, for this woman, stiff and in pain from the weight of her pregnancy, suffering from intense cravings, these are not options. The journey around the store also becomes more engaging. We know the pain she suffers, and with every lap around the store, the tension rises.
What if she had entered the store at the right location? What if there had been peaches when she got there? Without these conflicts, the story would be boring, and readers would be wondering why the writer bothered to share the story. From the moment we read, “Feeling swollen, tired, and hormonal, I went…” we know to expect conflict. It is what hooks the reader, what keeps them reading. Conflict creates excitement and intrigue.
How about if there had been no conclusion? What if the story had ended when she saw there were no peaches? When you lack an ending, you deprive your readers of the cathartic moment when a story comes together. The story didn’t have to end happily. It could have ended with her buying the cans olives and pineapple making it a tragic ending. However, the sweetness of the husband’s actions creates a satisfying conclusion and works best alongside the pitch. If you are going to try to sell something, positivity works better. However, if the message were instead a critique or feedback on the store’s staff or system of operation, the more tragic ending would have served the readers better.
But story doesn’t have to be lengthy like the example above. What if I merely posted a photo of two objects side by side attached to a one-line caption. The first picture might depict an advertised, beautiful blue cocktail dress with a slit up the side. The second picture shows what was ultimately shipped to me when I purchased the dress: more green than blue, too short and bunched at my midriff, made of cheap fabric, and with no sexy slit in sight. Add the following caption, “Ordered this for my sister’s wedding…Never ordering from [insert name of online clothing store] again,” and you have a story.
What’s the context? A beautiful dress from an online vendor and the happy event of a wedding. Now our brains are full of images and expectations. A wedding is a happy event where everyone wants to dress up, an opportunity to “clean up nicely” and show off. What’s the conflict? False advertising and ruined expectations. What’s the resolution? A tragic ending and a decision to “never shop there again.” Short as this is, it still consists of all three elements.
As you write, whatever that might be, look for the story: the context, the conflict, and the conclusion. Wherever there is a story, there is engagement. Learning to master these elements will make you a communication expert.
Challenge: Think back to the most recent story you’ve read, heard, or watched. Identify the context, conflict, and conclusion. Then, think about how else the story could have ended. Without revealing any names or titles, share the context, conflict, and altered conclusion in the comments below. As a further challenge, try to keep your answers under three sentences.
To learn more about The Key Elements of Writing Compelling Story Conflicts check out our video class on YouTube.