Those that tell the best stories capture the most attention.
It’s as simple as that. But what makes a great story?
There are a number of different storytelling frameworks out there which can make things confusing. Which one do you follow?
The truth is that they all do the same thing without mentioning it. That’s why they all work.
What is that thing?
They’re able to evoke different emotions in the reader.
And that’s the key to a great story.
Great stories bring about great emotions.
The Greatest Stories Make You Feel
Think about a movie, book, play, or TV show you love to think about. Do you know why you think about it?
Do you want to know why it might be your favorite?
Because you remember the emotion that it brings about.
Maybe the plot is terrible, but you’ll always watch it because it makes you feel a certain way. If it can’t make you feel, then you don’t remember it.
Every time my family gets together we tell the exact same stories. Why? Because they make us laugh. The memory of them brings about joy.
Before we think, we feel.
Using a story framework simply gives you the boundaries in which you can play to bring about the emotions that you want. That’s why all of the popular story frameworks work.
It can be a 3-step one or one with 27 steps. It doesn’t matter if there is no emotion in it.
The Hero’s Journey
One of the most popular story frameworks to follow is Joseph Campbell’s 12-Stage Hero’s Journey.
- Ordinary World. This is where the Hero exists.
- Call to Adventure. This is where the journey begins.
- Refusal of the Call. Fears to overcome before they can begin.
- Meeting the Mentor. The Hero needs guidance.
- Crossing the Threshold. The Hero is truly ready to begin.
- Test, Allies, Enemies. Out of their comfort zone, the Hero must face a series of challenges.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave. Could be an actual location or an inner conflict that the Hero must face. Time to reflect on their journey and build up the courage to continue.
- Ordeal. For the Hero’s World to continue to exist, they must fight their most dangerous obstacle yet.
- Reward. After overcoming their greatest personal challenge, the Hero is transformed into a new state.
- The Road Back. The return home, but not necessarily an easy one. There may be a moment in which they must choose between their own personal objective or that of a Higher Cause.
- Resurrection. The climax. The Hero must have their final and most dangerous encounter with death.
- Return with the Elixir. Returns home to the Ordinary World a changed person.
Thousands upon thousands of books and movies follow this framework. Anyone can follow it.
But only a few are able to make great stories from it.
Because there is no framework that tells you what emotion to pick or how to make it come about. This is why Creators get stuck telling stories.
When you tell people that sometimes they have to go with their instinct to make something great they don’t want to believe you.
Taste is one of the hardest skills to attain. But that’s the difference between a good story and a great story.
Someone who can look at it and understand what is needed to bring about a more powerful emotion.
Storytelling and Business
Every analyst has a way to break down Apple’s success. You could talk about their logistics. The way they handle manufacturing. Their design.
All important things for their business.
But what is at its core? Because you can have all of those things, but do they really move the needle? Nobody talks about how Apple tells a story.
The story is always what pulls you in first.
It might not be a story from an ad, but a story that you see from one of your friends. You see how wonderful the pictures they take are. You see the joy they have in Facetiming.
It all starts with a story.
But if it is an ad, then check out these Apple commercials and notice that it isn’t about a list of features or how cool the product is. It’s about the stories.
When thinking about storytelling frameworks do they all follow the same one?
Most definitely not.
But they all go for an emotion.
You want to feel the way the people in the ads do and how do you do that? Buy an Apple device.
Let’s create the beginning of a story together using Joseph Campbell’s framework above.
The Story of Lawrence
We’re going to see that it’s okay to follow a structure when it comes to storytelling, but a structure is nothing without the right elements.
Like fine cuisine served in a trash bag. It doesn’t work.
1. Ordinary World
Lawrence works at the grocery store. He doesn’t like it there, but it’s what he can do in the town that he’s been living in for 27 years.
Okay, this does describe his ordinary world, but does it make you feel anything? Maybe if you’ve lived this exact same scenario, but otherwise it’s kind of drab.
Let’s try it again.
The alarm went off for the third time this morning. Lawrence hit it.
He looked at the picture of his pregnant fiancee and closed his eyes. She always loved getting up in the morning.
