Telling stories is as old as time itself. Hieroglyphics on monuments in ancient Egypt were used to tell stories through symbols etched in stone. Today, we still use symbols to tell stories. Although not nearly as permanent or historically important, emojis help show how we feel and get our message across.
Oral storytelling has been around as long as language, and has been a popular medium in many cultures, like among First Nations people who have passed down oral stories for generations. We can see this form of storytelling today in modern cultures the world over. It’s really no different than seeing a group of people gathered in a circle, all ears perked and listening to the speaker talking about an interesting thing that happened to her during the week. Or a powerful politician delivering a speech at a political rally.
The point is….we tell stories all the time, all over the world, and we have always been telling stories. We want to hear stories. This is nothing new. But the mediums keep evolving and there is always a new platform to help tell them. Instagram tells the story of your weekend through pictures. Twitter tells a story through 140 characters (for some, now 280 characters). Radio, video, virtual reality, billboards, books, newspapers, magazines, blog posts…these are all ways to tell stories.
In fact, we are now drowning in mediums to tell stories. Storytelling mediums are more accessible than ever, it’s easy to mix and match mediums, anyone with even a little bit of internet access can do it, and the audience reach is larger than ever with additional tools (like instant, online translation) helping get messages across.
Sure, mediums have changed, but the messaging remains the same: people want to hear good stories. Certainly, stories can be told in many different ways, but it’s how it’s told that makes it engaging and it needs to work well with the medium in which it’s presented. So how can we do that? What is the best story structure to follow to build tension and actually tell the story?
Traditional story structure:
We are told that stories need to have a beginning, middle and an end. At least that’s what Mr. Smith taught us in the third gradeafter all. And we have been taught that it should look a little bit like this:
Although it gets that token five paragraph essay done and dusted, it might not tell the most engaging story off the page (ie. in video or other mediums). As Adam Westbrook puts it, the beginning, middle, and end formula that we follow in grade school really should look a little bit more like this when we translate it into more multimedia formats:
Introduce conflict -> Heighten conflict -> Resolve conflict
He is absolutely right: we need to truly feel for the characters—comedy or tragedy—to get into the story, be it in a book, a film, or even just a friend telling a story.
Hero’s Journey structure:
This structure has been more elaborated with what can also be referred to as the hero’s journey It’s been used many times over—especially in large blockbuster films like Star Wars, 300, and really any story of a hero triumphing over evil. That structure looks a little bit like this:
In the hero’s journey structure, the character must go from the known to the unknown in order to arrive at a moment of discovery, which is our resolution.
Story Circle structure:
Now, in our medium (video) this art of story really plays into this conflict-resolution no matter how long or complex the video. The story circle technique by Dan Harmon, which builds off the hero’s journey, does a good job to show that story building in a circular fashion like this:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort or familiarity.
2. They desire something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. They adapt to that situation.
5. They get that which they wanted.
6. They pay a heavy price for it.
7. They return to their familiar situation.
8. They have changed as a result of the journey.
Pixar Prompt structure:
One other popular story structure is the Pixar Prompt used at, you guessed it, Pixar Animation Studios. If the circle methods don’t work for you, the fill-in-the-blank method might be a better way to go. That structure looks like this:
Once upon a time there was ______. Every day, ______. One day _____. Because of that, _______. Because of that, ______. Until finally ______.
So what really makes a good story? When you’re thinking of your storyboard for your next video, does it fit into one of the above formats? Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule that you need to use these formats to create a story structure. Just like the basic grade school beginning, middle and end format, as mediums evolve, so will story structure. A perfect example of that is seeing the difference between a good radio documentary, and a video documentary. They need to be told in different ways, but the bottom line is that they still need to have a solid structure. As we move more into the virtual reality realm (VR), how stories are told is likely to shift once again as a one camera angle will shift when considering the audience will have more control over what they want to see.
Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said: the medium is the message, a play on the old adage it’s not the medium, it’s the message. Having passed away in 1980 before the internet took over the world, he might have a different perspective today. These days, though, striking the balance between medium and message, is the key. Story matters— a lot—but using the right medium to tell it, helps strengthen that message even more.