Last time on Story Masters, we covered two of the main goals of all storytelling: to present ideas in engaging ways through defamiliarisation (ostranenie), while keeping your audience absorbed and engaged (willing suspension of disbelief).
Now it's time to look at the fundamental building blocks of storytelling: story structure and acts.
In the literary world, there's more to stories than just "start, middle, end". A story structure helps you really think hard on the beats and rhythm effective stories follow to keep an audience engaged.
That's why we're back with Gastón Tourn, as we dive into the big world of story structures and how to apply them in modern marketing storytelling.
Originally an episode of CMO Convo, now available in written form for you to enjoy.
The essential ingredients of a compelling story
Hi, Gastón. We're back with Story Masters. How're you doing today?
Very good. I feel like last week we completely lost track of time. It was such an interesting conversation, so I'm looking forward to today.
Let’s think of this as the second act of this series. We’ll be talking about story structure, but before we get into what we mean by a story structure in marketing contexts, let’s establish what it means more generally. There is a formal idea behind story structure in literary circles, isn't there?
Yes, definitely. It's quite interesting because when most people think about creativity in arts or literary fiction, a common misconception is that art doesn't need limitations and that good stories don't need structure. It's almost as if creativity was the opposite of structure, but that's not entirely true.
Breaking or disrupting structures can be one element of creativity, but you need to be actively aware of the structure you’re trying to disrupt in the first place. There is already structure in place, and great pieces of art disrupt part of that structure.
It's very rare for someone to successfully overthrow centuries of good storytelling structures because the way that our brain processes stories tends to follow certain patterns. Those have been developed over centuries, and even if you're not aware of that, you naturally tend to use some of those patterns when you tell a story.
And it has been talked about for centuries – probably as long as literary critique’s been out there. Aristotle came up with the first idea of a story structure. He talked about desis which means binding – complication is probably the best way of putting it – and lusis, which is unbinding or dénouement in more modern terms; that's basically the conclusion of the story.
To Aristotle, all stories went from the binding to the unbinding. You go from the complication to some kind of release from that complication. Whether that's a good release or a bad release doesn't really matter. That structure has been followed for thousands of years. There are loads of examples in literature.
Yes, completely. It goes back to what we discussed last time about how there should always be an element of change or conflict or tension in the story.
It doesn't matter if the story has two acts, three acts, or five acts – there are always the same elements. There is a scene where the world looks more or less normal, then something disrupts that order, and everything in the story is about trying to go back to that state of normality, and in the end, that might or might not happen. That kind of pattern is followed by pretty much every story.
Absolutely, and the length of the story doesn't matter. A very long story or a very short story can follow this structure.
You can have that pattern within the broader story structure as well; you could have multiple chapters that follow that structure internally, and they’re still part of an overarching narrative. Some of the best examples are film trilogies. Star Wars is a great example of the three-act structure in action – The Godfather too.
You have the setup in the first chapter of the story. The middle chapter is where all the chaos happens – Darth Vader cuts off hands; Michael Corleone starts murdering his family. The third chapter is where you get the resolution, the release, or the consequences of the action. You get the fall of the Empire in Star Wars; Michael Corleone gets his just desserts and sees his entire family fall apart in Godfather Three.
Using classic story structures for great marketing stories
We’ve seen some examples of the classic story structure in action in pop culture, but how does it work from a marketing perspective? How can you build this sort of structure into your marketing stories?
The most important thing is to remember that you always need to have a certain level of complication or conflict to make the story interesting. One of the biggest issues I have seen consistently in marketing storytelling is that marketers are not bold enough to explore the conflict.
Most marketing stories tend to be a bit flat. They tend to be about how life is happy, if you consume this ice cream you're gonna be even happier, and everything is just people frolicking through the fields enjoying life.
Unfortunately, life isn't that happy. We watch stories to connect emotionally with the negative side of life as well as the positive. That’s because if everything is amazing, then you can’t really relate to how amazing that moment is.
Usually, you value happiness and great moments in life by comparison and by understanding that other moments are quite sad. I think that's what a good story does: it makes you feel everything is lost, but then everything can also be recovered and become great again.
