I found this great article, “What Makes a Really Good Story?” by Ted Albrighton, that looks at storytelling through the lens of commercial use. You don’t often think about commercials as “stories” because, in theory, you know they’re trying to sell you something, not to entertain you. Stories come with this connotation that they are how we “waste time” and check out of reality. We don’t often think of them as valid forms of communication and a tool set to be relied on; if we did, getting an English degree wouldn’t have resulted in my hair-dresser telling me I wasted my money and should have gone for a business degree like she did. Storytelling is a business, it has a function, people can profit from it if that is their goal in life. Storytelling has been around as long as mankind; it wouldn’t have survived that long if it didn’t have a purpose. The marketing world is tapping into that. So, buyer beware, they’re looking to lure you in with stories. And it will work, hook, line and sinker.
The one thing I dislike about this article is the very narrow focus they have on what constitutes a story. A story is anything that gives you something to follow to a conclusion. One of the best examples of this that I’ve ever heard is “I threw the ball. It bounced. You caught it.” That has a beginning, middle and end. It evokes engaging images. It has characters. It is the movement of information from one source to another. Nine words made a story. Six words can tell just as effective a story; I’m sure you’ve heard of “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” largely attributed to Hemingway. Did I just sell sports equipment or baby shoes? No. But they were stories. So my caution here is to not get caught up on formulas of what works or what defines a story, because there are an endless variety of ways to craft a story. The only one that’s “the right way to do it” is the one that eventually gives you a product you’re satisfied with.
The article has this really useful infographic that breaks down traditional storytelling in an easy to follow fashion, but with the focus being instead on what will sell.
If you’re in advertising, this is useful. If you’re looking to be published, this is also really useful! Publishing is sales, because people have to buy the work you publish. So in that sense, the graphic gives you some “insider” perspective on what’s most important and why. In terms of just a writer, sitting down to put words on the page and get their story drawn out of their brain in the most logical, understandable way, this is still useful because it is relying on the recognized elements of a story. The article goes into more depth on them, but is focused on the marketing perspective to the point of distraction.
Look through it, add your own, come up with your own “writing rules” to live by. There is no such thing as a “proper” story. It’s yours, so tell it how you wish!