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Story structure lessons you can use on your brand

Woman siting in an armchair reading a book titled Storytelling

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Why read this? : Learning about story structure improves how you tell your brand’s story. Well-structured stories draw the audience in. In this article, we show how story structure gives stories an engaging and familiar shape. From the opening act to the climax and resolution, learn how to create drama that’ll keep your audience hooked. Read this for ideas on how to make your brand story more compelling. 

All brands have a story. The better you can tell that story, the more customers pay attention to it.

Following our article on story types, this week we look at another way to boost your storytelling skills, and that’s story structure.

The best book we’ve read on story structure is the excellent Into The Woods by John Yorke. (see also our Goodreads review of the book). 

He created the BBC’s Writers’ Academy, and has led the writing on many hit shows such as Eastenders, Casualty, Life on Mars and Shameless. Though his book’s aimed at screenwriters, it’s full of lessons for anyone interested in storytelling.

Brand storytelling isn’t a well-known skill, but it adds a lot of value, and is a great way to connect with customers. The more you learn about it, the more you appreciate what it can do.

Where knowing the basics of story structure helps

Story structure is a key element of storytelling. You can use it to craft your own stories, or use it to assess stories your agencies create for you. Stories are the backbone of your advertising and PR for example, and your website content and social media posts. 

Knowing how story structure works helps you tell a better story.

The key elements of the story

In our guide to brand storytelling, we outline a basic story structure and its key elements. 

Most stories go like this. A hero (or heroine) faces a problem from an unexpected change in their world. With the help of a guide, they form a plan, and following a call to action, that plan leads to success or failure. 

Yorke’s book goes into more detail on all of these elements. We can’t cover everything in this short article, but we wanted to pick out some highlights which helped us learn more about how to better structure a story.

The hero

Every story needs a hero. (sometimes also called the protagonist). Their role is to give the audience someone to identify with.

That’s an important part of storytelling. The audience have to see something of themselves in the hero.

They experience what the hero thinks, feels and does and feel connected to it. That the hero’s story relates to how they see the world. (see also our article on making the customer the hero of the story).

That connection is what makes stories so strong for marketing. Because connecting with customers is what brands need to do. 

An example customer segment profile completed for a customer called Lonesome Lukas. Includes their story, goals, habits, pains and influences.

For the audience to make that connection though, the hero needs to be an active participant in the story. They need to do things and generate the action and events which tell the story. The hero needs to have a desire which motivates them to act. Their motivation is what makes the audience care about them. 

Think about why you care about the heroes in movies and TV shows. They’re motivated by something. Reach the top of the mountain. Save the planet. Kill the monster. Their desire makes us want to know their story. 

Nobody would care about a story where the hero just sits around and is generally happy. That’d be dull. They need some sort of problem which gets in the way of what they desire.

The hero’s problem

That problem is usually represented by some sort of opponent. A person or force which represents the opposite of what the hero desires. 

Darth Vader. Hans Gruber. Voldemort. They all create a problem and get in the hero’s way. They oppose the hero’s ambition. This opposition sets up the hero’s challenge, and that sets the story in motion. 

There’s a barrier the hero has to get past. Challenge creates the drama in the story, because it’s their struggle to overcome the challenge that hooks us in. 

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

For brands, the problem isn’t usually a person, but a situation or fact of current life.  Your brand’s story is how you help overcome this problem. 

Killing germs. Losing weight. Hiding wrinkles. Whatever the problem is, brands tell the story of how they help you (the hero) overcome the problem. 

The inciting incident

However, just stating there’s a problem isn’t enough. Something needs to bring it to the hero’s attention and make them do something about it. 

In storytelling, this is often called the inciting incident. It’s what starts the hero on their journey. It’s an event or situation which creates the need for the hero to act.

Gandalf’s visit to The Shire and seeing Bilbo’s ring. Hagrid’s first visit to meet Harry at the Dursley’s. The stormtroopers killing Luke’s family. 

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

It helps the reader understand the problem. It hooks them into the story as they wonder how the hero will overcome the challenge.

Together, the hero, their problem and an inciting incident create the opening act of the story structure. 

Story Structure - The opening act of the brand story

Using this classic story structure for the opening act helps audiences instantly recognise they’re going to experience a story. It grabs attention, as audiences want to find out what happens next.

Once the audience starts to pay attention, they get absorbed in the story. They don’t want to stop until they find out how it ends. 

