The 3 Core Elements of Good Storytelling (And Why Your Business Needs Them)

Image of Cinderella and Her Slipper

Think of a story, any story.

How about Cinderella, for instance.

If you remember it, what does that story bring up right away in your mind? If we examine the Cinderella story closely we see three basic elements …

  1. The sequence
  2. The suspense
  3. The roller coaster

I argue that these same elements exist in every great story, and that it’s crucial that you write and use stories in your content marketing efforts as a way to differentiate yourself from the mass of mediocre media publishers out there.

So how do you do it, particularly if you’re not a visionary like Walt Disney?

Let’s take a look at each of these three elements in the Cinderella story, and how you can use them to your advantage …

1. The sequence

We have the daughter who’s mistreated and made to do menial work in the kitchen.

Then there’s the other daughters romping about, having a great old time, doing what spoiled daughters do. These ladies fancy their romantic and social climbing chances with the prince.

But things don’t go their way, and in turn, Cindy manages to get a fairy godmother. And blah, blah, blah.

There’s a sequence of events building into each other here. But a good story must have some drama, some suspense.

2. The suspense

Suspense follows us all around the storyline …

Cinderella’s mother dies and she’s doomed to sleeping near the fireplace (which is how she gets the name, Cinderella).

But the fairy godmother appears from the blue — and suspense builds, because now Cinderella has a chance like everyone else. Will she make it? Won’t she?

She does. And then, just as Cindy’s hitting it off with the Prince, the clock goes nuts and her life is miserable once more.

What on earth is happening? What’s with this girl? Is she just going to be a loser?

Yup, that’s all suspense.

3. The roller coaster

Good times, then bad. Then good, then bad.

Your story doesn’t have to swing wildly, but it helps to have contrast, because contrast changes the pace of the story.

So, just as things are really yucky, along comes the knight in shining armour.

Or, just as things are looking great, an avian flu threatens to kill the entire population.

Cinderella’s fortunes seem to bounce up and down, which keeps the interest in the story.

Now let’s head over to your story …

Every piece of story content you write must have a clear sequence, because without sequence a story has no meaning.

But what about suspense? You have to insert a certain amount of suspense. It’s always there in your story, but when you insert a ‘what the heck is happening’ factor, you instantly build suspense.

And finally there’s the roller coaster. If your story has been coasting with the fairies for a while, then it’s time to bring out the ogres — and vice versa.

Two reasons why this kind of storytelling is critical

1. Most writers are unable to capture the core elements of a story.

Even if they get the sequence right, they rarely build in suspense or the roller coaster. That’s because they aren’t aware of these elements, or just don’t know how to go about it.

But you, you can practice and get a lot better.

2. Most articles are almost always how-to or reporter-like.

This means that your story articles will automatically stand out when compared to the millions of other articles on the Internet.

Because most writers avoid this kind of storytelling, your articles will be instantly more appealing, and different.

Does it have to be a story?

Your content doesn’t have to be a pure story to take advantage of these three persuasive elements.

For instance, case studies naturally contain the same three elements, but you still have to work with the suspense and the roller coaster in that format.

The key factor is to realize that you’re already off to a brilliant start with a story because you have the advantage of a logical sequence of compelling events.

And with a bit of practice, suspense and the roller coaster will become part of your case-study (or storytelling).

Kids sit in rapt attention when listening to the story of Cinderella

No matter how many times you tell the story, they’re keen as mustard to hear it again.

Now you know why, and you can take the same elements and use it in your articles.

Great storytelling isn’t easy to achieve, but with practice, and a focus on the core elements, you can begin to build the kinds of stories for your product or service that spread and sell.

Then your audience will have that same mustardy-feeling too.

;-)

About the Author: Sean D'Souza offers a great free report on 'Why Headlines Fail' when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. You make a good point about content being very “reporter” like–here’s the facts, here’s what happened, who said what. While all useful information it’s missing that spark that pulls you in and makes you want to know more about what is really going on. Not just what happened, but why and how.

  2. Interesting article Sean. I clicked through to your blog and had a quick skim through (will read in more detail later) and could see a lot of your posts used a story telling format.

    Certainly I try and build in an element of storytelling (and real experiences) to a lot of my articles, but this takes things a little further.

    You’re right that there are so many similar ‘how to do this’ posts and you need something to cut through the crowd. I wrote a post on my blog yesterday about what I believe makes content truly unique and this is an interesting addition, so will drop a link to this post in my article later.

    • That’s because I grew up in a story-like childhood. My father was a king, my mother was…

      Just kidding! :)

    • I completely agree that stories sell but certain types of businesses make it difficult to craft a story. Case in point: One of my clients has a brick-and-mortar game store as well as a web store. Blogs that provide game reviews are easy but I’ve been racking my brain how to craft a marketing story that fits his business, especially since his target clients don’t “need” his product. It’s all desire driven. Is their a prior Copyblogger post I’ve missed on this type of situation. I’ve extensively read your archives but haven’t seen this addressed.

