Narrative structure is the backbone of storytelling. That seems obvious, right? We all know about narrative, and we probably learned the basics of the narrative arc in grade school. So, why are we talking about it?
We need to re-learn narrative structure
The narrative of stories is how we structure the events that take place in a story. If executed correctly, it pulls us along as we read. However, ignoring narrative structure could lead to your story dragging on, forgotten details, unimportant tangents, and more. Ultimately—you could lose your point and your readers.
Understanding how narrative works and how to use it when writing your business comms will make your life so much easier. Plus, it could cut down on your writing time if you start with mapping out your structure.
A lot of creative writing classes use the one-word story exercise as an icebreaker. It goes like this—the professor starts a story with an unfinished sentence such as, “Once upon a time there was a…” Then the students go around the room, adding one word to the story until it’s complete.
Once completed, the professor reads the story out loud to the class. It’s, of course, often silly and a little confusing. However, it’s teaching a valuable skill—crafting a successful narrative structure. No matter how strange the story gets, you have to find a way to compose a basic narrative structure which includes:
- Exposition: Introducing characters, plot, setting, tone, mood, etc.
- Conflict: Introducing a problem, a disagreement, or a hurdle.
- Rising Action: All of the actions taken following the conflict.
- Climax: Everything has built up, and the climax is the main point of action or decision.
- Falling Action: The climax happened, but the story isn’t over. This is all the action that takes us to a conclusion.
- Resolution: Where you tie everything up. Your character has changed, or the reader and/or character has discovered something new.
An easy way to understand this classic narrative arc is to examine a story. For example, let’s look at the narrative arc of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Exposition: Nick Carraway moves to Long Island from the Midwest. He then visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom.
Rising Action: Nick finds out that Tom is having an affair. Nick also finds out his wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby, has a history with Daisy and still loves her. Nick helps reunite Tom and Daisy.
Climax: Daisy tries to leave Tom for Gatsby. Driving home from telling Tom, Daisy hits Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, with her car.
Falling action: Tom finds out his mistress was killed and tells Myrtle’s husband it was Gatsby. Gatsby waits outside Daisy’s house for her, but she never comes outside.
Resolution: Myrtle’s husband kills Gatsby, Daisy moves away, and Nick moves back to the Midwest after holding a small funeral for Gatsby.
However, rules are made to be broken
The Great Gatsby is an excellent example because it employs the classic narrative arc and uses another narrative style—the frame story. The novel begins with an older Nick Carraway recounting the story of his time with Gatsby and Daisy. It also ends with him as an older man reflecting on what it all meant to him and, ultimately, what it meant about life.
This is a framing narrative which is a device used to allow characters to provide more insight into the story after it takes place. This is an example of how the classic narrative structure can be re-worked or broken to strengthen the narrative.
We see writers breaking the rules all the time in movies and our favorite books. A few types of narrative structures and devices that break the mold include.
- In the Medias Res
- The Three-Act Structure
- A Disturbance and Two Doorways
- The Hero’s Journey
- The 7-point story structure
- The Snowflake Structure
- Freytag’s Pyramid
- So many more!
There are a few famous narrative structures, but the list is endless. Plus, you can add to the list. The best narrative structure is the one that tells your story in the most effective way. I could spend an entire blog post on each structure, but first, it’s best to master the classic narrative arc discussed above.
So, how does this relate to your business comms?
A solid narrative structure is vital in creating stories your clients what to engage with. Weaving narrative into your business comms makes your clients want to read them. Think about it—would you rather read a typical case study or a story about how a team solved a problem?
Take one of Nike’s most recent ads, which tells the story of tomorrow. Instead of writing an ad that tells the audience about Nike’s values and which famous athletes wear their shoes, they tell us a story. They tell the story of tomorrow. The athletic events that will take place, the people who will go on a run for the first time, how we will respect athletes’ mental health, records that we’ll break, etc. Through this narrative, we see their values and who wears their shoes. We also see empathy which, in turn, makes us feel connected to the company.
So, you’re ready to start writing your brand’s stories and weaving narrative into business comms. You have your classic narrative structure map in hand. Here are a few things to think about as you write and edit:
- What information/context do readers need to know before starting the story?
- What are my main plot points, including beginning (context), middle (conflict), end (resolution)?
- Is this sentence, detail, or paragraph aligning with and/or adding something to my main point?
- If a stranger read this story, would they understand how/when the events took place?
- Is this story told as succinctly as possible?
- Do I want to keep reading/know what happens?
The best way to get better at writing a basic narrative arc is to practice! Remember, having a narrative structure is designed to make the story more successful but also to make writing easier and quicker. With a little practice, it won’t be as daunting to sit down in front of a blank page.