In advertising for example, brands tell stories which hook customers. They show a problem customers recognise and make them want to find out how the hero will solve that problem.

Arrow shaped sign on a brick wall saying entry

Example brand story opening acts

Let’s imagine 3 different businesses – a cafe, a lawyer and a luxury hotel. They’ll have different heroes, problems and inciting incidents, but they can all use the same opening act story structure :-

Opening act for a cafe story – We see an unhappy looking young man (hero) wandering down a busy street. We hear his stomach rumble (inciting incident) and realise he’s hungry (problem). 

Opening act for a lawyer story We see an older professional couple (heroes) sitting in a lawyer’s office (inciting incident). The lawyer is talking a lot and the couple look worried and confused (problem). 

Opening act for a luxury hotel story We see a businesswoman (heroine) get out of a taxi in front of an upmarket hotel. She’s clearly just arrived from a long flight (inciting incident) and she looks tired and harassed (problem).

See how the structure of these stories is the same, even though the situations are different? This structure helps you build curiosity. You wonder if the guy’ll satisfy his hunger. What’s going on with the couple and their legal problem? Will the businesswoman feel better once she’s checked in?

You’ve now got a hook to build the rest of your story.

The rest of the story structure

In the basic story structure we cover in our guide to brand storytelling, there’s 3 parts – the beginning, the middle and the end.  

However, Yorke’s book argues there’s a more advanced story structure that has 5 parts. 

He quotes many examples, especially the works of Shakespeare where 2 interim acts come in. One between the beginning and the middle, and another between the middle and the end. 

These second and fourth acts are usually driven by crisis. It’s crisis that creates the drama in the story.

Brand storytelling - the story arc with beginning, middle and end

Crisis creates the drama

Crisis brings to life the hero’s challenge. 

It’s often their initial reaction to the inciting incident where they try something different (second act).

Or it’s the point in the story where they’re at their weakest and all seems lost (fourth act), before they turn it around. 

From a brand point of view, this can be hard to get your head round. After all, you want to talk positively about your brand and your customers. 

Talking about a “crisis” feels wrong, somehow. But it’s that crisis and how the hero (customer) overcomes it which makes your story interesting.  

Good stories need that drama. No drama equals boring story. It can’t be too easy to solve. They need to struggle before they find the answer in what your brand offers. Add more drama to tell a better story.

Add more drama

Let’s imagine your customer has a problem, and first they follow some advice they’d seen on Instagram about how to fix it. 

But that advice makes it worse. 

They try products that don’t work. Products that waste time and money. Their problem’s still there. It’s getting worse. They’re frustrated. Desperate. 

Then they bump into their friend who asks them how it’s going.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

This friend had the same problem and used your brand to solve it. The hero does their research, tries the product and in a happy ending, the problem goes away. The hero lives happily ever after.

Simplistic? Yes. Cheesy? Definitely. But easy to follow? Easy to picture? More interesting than the usual “buy me” adverts you see? That’s because the crisis added more drama to the story structure.

Crisis and challenge make a story more interesting

When you hear a story, the crisis makes it interesting.

You want to see how the hero overcomes the challenges. You wonder how you’d overcome them, and that’s when the story hooks you.

Crisis is the magic ingredient which adds drama to any story. It helps the audience connect with the story because crisis grabs our attention. 

The hero learns something about themselves as they get through the crisis. 

Book open on someone's lap as they read a story, lit by sparkling lights

And in learning that thing, the audience also learns the same thing. In your brand story, they learn your brand can help them overcome their own problem. 

Story Structure - The Climax and Resolution

The end of the story (the climax) pulls together the strands set up in the opening acts.

It’s where the hero finally triumphs over their opponent, problem or challenge. The hero gets their “reward” for overcoming their problem.

The hero’s changed by their experience. Loose ends are cleared up.

For brands, this part of the story structure is where the brand benefit shines out.

challenger boxer making his way through a crowd towards a boxing ring

It’s the customer using the brand to overcome their problem. The customer / hero’s reward is the benefit your brand offers.

They sate their hunger. They sort out their legal problems. They’re able to relax in 5 star hotel luxury. 

This change / benefit delivery is a vital part of your brand story structure. It’s why the audience should care about the story. Showing the “change” the customer goes through when they use your brand makes your story more compelling. It makes it more dramatic.

Change is at the heart of all good drama. No change, and there’s no real drama in the story. 