      • Beth, certainly different types of business present different challenges and obstacles when it comes to storytelling. But more importantly, they present different opportunities. To me, anything involving a “game” is ripe for story! Games are meant to provide entertainment, education, and perhaps both. They bring people together, maybe even families … or, if solo games, they provide solace or companionship when wants to escape from the world. Either way, there are stories at every turn. You’re right: people don’t NEED games. We want them. We want them so much that, at times, it can feel like we NEED them. Because we do need diversions from every day life, and we need activities around which we can build relationships through shared experiences … and games deliver both.

        Consider these posts as you brainstorm for storytelling ideas for your client:

        http://www.copyblogger.com/storytelling-marketing/

        http://www.copyblogger.com/37-seconds-to-great-storytelling/

  3. I’ve seen the storytelling philosophy appear in the travel space lately and think it has great merits as i think travel fits well with the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be romanced by a hidden beach getaway after all?

    • Story telling has been around for thousands of years, but only some storytellers that stand out. Understanding what makes a story vs. a superb story is what you’d want to really learn and practice.

  4. Always nice to read your content Sean! Clear, useful and easy to understand. Bye!

  5. I definitely am getting better at my writing and storytelling, but this helps me see how even factual driven posts can contain stories and these three elements. That is what I am going to major on now. Thanks, Amy

  6. This post reminds me of the TV drama The Killing. My entire family is hooked on that show and it precisely follows these three elements. People can’t get enough of the suspense and are anxiously waiting for the next sequence.

    Thanks for breaking it down for us Sean!

  7. Great post! It’s amazing what power stories can have on people.

  8. I love this post — it’s practical and makes such sense. Your fairy tale example makes it easy to remember your advice, too. Many thanks.

  9. Thanks for the way you presented this info. Definitely need to build some type of suspense because people are caught by that type of writing.

  10. I’m developing a children’s picture book series and middle grade book and never thought of applying the lessons from writing for kids to writing content for businesses and/or adults. It makes sense to include the elements of sequence, suspense, and roller coaster.

    Thanks for the insight!

  11. Sean-

    Thanks for the article. Did you use the formula in this article? Just curious, because if you did, I didn’t catch it.

  12. Having these three elements broken down into three simple elements helps so much. Do you think that once you have a good sequence, creating the suspense roller-coaster is something that can be done from the foundation of your sequence?

  13. Great explanation Sean. I will definitely remember this as I write, Thanks!

  14. Perhaps I’m looking at this differently, but I’m looking at the sequence as the players or actors in the story.

  15. Great post on exactly how to put story elements into a blog post.

  16. Good post, Sean. As a copywriter, I don’t often write in a story format, but I think I should do it more often. We all love a good story, right? From a commercial point of view, it enables the reader to empathise and imagine themselves in a particular situation. When this happens it’s very easy for a business to get their message across.

  17. Taking readers on a journey through storytelling is definitely a great way to create more engagement. Great article.

  18. Archan Mehtaa :

    I enjoyed reading your post, Sean, and it really resonated with me.

    I have always loved stories. In fact, literature was my favorite subject when I was a child. I enjoyed the experience of being romanced by a good story.

    I think story-telling is becoming a lost art. In this age of commerce, after all, who has time for art?

    However, that is short-sighted, because art is much more than making a good sale. Art uses your imagination and encourages your creativity.

    That’s why rather than being told to buy a product or service, people are more likely to remember a story if the writer has done a good job.

    Potential customers want to arrive at their own conclusions rather than being pointed in one direction. They want to feel respected, like they have a brain and can use it. A good story fosters that relationship between a writer and prospect. Please keep up the good work. Cheers to you.

    • We have used a story/analogy for our products right from the year 2002. It must work because just one book, The Brain Audit, has made $500,000 worth of sales. And that’s nett profit, not gross. :)

  19. Amazing writing tips, I’m always struggling when I write I will definitely keep your tips in mind, Thanks for sharing!

  20. Jane Pellicciotto :

    Thank you for this post. What are your thoughts about service providers/consultants and whether this kind of format is better to use to tell one’s own story versus that of the people you’re trying to reach?

    Of course both can be used, and the stories might be different from one another, but in terms of impact and limited space/attention span, do you think that one has more merit over the other?

    • I don’t think one is better than the other.

      A story that has impact, has impact. If you tell the story of your own life/work, and it has impact, people will listen. If you talk about someone else, they will listen too.

      The key lies in how you go about unravelling the story.

