How to tell an epic story in 5 steps

Blog posts, press releases and social media updates may seem like a far cry from great literary writing, but following this five-step model can help you take them up a notch.

We already know the power of telling a great story for our clients. We want to sell that punch-in-the-gut moment, the horse and the puppy Super Bowl tear-jerker, time and time again.

I recently read an article, however, about what comprises an epic relationship. The author surmised that, at a distance, sweeping romances and lifelong relationships are indeed epic, but upon closer look are made up of 20,000 ordinary Wednesdays.

In marketing and PR, we are always looking for the next big story or angle for our product, service or business. That’s our job. But a truly sweeping story—one that snares us from the first gripping sentence to the neatly resolved end—can’t always be full of narrative climax.

Every story has an arc or dramatic structure, and each piece must fit with the whole (what good old Walter Fisher would call narrative probability).

Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, identified five parts of the dramatic arc after he studied Greek and Shakespearean dramas. Each part pushes the audience through the story, and plays an important role in how effectively the story’s climax or main idea is conveyed to the audience:

1. Exposition: The exposition lays out important background information for the audience. You could also call this “context.” Either way, it’s essential for building a story that makes sense.

2. Rising action: This is the series of events that immediately build upon the background information and lead the audience toward the point of greatest interest. This part of the arc is arguably more important than the climax because, without these events, the climax wouldn’t make sense. It would feel jarring, and frankly, the audience won’t care about the climax in the first place.

3. Climax: This is the big moment people talk about after the movie is over—that turning point where things go from bad to good, or sometimes bad to worse, like in the tragedy “Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare was dark, ya’ll.

4. Falling action: This part of the arc answers “What’s next?” It’s where we see how characters respond to the climax or turning point.

5. Resolution: In this part of the arc, all conflicts are resolved, characters return to normal life and there is a pervading sense that, while the big events that got us here might still shape the future, they are firmly in the past.

Critics of Freytag’s model are quick to point out that this arc only applies to tragedies or dramas. However, I’m a fan of allowing any storytelling theory guide the way we do PR and marketing.

I’m also a fan of any model that very closely resembles a sales or buying cycle, and how those models might give us deeper insight into how we might anticipate where customers are in the cycle, and deliver the information they need before they know they need it.

For example, a customer at the beginning of the sales cycle who is unfamiliar with a brand or product will be in dire need of exposition (“Who are you, and why should I care?”). But a customer who is familiar with a brand or product’s key selling points might need the “What’s next?” information (“Your product sounds great. How does it positively or negatively affect my life?”).

When we think of the stories we tell as larger parts of the whole, we can more ably tell the smaller stories that pack less punch because we know how they play into the narrative arc.

Tell that epic story. Just remember that epic stories are composed of a few heroic moments and 20,000 everyday anecdotes.

Sarah J. Storer has been a fan of stories ever since she memorized “Little Red Riding Hood” at the ripe old age of three. Today she channels that passion to help individuals and businesses tell their stories with heart. Learn more at about.me/sarahjstorer or follow her on Twitter @sarahjstorer. A version of this article originally appeared on PRtini.com.

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