Land the theme of your story

The story structure gives you a skeleton to hang the theme of your brand story on.

The theme is the drama and the drama is the change. From how the hero’s world is at the start, to what it becomes at the climax.

For that drama to work, the story has to share your view about the nature of the world.

The more interesting dramas come when you make choices which have strong opposite choices. 

Skull - Marketing Creative Selling

Remember, the story’s problem is the opposite of what the hero wants. If that opposite state doesn’t feel real, people won’t believe it. It’s why stories where the choice is too obvious and has no opposite consequences don’t really work.

You hear many brands talking about “being authentic” or “connecting with customers” or “living our brand purpose” but on their own, these don’t make great stories. 

First, they’re about you, not the customer. 

But more importantly, they aren’t great stories because they’re too obvious. They don’t have believable opposites. No brand would choose to be inauthentic, disconnect from customers or ignore their brand purpose, would they?  

Show what you do and don’t do

To make those choices work in a story, you need to go down a level and show how they play out by what you do. (and by implication what you don’t do). 

  • We’re authentic because if you don’t like the product, we’ll give you your money back. (What we don’t do : quibbling over refunds). 
  • We connect with customers because we offer 24/7 access to customer service experts. (What we don’t do : Make you wait to speak to someone). 
  • Our brand purpose comes to life because we donate half our profits to relevant charities (What we don’t do : Profiteer on our customer’s goodwill).

Stories are a way to share your point of view about the world. When the audience has that same point of view, it creates a connection to your brand.

Where to use story structure in marketing?

Plenty to think about how to use story structure in marketing, but let’s also think about where to use it. Storytelling is at heart a way of communicating, so the most useful places to apply story structure is in marketing communications

Advertising

It’s frequently used in advertising for example. Often you can be limited for time and space by the media format or costs.

But with an explosive opening act, your story grabs attention. Build in a crisis, and your story gets more interesting. And close with a climax which convinces people with a clear call to action, and your advertising story does what it needs to. 

You make it easy for customers who want to experience that same story for themselves.

Outdoor billboard with writing that says this will drive $1m in sales - probably

Website and social media

With more space and time to tell your story, like on your website or your social media channels, story structure comes in even handier. 

Hook your website visitors and social followers with the opening act of your story. A post or a landing page which talks about the hero, the problem and the inciting incident. 

Build curiosity so they want to know more, challenge them with the crisis to make them wonder how they’d react in that situation. 

Screengrab from Three-Brains website - headline says "Our story" - grow your skills to outgrow the competition

Resolve the story with a compelling ending which makes them want to experience that story for themselves. 

Face to face communication

Most storytelling guides tell you stories are something you craft and polish over time. 

Movies, books and TV shows for those in the entertainment business. And adverts, websites and social media posts for those in marketing. 

But stories can also be more spontaneous and informal. Don’t forget storytelling comes from basic human interactions.

We learn stories from our parents and grandparents at a young age, and tell our children and grandchildren stories as we get older.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

It’s built into our DNA as a way to learn and share.

Whether it’s inspiring your team, or explaining something to the agency or B2B customers, you can use stories in any face to face situation. 

They’re easy to remember and easy to share. Telling great stories makes you a better communicator. Using story structure to build great stories makes you a better storyteller. 

Conclusion - story structure

Marketers need to look in unusual places to find inspiration for their competitive advantage. Storytelling is one of those places.

It’s still seen as a niche skill, so learning how to use story structure puts you ahead of most businesses. 

The opening act of your story needs to clearly identify the hero, their problem and the inciting incident which makes the audience care. 

Include crisis points and you add drama to the story. 

Woman siting in an armchair reading a book titled Storytelling

Rather than scare the audience off, these draw the audience in. They make the audience care more about what happens. 

And of course, the climax and resolution brings to life the change the hero goes through over the course of the story. For your brand, the climax showcases the benefit you offer customers. 

Use story structure to build your story, especially in your advertising, your website, your social media and face to face communications, and you’ll connect much better with your audience. 

Check out our guide to brand storytelling and our article on story types for more on the technical side of storytelling. Or contact us, if you need help with your own brand story structure. 

Photo credits 

Woman reading storytelling book : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Frustrated Man (adapted) : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Entry : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Alchemy : Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Person reading with sparkly lights : Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Entering the ring : Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

Skull : Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Billboard (adapted) : Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

Conversation : Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

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