  21. A great post. More and more these days in my copywriting classes I am emphasising how everything is a story. Everything. Whether you’re writing about mushrooms as the new plastic (which we do) or an internal communication on a new briefing system (which we do) or a grain of sand (which we haven’t yet). This post does a nice job of explaining story structure as sequence, suspense and roller coaster. I take it further with participants in my class by getting them to see how every sentence is a micro-story – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end (sequence), there’s propositional content (cumulative suspense) and there’s some kind of tension (in the form of one of the many patterns of expression or a cognitive dissonance or an insight or perhaps just a bit of wit as relief from preceding tension). In short, there is a joy to writing on all topics great and small when it is viewed as a story. And I see that joy on the faces of my course participants when they too get it.

  22. Superb. This is the exact feature I see with certain writers that are considered the ultimate authority on most subjects including SEO. Destined to write epic articles for my clients on a not-so-glamorous-subject is my primary goal. My capturing this hurdle my path will be clear for much more work.

    You are awesome for sharing this and many have attempted to explain this but failed. You win.

  23. This is great it reminds me of my high school literature class. When writing a story you need to prepare the plot. Theres the beginning, rising, climax and the ending to make a good story. True enough, that in internet marketing or blogging you need to entice your reader to get involve with what you are writing and the three elements mentioned above do help a lot in capturing the attention of prospective buyers.

  24. I’ve written and published lots of articles as contributing writer to online news sites, to my own blogs, as well as had lots of my creative writing published in print.

    IMO, some of the most difficult articles to read are those that attempt to write in story format about mundane events. So, my thought is that the story format may work well as long there is interesting content that is complex enough to fill it out.

    • The event is never mundane. In fact, at this very moment we’re having a course on something called the “First 50 Words”—which is the first fifty words you use in an article or presentation or video/audio.

      I give the participants a random article.

      Just any article from any newspaper or magazine. And they have to find the drama in it. You’ll be amazed how any story, no matter how bland looking has drama in it.

      e.g. Think of Red Riding Hood. Who thought that she’d have to deal with a wolf, or get the services of a woodcutter or save her grandma? It could be just another girl in the wood story, but what makes it amazing is how the story is told.

      • Red Ridinghood is an exciting scary story. Fairytales have other purposes and greater depth than many online articles. An article I read on how a guy boiled chicken bones to use them in his sculpture was fascinating to me. I’ve written and published lots on everyday events.
        Yet, there are some articles that do not hold my attention, with lengthy storytelling paragraphs filling it out but conveying mostly the use of that device. I’m annoyed as I read hoping for the point, the thesis statement, a clue as to where these words are leading me.

  25. Great post! I personally hate suspense, but I know others really get engaged by it. I’ll have to pop over to your site and see how it’s done. I know in my own blog I’m stuck in a rut of how-to’s and straightforward techniques. The one time I managed to work an element of story into a post, the views and shares went crazy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure at the time what I had done, and couldn’t replicate it.

    Thanks again!

  26. It starts out beautifully, goes nicely and then glides up and down with twists and turns until it ends in a mustardy way. i like this story about better storytelling because it’s been very helpful. Thanks Sean

  27. Great points, having a “story” type of content allows for emotions to get whirled into the picture. It gets people more interested n your content

  28. What a good insight Sean. The usual reporting type of articles can get pretty boring especially if it’s for marketing and promoting a business. I’ve rarely seen authors try this approach to talk to an audience and as a writer, I’d like to give this approach a shot. I also like the Cinderella example to showcase the difference between the sequence, suspense and the rollercoaster. True enough, a story-telling approach is more interesting and can capture the heart easily compared to the usual approaches. Again, such a great insight I’ve learned today. Thanks for this, Sean. Hope there’s more coming!

  29. Gold!

    Thanks – I’ve got a feeling that I’ve been overdoing the “how-to”s.

  30. Good insight on storytelling. I’m always trying to find a way for my blogs to stand out, and this is a great measuring stick. Thanks for posting.

  31. I always tell my blogging friends the importance of making their articles more personal to the readers. I tell them the readers need to feel they they are being talked to by a close friend instead of just hearing a recording like a lot of blogs seem like. I think storytelling is very important when trying to make the post more emotional and personal to the reader. It allows readers to relate to the story a lot easier.

  32. Always nice to read your content Sean! Clear, useful and easy to understand. Thanks for sharing!

    Hello from Brazil.

  33. Hahahaa…. Suspense is the main part and parcel of effective story telling. It is indeed a good way to keep the attention of the people….:)

  34. Tension, release, and repeat. Love the Cinderella approach! Here’s to giving every audience that extra-special “mustardy” sensation

  35. Extremely interesting article, Sean!

    Challenge: how would you go about putting suspense and roller coaster elements into an article such as ’10 Tips To Avoid Penguin Penalties’.

    OK, I confess. That’s an article I am working on and I am trying to get some free advice here…