Storytelling Secrets: How to Make Your Readers Listen and Care
I mean, you can write a personality-free tutorial or a poker-faced list of tips. But a story always reveals you. Stories are so profoundly human that you can’t tell them without opening yourself up.
That’s why it’s harder and scarier to write stories than how-tos. But also, that’s why a story—unlike advice—is almost impossible to ignore. We can’t help it; human brains are wired to listen to stories.
So, here’s how to make your readers listen and care in today’s fast and noisy online world: Tell stories, and tell them well.
If storytelling scares you, then this post is for you. The better you understand what makes stories tick, the more comfortable storytelling becomes. Because although it may seem like an erratic process, a good story is no coincidence.
Once you learn how storytelling works, you’ll be able to craft a story that makes people listen and care on demand.
In short: As someone who needs to be heard and seen online, storytelling may as well be the most important skill you’ll ever learn.
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The Anatomy of a Story
Here are the super basic elements of a story:
Let’s take a closer look.
A protagonist: The One
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Where there’s no protagonist, there is no story. And the story is only as strong as the writer’s concept of the hero. If you have a general idea, your story will come across as vague and boring. The more you know about your protagonist, the better story you can tell.
Now, let’s put aside the character’s traits for now, and concentrate on the three things the protagonist (and the story) can’t live
A goal: What they want
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
A goal is an external desire. Harry Potter wants to beat Voldemort. Neo wants to free humans from the Matrix. Frodo wants to destroy the Ring. Hamlet seeks revenge for his father. Louisa wants to convince Will that his life is worth living (eh?).
The goal should be:
☆ Important: The character takes the challenge personally. They have to act.
☆ Urgent: And they have to act now.
☆ Specific: They know what actions they need to take to get what they want.
The goal is a means; it sets the protagonist off on the journey. The story works well even if the protagonist fails to achieve their goal. But only as long as their motivation is clear and consistent.
Motivation: Why they want it
Motivation is an internal need. Harry, Neo, and Frodo want people (wizards, elves, hobbits, whoever) to live in peace and freedom. Hamlet wants justice. Louisa wants to live in a world where love overcomes all limitations.
Unlike the goal, the motivation is universal. Also, unlike the goal, it has to be something the reader wants, too: You don’t have to live with a desire to kill your uncle to empathize with Hamlet; your sense of justice helps you.
If you don’t understand the character’s motivation or if it doesn’t resonate with you, you don’t care about the story. In other words, if you want readers to care, make sure their motivation and the protagonist’s motivation are in alliance.
So, here’s the secret ingredient to add to your brand storytelling: When you use storytelling to market yourself online, the motivation is your why. When your hero’s vision of the better world is the same as your audience’s, boom: You won their attention.
Related: Here’s how to find
A conflict: What stands in the way
The conflict may be internal or external, or both.
Internal: The protagonist doesn’t believe in themselves. They lack confidence, knowledge, or abilities. They think they aren’t “the One.”
External: They face external obstacles in their surrounding— society or nature. The external conflict may be embodied by a villain (Voldemort, Agent Smith, King Claudius).
Time and place: When and where the story happens, and how it all began
I didn’t say setting because I didn’t want you to picture just the place, like Hogwarts, Middle-earth, or south Wales. Sure, the place is important; no story happens in a vacuum. When you employ details to paint a picture of the place in your reader’s mind, you make the story more alive and credible.
But the setting is not just the place; it’s also the time: When does the story take place? But also, how do you frame the story? And what do you do with what’s outside of the frame? Because again, there’s no vacuum. There’s always context.
Here’s what I mean.
The story begins with the inciting incident: The protagonist leads an ordinary life (well… how can being a wizard or a Danish prince be ordinary? But anyway…) and then something happens, and they can’t live like this anymore.
But this is never the whole story. Something had happened before – in the past, in the history, in the protagonist’s childhood, or before they were even born (Harry, Neo). Something shaped the character or the world they live in.
Where does the story come from? This is what we call an origin story.
You as the writer need to decide: How much does the reader need to know? When do you tell them? How do you tell them?
The origin story can be revealed:
☆ before the main story – as an introduction
☆ during the story – as flashbacks, intermezzos, monologues (like when Morpheus explains the Matrix to Neo – and to the audience)
☆ using a combination of different methods
The “real” ending is the resolution: The death of the villain (or the hero), the won/lost battle, the lived happily ever after (or not), and so on, depending on the kind of story.
But, what happens next?
In traditional narratives, usually nothing. Notice how in fairy tales, or in Shakespeare plays, or in Jane Austen’s novels, the ending tends to be fast and authoritative.
Modern stories sometimes add a “tail” of the story – “returned home changed” (quests and coming of age stories), or “happily together” (love stories), or “the new life” (any story).
Unlike the origin story, which is important so that the reader understands the motivation and the context, the “after” part is just a bonus. If you include it at all, it should be short so that it doesn’t outbalance the main story. Everything important has already been said.
A plot: What happens in between
Here comes the struggle. Remember all the internal and external conflicts, obstacles, and villains? It’s time to have some fun with them.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
For the hero of the story, things have to get harder and harder. As they grow, learn, and get stronger, you need to put bigger and bigger obstacles in their way. Make them suffer.
Then, when the reader thinks it can’t get worse, find a way to torture them even more. Make it worse (the crisis) just before you make it good (the climax)—or, you know, before you end the story in a pool of blood.
Errm, okay, in business writing, you’d rather not include blood pools in your stories.
But anyway, this was the “secret” structure of an unputdownable story.
Put it in practice: A storytelling exercise
When I first learned about the theory of storytelling, I didn’t believe it. Stories seemed more like alchemy to me, rather than an exact chemical reaction with its own formula. But then I could no longer ignore it. There was a formula.
I could see it in my favorite movies, plays, and novels. In ads, commercials, on about pages, in TED talks, non-fiction books, and motivational speeches. It was everywhere.
Now, it’s your turn. Think about a story you like. Think stories, not things like postmodern experiments, absurd drama, and such. Think Pixar movies, Marvel comics, fantasy novels, or classic novels and plays.
Can you dismantle them to see the common structure? Can you identify the goals, motivation, and conflict? The initiating incident? The origin story? The crisis and climax?
Write the structure down for at least three stories, and you’ll never see storytelling the same way.
Oh, here’s a fun worksheet (no opt-in required) to help you identify the story elements and reflect on them:
✯ Next time, we’ll talk about the story arc in more details and find out how to apply the storytelling formula to online marketing. Subscribe here so that you don’t miss it. More storytelling secrets are coming!
✯ In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you like writing stories? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Let me know in the comments.
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