Smiling and dancing around. Singing whatever song popped into her head. He wasn’t a morning person but he loved her morning show.
Would he have loved mornings if he was woken up by his crying son? Maybe, but he never got the chance, and looking up at the ceiling he felt that he probably didn’t deserve another.
Another day at the grocery store. He looked at the picture one more time. She wouldn’t have cared where he worked.
But he’s thankful she didn’t have to see him work there. The 27-year-old bag boy.
What a fucking joke.
Is there a formula here? Maybe. I couldn’t tell you if there was.
This story has more feeling to it, not because it has more words. Fewer words would probably work better, but the point here is that there are emotions that are coming about through this version.
2. Call to Adventure
One day he got to talking to one of the customers. Apparently, they worked at the local base. He asked Lawrence if he was Lawrence DiBasio, the pilot.
“Wow, we’re in need of another pilot. You should come by!”
Okay, this is an obvious call to adventure. But that’s it.
One day he got to talking to one of the customers. He thought it was a kid, but apparently the “boy” was 23-years old.
When he found out the bag boy was Lawrence his eyes grew big.
“Wait, wait, wait. Lawrence. Lawrence DiBasio? The greatest fighter pilot on this side of the Mississippi? I thought you were long gone. Oh man, you have to come visit the base.
There’s a new jet that needs a pilot like you.”
3. Refusal of the Call
There was a time when Lawrence would’ve jumped on the chance. But not any more.
She would’ve pushed him to do it, but she would still be around if he wasn’t so gungho about everything.
If only he had been more careful.
No, he couldn’t go back there. He had already lost enough.
I could give what I’ve written to 10 different great writers and 10 better revisions all going in different directions. Would they follow specific frameworks?
Yes and no.
They wouldn’t consciously follow a framework. They wouldn’t look at a book and say, “This is what is missing.”
But they’d follow a framework that their gut tells them about.
“This isn’t bad, but I think it is missing this…”
Each one would fill in the gaps from the experiences they’ve had and this is why great storytellers are far and few between.
The great ones draw from their experiences. They rarely lived the story they are telling, but they’ve lived through different moments in the story that draw out the emotion.
Have I ever been a fighter pilot? No.
Have I ever lost a fiancée and child? No.
But have I had ambitions that were crushed? Yes.
Have I lost a loved one and felt pain? Yes.
And I think this is how great stories are created. When you can draw from the memories of how you felt, you’re able to relay them in many different ways.
How many times do you hear about a great song actually being the story of how the artist felt at a certain time?
Motion Is Emotion
Videographers have a saying.
Motion is emotion.
That applies to storytelling as well.
But it’s not the motion of the story. It’s the motion of the Hero moving from one state to the next.
When people talk about great storytelling or great copywriting, what they’re really talking about without knowing it is how it can move you from one emotional state to the next.
When we leave a movie, we praise it when it leaves us feeling an emotional state greater than the one we had going in.
A movie that evokes one laugh and nothing else means nothing. It’s not memorable.
Take the movie The Sixth Sense. Everyone loves to talk about the plot twist which in itself is great and it makes you feel a ton of emotions considering everything else that happens in the movie.
But it’s this scene that for me draws the strongest emotion.
A story within a story within a story.
- The story Cole tells
- The story showing the story that Cole tells
- The story of how this scene ties together the whole story of the movie
Is that a framework? No.
You could probably look at the movie as a whole and pin it to a specific storytelling framework but that’s not what makes the movie great.
The plot twist doesn’t work without the emotions that lead up to it. How many other movies have plot twists that fall flat on their faces because they don’t have the emotional impact as this one?
But also, look at the acting of Toni Collette. Her eyes themselves are telling a story. Her eyes are the emotion.
Why I Curse
If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, then you know there are times when I will curse. I once had a lady write to me saying that I shouldn’t curse.
It made me seem less intelligent.
I explained to her that there are certain emotions that can only be shown through a curse word.
If someone stubs their toe and they respond with “ouch” then are you more or less concerned than if they scream “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK”?
A great story brings about great emotions, but how do you make that happen?
You’ll know it when you do it because you’ll feel it.