You may have heard that Star Wars draws striking similarities to the legends of King Arthur, or maybe you’ve enjoyed one of the many teen flicks inspired by Shakespeare. You’ve no doubt witnessed a recent resurgence of popular fairy tales. These stories draw from common archetypes that we love to experience, time and time again. The books you read and the shows you watch are all lessons on story craft, waiting for you to harness them—lessons that apply to all types of content creation, whether you’re a content marketer or a fiction writer.
This is a secret weapon for creating engaging and inspired content: By closely observing the media you consume, you can identify and utilize the storytelling tools that engage the audience. Here are just a few elements that have no doubt cropped up in the books, shows, and movies you’ve seen.
Narrative structure is one of the biggest obstacles to tackle when you’re creating content. It’s essentially the plot of your story, a fancy way of addressing the elements that will move your story forward. It’s important to have a clearly defined narrative so that your audience doesn’t get lost.
I like to say that the crux of a narrative is “Somebody Wanted . . . But . . . So . . .” Somebody is the protagonist; what they wanted indicates their goals, the values they hold, and hints at the ending. But something, a force of antagonism, kept Somebody from achieving their goal. So . . . they had to take some sort of action to overcome the obstacle (or took no action, and did not achieve their goal at all).
My personal favorite version of this is the quest narrative. It may sound silly—send your protagonist on a quest—but consider a classic example: The Wizard of Oz. A rural teenager, longing for something greater than her provincial family farm, finds herself in another world where nothing is familiar to her. With a little help from her friends and the guidance of a mentor, she’s able to overcome the obstacles on her journey (trees that throw apples, a dark forest, a field of enchanted poppies) and defeat her nemesis to get back home. By the time she wakes up to see her family all around her, she has realized that they are the most important thing in her life and that “there’s no place like home.”
How can we adapt this format for our own content? Let’s take a look at this Android commercial, which uses a quest narrative to promote the idea that “same” does not always equal “better.”
Believe it or not, this story is a quest. A piece of paper embarks on a journey (his first day of school). He encounters adversaries, makes friends, and in the end he learns how to stand up to bullies. The result is charming and effective. By using this familiar format, we’re able to follow an anthropomorphic object as he overcomes his fears.
Authentic characters aren’t easy to create. They require nuance and emotional intelligence, and they should inspire empathy in your audience. Your characters should seem familiar, and there are several techniques you can use to help your characters along in their development.
A classic example of a “familiar” character is the Christ figure. This character has a strong moral code and tends to fight against traditional forms of evil (think: Satan). An example of a Christ figure is Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. He was born a bastard, swore an oath to the Night’s Watch (an institution that has both a code of duty and a code of ethics), and—perhaps the most compelling similarity—he was betrayed by his fellows, killed, and resurrected. After he was brought back to life, he made it his mission to fight the biggest and most unequivocal enemies in the realm of the show. Sound familiar?
But you don’t need to actually kill off and resurrect a character in order to establish them as a Christ-like. All you really need is a symbol of death and rebirth, which can be as subtle as a character watching a sunrise, or, in the case of this Powerade ad, a metaphor about a rose’s tenacity. With each word spoken over the course of this commercial, we feel the boy getting stronger, growing up and pushing through the cement slabs that he was born under. Against all odds, he made it. Against all odds, he created a new life, an opportunity for rebirth.
You also can’t go wrong by making your protagonist resemble your readers. Our natural urge when reading a story is to put ourselves in the shoes of the hero, so we are already inclined to empathize. If a character seemed to resemble a group of readers, even slightly, it would make it easier for them to identify with that character. Especially if you’re sending your protagonist on a quest, your readers will want to feel like they’re on the journey with that character. If your company’s products, services, or authority are helping that protagonist along the journey, your readers are more likely to form an association with your brand.
The setting is perhaps one of the least considered parts of a story, but it’s just as important as narrative structure and authentic characters. Setting doesn’t just situate the story, it sets the emotional tone for the piece. It can create problems or offer solutions for the protagonist. Returning to our Wizard of Oz example, Dorothy’s surroundings were constant sources of conflict. The family farm is in Kansas, a geographical area known for its abundance of tornadoes. What is the inciting incident? A tornado picks up the house—while Dorothy is inside it! She hits her head and wakes up in Oz.
Nature is actually a popular element to use in creating conflict. In this commercial from Audi, a blizzard seems to indicate a lonely Christmas dinner for an old man. We hear the weatherman talking about power outages and travel warnings caused by the storm, as the old man, who had clearly been expecting company, puts away dishes and silverware he had laid out. He starts to prepare a sad dinner for himself and his dog when, thanks to the Audi Quattro, his family makes it through the storm to arrive at his house.
What would this ad be without the snow? Weather is a simple and elegant way to create problems for your protagonist. In our everyday lives, we sometimes have to wrestle with our surroundings, so it’s only natural that your protagonists have a rough go of it every once in a while. This can be especially helpful if your brand interacts with the forces of nature in some way—anything from getting caught in the rain to fighting signs of aging can be struggles against nature for your hero.
These are just three elements of story craft that can be co-opted for your content creation purposes. By actively rather than passively consuming your favorite books, podcasts, TV shows, and movies with a keener eye for story, you will recognize the elements that engage you. So, the next time you sit down to watch Game of Thrones, ask yourself what storytelling techniques they’re employing, and how you can adapt their ideas to further your content.
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Featured image attribution: Lucas Allmann