Most marketing stories feel flat because there is no arc in the story. They’re usually very much around a great place where everyone is happy and there’s a product that makes people even happier, but there’s not enough tension to raise the stakes.
Some of the best adverts that have a strong cultural impact, particularly in the UK, are the John Lewis ads. They are very different from the ads we usually watch on TV, and I think that's why they’re so powerful. They explore some negative emotions that allow you to appreciate the positive side of things. They give you a whole story arc, including the conflict.
They're not skipping any stages in the John Lewis ads. A standard Christmas ad would be kids under the tree, opening up the presents, they're really happy, and that's all great. That's just the baseline though. If you're going into a story where they're already happy, that becomes the norm – you haven't seen them reach the point where they needed to get those presents and you don’t know why those presents mean so much to them.
That's what John Lewis ads do so well: they establish why these gifts that are available at the store mean so much to the people who are receiving them, and they do it in ways that play on very strong emotions. That often involves presenting even happy feelings in a nostalgic light. They play a lot on missed connections with people and John Lewis as a way of rediscovering that joy and that connection.
They are such cultural touchstones in the UK because people really do engage with the narrative. Loads of other Christmas ads go out every year, and they often follow that pattern of, “This is all the great stuff you can have at Christmas – go enjoy it!” Whereas John Lewis ones are the ones that get talked about and shared on social media.
People go out of their way to watch those adverts. Even people who often have ad blockers on and stream all their TV, if they hear a John Lewis ad’s out, they will seek it out on YouTube. That’s a phenomenal thing for a marketer – that people actually want to go out and experience your marketing.
While we're on the subject, I have to ask what's your favorite John Lewis ad?
Oh gosh! My favorite is probably the Elton John piano one. I think they told that story really well and at a time when Elton John was talking about retirement. You see the whole arc of this amazing artist told in a really effective way. It made you connect with the idea that a Christmas gift could change someone’s entire life in the way that Elton John receiving that piano set him on the path to becoming Elton John.
What about you, Gastón? Do you have a favorite?
It’s definitely the Elton John one. It's beautiful and it has a very nuanced structure. There’s that sense of happiness mixed with nostalgia. You’re like, “Wow, what an amazing life,” and you see the impact that gift had, but at the same time, it’s quite sad to see the end of his career. That's why it's so effective – because it's not pure happiness. You feel a bit nostalgic when you've finished watching that advert, but you feel great at the same time. There's definitely catharsis.
Scenes: The building blocks of a story
Let's talk a bit more about the story structure. We’ve talked about acts, but what are the components of those acts? Or, to stick with theater terminology, what are scenes?
Scenes are really important in storytelling because they’re like the atoms of stories. They’re the minimum elements that make the story work. The story arc has three or five acts, depending on the structure you’re using, and to compose those different acts, you need scenes, which are just smaller situations that contribute to the wider story. In the John Lewis ad we were talking about, a scene might be Elton John as a kid getting a piano for Christmas. It's one specific situation.
John Yorke was a screenwriter for the BBC, and he made an amazing series called Life on Mars. He wrote a really interesting book called Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. I recommend everyone read it. He talks about how each element of the story follows the same structure as the larger narrative.
In every scene, it’s vital to have tension to capture the audience’s attention. For example, a scene in a romantic film might just be a conversation between a couple, but in that conversation, there has to be a certain element of tension, which might be overt or might be very subtle. It needs to have that element of not everything going quite right, something going wrong, or two characters pulling the story in two different directions.
Whenever I compose a story, I ask myself who the dog is [from the John le Carré quote: “The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on a dog's mat is a story.”] If I'm thinking, for example, of a scene in a love story, I need to immediately find a dog who is going to make this love story less than perfect.
Who or what is going to bring some tension to this scene? It could even be a character’s personal insecurities – it doesn’t have to be someone external, just so long as there’s some tension that will capture people's attention.
Most marketing stories shy away from conflict and tension. Unfortunately, avoiding conflict is not going to make your story work. You need to highlight the tension and the conflict to capture people's attention.
Talking about conflict and tension makes it sound very negative, but not every story has to be sad. Tension and conflict are apparent in fun stories as well. They provide something for people to latch on to within a scene or within a story arc, so they can see that something's going to happen. If there's no tension, nothing's going to happen. Everything will just keep going at the same level.
