Why read this? : We look at how to use story structure to improve your brand story’s impact. Learn how story structure gives stories an engaging and familiar shape, and creates drama that’ll keep your audience hooked. Read this to learn how to structure your brand story to make it more compelling.
All brands have a story. The better you can tell that story, the more customers will be hooked by it.
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 how story structure works.
Getting the story structure right adds to your brand story’s value. It helps you tell a more compelling story that engages your customers.
The key elements of the story
You can use story structure to help craft your own stories, or to assess stories your agencies create for you. For example, the stories which underpin your advertising campaigns and PR activities, plus your website content and social media posts.
Our brand storytelling guide outlines the most 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. 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 them all here but want to highlight some key lessons you could use to help you learn how to improve your brand’s story structure.
Every story needs a hero. (sometimes also called the protagonist). The hero gives the audience someone to identify with. The audience has to see something of themselves in the hero, or they won’t be drawn into the story.
Reading the hero’s story helps them experience what the hero thinks, feels and does. They feel a connection. That the hero’s story relates to how they see the world. (See also our making your customer the hero article).
That connection is why stories work so well for marketing. Because connecting with customers is what brands need to do.
To make that connection though, the hero has to be an active participant in the story. They have to do things and generate the action and events which tell the story. The hero has 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.
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 called the inciting incident. It’s what starts the hero on their journey. 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.
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.
For example, brands tell advertising stories which hook customers. They show a problem customers recognise and make them want to find out how the hero will solve that problem.
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. Will the guy satisfy his hunger? What’s going on with the couple’s 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 from our brand storytelling guide, there are 3 parts. The beginning, the middle and the end.
However, Yorke’s book argues there’s a more advanced story structure which 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 which creates the drama in the story.
Crisis creates 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 around. 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 which 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.
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 makes 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.
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 is changed by their experience. Loose ends are cleared up.
For brands, this part of the story structure is where the brand benefit shines out.
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 on which to hang the theme of your brand story.
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.
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”, “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 should 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 place to apply story structure is in marketing communications.
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.
Website and social media
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, and challenge them with the crisis to make them wonder how they’d react in that situation.
Resolve the story with a compelling ending which makes them want to experience that story for themselves.
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 kids and grandkids stories as we get older.
It’s built into our DNA as a way to learn and share.
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 have 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.
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 bring 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.