I had this idea a while back that I’d use as writing prompts proverbs I include in my book. Then, a couple of weeks ago, you all seemed to LOVE the “How could you use it?” feature I was playing around with. Happily, this week my planned prompt actually fits beautifully with one of the articles in my #swipefile. Let’s start with the story.
The story: The 7 stories of “This American Life”
Audio documentarian Wil Treasure basically wrote my equivalent of catnip. In his post, he categorizes the narrative patterns he sees in the public radio program and podcast “This American Life.” For each story type, he also gives links to two episodes that illustrate that form. Mmm… tasty!
Here are the seven patterns he sees:
- A Day in Your Shoes: While the “day” sometimes covers a month or more, the effect is the same—a minute-by-minute look (or day-by-day) look at what it’s like to be or do a certain thing.
- Familiarity Breeds Contempt: These stories focus on what happens when the normal either meets or becomes “weird,” for whatever reason.
- The Uncuttable Tape: Like horror stories where the monster in the house is bureaucracy and red tape.
- Delight in Mediocrity: A bit of a flip on the “familiarity breeds contempt” story type, this is where something that most people would consider weird becomes exciting or, as the name implies, delightful.
- Through Victims’ Eyes: Through Victims’ Eyes helps us understand the emotional side of both everyday and unusual events, with an eye towards what needs to be done to keep trauma and tragedy from happening again.
- What Happens When…? Based on Treasure’s examples, this reminds me of what my friend and colleague Dr. Nick Morgan calls the “Stranger in a Strange Land” story type. It seems the focus here is on systems and what happens when a system needs to do or accommodate something it wasn’t built to.
- Culture Shift: Treasure likens these to the bureaucracy stories, but for less defined or less overt issues.
How you could use it…
Treasure’s 7 stories reminded me of this proverb I feature in my book: “Good tunes are played on old fiddles.” I use the proverb in the chapter where I talk about why story structure is such a powerful framework for understanding and articulating ideas. Our brains use story structure like a computer reads code. Even though the core elements and structure of story never change, there are nearly infinite variations in what that “code” can produce.
The author Christopher Booker, for instance, argues that there only seven basic plots in storytelling. Nick Morgan uses five in his speechwriting and coaching work. By using “core” or “standard” variations of story structure, you’re doing two things:
- Giving yourself a constructive constraint (a powerful, if counterintuitive, engine for creativity)
- Helping your new idea feel more familiar and comfortable to your audience (which means it’s more likely to be understood and accepted)
The process for using story structures is pretty simple:
- Choose a starting structure
- Use it to tell the story of your idea
So where can you find story types to start from? Well, you could use Treasure’s. Or Booker’s. Or Nick’s. You could also look to genres in fiction writing. Or screenwriting. You could also, like Treasure, go back and find the story types you use over and over again.
The five elements of the Red Thread®, by the way, appear in all types of stories. If you start there, you can then experiment with different genres and story types, knowing that both your message will still work.
For instance, you could take a story you typically tell one way (say, as a Stranger in a Strange Land story), and then see what happens to it when you tell it as a Love Story… or even a Revenge tale (to use three of Nick Morgan’s story types).
Regardless of which you choose, whenever you choose an established story structure, you’re choosing a strong foundation. And when you have a strong foundation, you can build almost anything on it.
Which are your most common story types? Which are your favorites? Which ones do you never use and could start experimenting with? Email me and let me know!Whenever you choose an established story structure, you're choosing a strong foundation. And when you have a strong foundation, you can build almost anything on it. Click To Tweet
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