Completely. Conflict and tension don’t have to mean negativity. Conflict and tension mean two forces pushing in different directions, but they’re not necessarily negative forces.
As you said, comedy uses tension quite a lot. Going back to another UK classic, Mr. Bean, every single scene has a lot of tension. It’s usually Mr. Bean being sloppy and not managing to do something quite straightforward, which brings a sense of absurdity to everyday life. There’s tension because he's sloppy or because he doesn't follow everyday conventions, but it's funny to watch, and without that tension, you wouldn't be watching it.
If anything, Mr. Bean is the tension that gets introduced to the scene. He is the spark that drives the scene forward. But then, Mr. Bean's an established character. When he enters the scene, you know he's going to do something silly, so part of the tension is you waiting for that to happen. That expectation is already there.
What about when you're introducing a new character and you want to build these expectations? How can you do that across quite a short story arc? Your average ad isn't going to run for half an hour, so how do you introduce characters, give them space to breathe, and create connections within the story arc?
A really good recent example is Bodyform’s Womb Stories campaign. Their hero video was beautiful because it brought in the tension of what women experience when they have a period.
Most advertising in that category tries to show perfection and women solving their body pain in an unrealistic way. We’re all familiar with those ads that show the perfect mom waking up with her makeup on already. That's not reality. We know what the morning of any working person is like, and especially if your body is going through a hormonal change, you're not going to be your best.
The Bodyform advert really touches the tension of your body not agreeing with who you are outside, and it’s done in a very beautiful way. It's a mix of real scenes of actual women and drawings that show what's going on inside the body. I think that tension between reality and feelings is shown beautifully.
That tension, even on a visual level, brings back the original conflict we were talking about. It's not necessarily negativity; it’s using the tension between what people see versus what's going inside your body. That’s a really good example of how to subtly bring in tension at a scene level, then the whole advert keeps you super engaged because of the way it’s structured.
That’s a great example, and it speaks to the evolution of advertising aimed at women as a whole. For a long time, a lot of advertising aimed at women didn't show this kind of tension in a realistic way. It was always either like something out of a very cheesy rom-com where the woman's got not-very-realistic problems that she overcomes throughout the day, or no problems were shown at all.
It was only very recently that adverts for women's razors started showing actual hairs being trimmed on screen. For a long time, the women in these adverts were shaving already-shaved legs, which is just absurd. They're not showing any kind of conflict or resolution and not showing any kind of conflict in that person's life. They've already got smooth legs – why do they need to buy razors? Why do they need to shave their legs?
It’s great to see more and more women-focused ads focusing on the problems that women actually face. They're finally being realistic, and I think that's partly because there are more women involved in the development of these adverts now – we can't ignore that factor.
I feel it's really touching as well on the vulnerability of every human being. It’s the same with a lot of ads targeting men now too. They used to just show the guys going to the pub and having a beer and a laugh, and it was always very superficial. Some more recent ads show the tension and the pressure of, for example, what it means to be a man in a society that puts really high expectations on you.
The number of men suffering from mental health issues is huge. We’ve all seen the stats. The system that doesn't portray women fairly also affects the way a lot of men feel. A beautiful campaign that highlights these tensions is from Axe. It’s called Is it okay for guys? It focuses on men’s search queries. Usually, when we ask Google questions, nobody's watching, so we tend to be quite authentic, and it's fascinating to see what male users ask.
Some of the questions are “Is it okay for guys to cry?” “Is it okay for guys to wear makeup?” and “Is it okay for guys to like other guys?” – all the questions that you can’t usually ask openly because they're still taboo. This advert shows what it is to be a man in a society that is always putting pressure on you.
The tension comes from people’s expectations that don't necessarily align with who you are, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's negative – it's more like you're trying to battle for your own identity. Great advertising captures that feeling and tries to bring a bit more freedom by showing people that they can follow their own paths.
To some extent, the audience is bringing their own tension to these situations. Their awareness of the world around them builds that tension, which allows these ads to be that release. If you're tapping into a broad enough issue that people are facing, then that tension-building is already done, and then it's all about showing the confrontation stage and building a resolution.
