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Why is a Storytelling Meta-Template Powerful?

6 min

The storytelling meta-template is a tool that will allow you to get much better at PR and content marketing.

So, you want to sell a washing powder. You can write a standard copy: the highest washing quality, the best price, a back to school promo, buy now! But wait! In advertising everything has to be a story now, so why not sell the washing powder using the power of storytelling?

Here’s the basic template. ”Meet Kate. Kate desperately wanted to wash her clothes but couldn’t. That is until the off voice told her about this new washing powder. Now Kate’s clothes are clean and she’s happy!” Do we have a story? Yes. Is it poor? Incredibly poor. Why? Two reasons.

An ad revolves around a product. The story’s central point is the protagonist. But we have Kate in the above example. So why doesn’t it work? Well, in order for the audience to root for the hero, we need to be aware of a couple of things. First, a hero needs a goal. She needs to want something, crave for a change. Do we have a goal in our story? Well, sort of. There’s one very important thing missing from it.

A stake. We need to know why the protagonist’s craving is so important. In an ideal story, it’s the matter of life and death. Of course, we don’t have to treat it liter- ally every time but consider this: Kate met a guy yesterday, he is everything she’s ever dreamt of. And he invited her on a date today! But she’s just landed in a foreign city after two weeks of hiking, and all she has is a bag full of dirty clothes. Now her desire for the clean clothes is more interesting. Because it’s no longer about the laundry — it’s about Kate winning the love of her life. Most of the corporate storylines already have a protagonist (“Our CEO opened the new production line” or ”Wesley became the newest member of our product team”) but fail to emphasize the importance of the goal they try to achieve. Fix this one thing and your stories will be better. But there is more to it.

Do you know how do you engage your curiosity? I just did.

When Emma Coats tweeted the Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling, many asked: which one is the most important of them? My vote goes to this one:

You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

The harder your character tries to succeed, the harder the audience roots for him. Now let’s get back to Kate’s story. There’s no trying at all there! The same goes for most of the corporate storylines: a CEO opened the new production line. Wesley became the newest member of our team. How do you make your character try? Use the second rule of good storytelling:

What is your character good at? What is he comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them.

If the salesperson is good at winning new clients, a story about her winning a new client is no story at all. Have the CEO (a nerdy tech genius with a social anxiety) go to the sales meeting and see how she copes. It makes for a much better story, right?

A structure to rule them all

A book titled Culture And Narration appeared in 1976. Its authors, Edmund Leach and Algirdas Greimas, researched the structures of folk tales. They came up with a story structure: six elements each story should have. What can we find there?

  • The hero. Your typical story protagonist: Kate from the story above, our nerdy CEO or Wesley, the newest member of our team.
  • The goal. Most of the stories have them. Good stories emphasize the stakes. So the CEO needs to open the new production line or the company goes bankrupt. Kate needs her clean clothes so she can win the love of her life. You get it.

But this is where things get interesting. How do you throw your protagonist in a situation he clearly does not want to be in? You add two elements to your story.

  • The giver is someone (or something) who throws our protagonists out of their comfort zones. For Kate, it’s her two-week hiking. The nerdy CEO has to go to a sales meeting because of the nasty flu that’s decimating his team.
  • The receiver. You can come up with a very fancy reason for your protagonist to abandon his comfort zone, but your audience still needs to believe it. This is where the receiver comes in. Why would our character agree on doing something completely out of character? What would trigger them? Kate does it in the name of love. And what about our CEO?

If you got the previous ones right, you still have two more to go. These are about your story’s turning point.

  • The enemy. In classic fairy tales, it’s the dragon. In Kate’s story, it’s her dirty laundry. For our CEO it’s his social anxiety. The better you depict the enemy, the more emotional your audience will get. You need the protagonist to fall.
  • The help(er). Another character or a magical artifact that comes to the rescue. Our hero can be helped directly (think Sam carrying Frodo in The Lord of the Rings) or he can have something called the a-ha moment (like when Rafiki talks Simba into going back in The Lion King).You can recognize this structure in fairy tales, movies or advertising. But many of these stories feel… schematic. Why? Because they’re based on the same template? Well… Here comes the best part.

A template for a template?

Most of the advertising or PR copy that is written using the story structure follows the basic template: Your customer is the protagonist and the product is the help(er). You can squeeze a fairly decent story out of it (by giving your protagonist an unusual goal or a surprising motivation), but the audience will know (sooner rather than later) what you are trying to achieve.

You should know that there are three more meta-templates (the templates for using the story structure template) that you can use. And they’re not that obvious.

  • The product and the customer are the helpers. Someone important for the customer is the hero. Just look at the brilliant execution of this template below:
  • The seller is the protagonist, the customer is the helper and the prod- uct… is the enemy! A boy sells his engagement ring on eBay. He does not want to have it because the girl said no. You’ll help him… by buying the ring!
  • The product is the hero! Think of a lamp that just wants to be useful. Or furniture that craves for some warmth from the butts of a loving family…

Next time you’ll want to build your story, think of the above set of tools. Then disregard the first thing that comes to your mind. Get rid of the second and third thing, too. Now you can start telling your story.