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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? : We look at how story structure improves your brand story’s impact. Learn how it gives your story an engaging and familiar shape and creates drama to 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 tell that story, the more customers will be hooked by it.

There are many ways to get better at storytelling. Learning about story types, for example. But this week, our focus is on story structure.

Our go-to book for this is Into The Woods by John Yorke. (See also our Goodreads review). 

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 captivates 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 will highlight the key ones we felt most useful to improving your brand’s story structure.

The hero

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. 

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

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. 

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 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. 

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. 

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.

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. 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.

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

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. 

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

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.

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 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. 

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 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.

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 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. 

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”, “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

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 more handy. 

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. 

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 kids and grandkids 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 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. 

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 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. 

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

Check out our brand storytelling guide and our story types article for more on this. Or get in touch, 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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