Why stories need structure
You really see the difference between unstructured storytelling and structured storytelling when people start talking about their dreams. It's incredibly boring because there’s no structure to the story, and that means you've got nothing to latch on to in a real and empathetic way.
When a story has a narrative, it’s completely different. I'm sure everyone's got a friend they love to sit in a bar with and hear the story of their day because they just tell it in such an interesting way. Those kinds of storytellers tend to structure their stories. They say this happened, and then this happened because of that. That structure doesn’t restrict creativity; it just frames it.
I agree. I love this quote from Chesterton. He says. “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame,” and I think it's because nobody wants to see an outpouring of emotion without any kind of limitation to it.
Going back to the example of your friend in the pub, good storytellers hold the tension, so you’re like, “Whoa! What happened next? Tell me!” They always hold that tension until there's a moment of catharsis, but before you can get to that point of catharsis, there has to be an emotional buildup. You cannot just break the tension immediately because then there’s no emotional release.
All those techniques and structures have been perfected over time and they play on the way we process emotions and stories. Some stories will consciously try to disrupt those structures. There's a famous theatrical school (Dada), for example, that tries to completely remove the catharsis from every story. It's very disruptive because you have all this emotional buildup, then suddenly the play finishes, and you’re like “Where is the ending?!” but they do it in a very conscious way.
You can disrupt structures, and I think creativity is always about disrupting what has already been said and done, but in order to do that, you need to know what has already been said and done. If not, you're just going to create something mediocre or something that’s been done before. That doesn't mean that you have to follow the established structure 100%, but you need to at least be aware of it.
How to build your marketing story arc
Let's talk about a process that people can follow to put this story structure into practice. How do you work out your story arc and the acts and scenes within it? Do you approach it from the bottom up or the top down?
I have two different approaches. One is bottom-up; the other is top-down. It really depends on the story. Sometimes I'm fascinated by one detail. We’ve talked before about Steve’s story, which I told in my role at Appear Here. He managed to launch his own restaurant, despite having been homeless a few years earlier. It's a beautiful story that gives you hope and shows how talent can lead you anywhere, no matter where you came from.
That story didn't start with a clear story structure; it started with a detail. I was just fascinated by how much Steve loves to know about the produce he uses in his restaurant. He's obsessed with making sure every single fish and lobster is amazing. You can see the passion he has for the food he's cooking. It started with that detail and from there, I went into the structure.
With other stories, it’s easier to start with the structure, define the different acts, and then add the details. Good stories need both a clear structure and the details that make the story unique. Details are what make you smile and allow you to relate to a story.
No matter if I start with the details or the structure, when I'm working with videographers, copywriters, or anyone else on my creative team, I bring a story arc for the story I'm telling. It’s literally a curve that shows when we’re going to build up some tension, where the climax is, and how the story will be resolved.
Of course, it’s important to stay flexible. When you are editing the video or the copy, you just see what feels right, but having that initial structure helps you to make sure, first of all, that you have tension, and secondly, that everyone's on the same page.
I’ve been talking about story structure, but another important element is knowing who’s the main character, who's the antagonist, and who’s the ally. I know we're going to be talking about that in one of the next installments of Story Masters, so I won’t disclose too much right now, but it's really important that the customer is always the protagonist of the story.
The marketing team is going to be telling those stories, but you cannot do it alone. You need the product team to tell you which users are using the product in an interesting way, and you need a commercial team to connect you with those customers.
All of those teams need to feel engaged and understand the impact that your product has in the real world, and they need to feel passionate about it. That's your role internally – evangelizing about your product and the broader impact it has.
That's a great note to end on, Gastón. Do you have any final pieces of advice before we wrap things up?
If you want to be a disruptor, pay attention to the stories you hear in the real world and try to understand their structures. You're not going to be able to disrupt anything unless you know what is already the norm. In the end, you're not going to be able to fully disrupt the story arc; you're only going to disrupt certain elements of it, and I think that's what great storytelling does. Keep the convention for 90% and disrupt 10% to keep things fresh.
Keeping things fresh – that's what we need to do as marketers. Thank you very much for speaking to us today, Gastón.
Stay tuned for more editions of Story Masters with Gastón Tourn!
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