#48 How to Get from Beginning to End with Impact

What Shape is Your Story? An Essential Element of Structure

Crafting a cohesive narrative can be difficult. Yes, we have the messy first draft to remove some of the pressure, which helps. But if you’re working on a longer format story (a song, a novel, a movie, etc.) getting from beginning to end and taking your audience along for the ride without losing them is an increasingly difficult task. Partly because of our (false) belief in multitasking and our increasing dependency on bites of information. But also because sometimes storytellers forget they’re heading somewhere with their tales. An end of some sort. The final stanza, the resolution, the conclusion.

I called this newsletter Adventures in Storytelling because I believe that when you tell a story you’re taking your audience on a journey, from one state to some sort of changed state. Hopefully you evolve or build on their perspective or expose them to something new—it’s always an adventure. But only if you’re able to take (and keep) them with you on the ride.

The most powerful tool to effectively complete that journey from a clear start to some unknown end of a story is a through line. I’ve mentioned through lines before and made a note to myself to circle back to them. This is that circling back.

When the concept of through line was first mentioned to me in passing (by I think a journalism professor) I and the other students around nodded our heads eagerly, immediately comprehending the term. But that’s because we’d been spending gruelling months in the bitter cold of Ottawa thinking about nothing but stories. When I mentioned it in passing to advertising colleagues years later, I got a blank stare in response.

Simply put, a through line is the thread that runs from the beginning of your story to the end; it’s the forward moving action that takes your audience from point A to B. You can think of it as the underlying narrative of your story. That’s how I think of it. It helps it all make sense to your audience (if sense is what you’re aiming for). It helps you tell a story with clarity and cohesion, which makes it essential for great storytelling.

It can be a straight line (boring); it can go up and down (overwhelming); it can be any shape you’d like, but it needs to travel from A to B (even if B is just a short step away from A). Traditionally it shows up as an arc—rising tension to a climax and slow fall as the story concludes. The Hero’s Journey is based on it as is the three act play or film. It’s the western go-to in stories.

I read a book over the weekend called Meander, Spiral, Explode. It’s all about different narrative structures—the many shapes and iterations of literary narrative. It helped me see beyond the arc in narrative structure. The thing that held them together for me was that through line, in fact following that line is what created the many different structures of narrative. Whether it was a spiral, explosion, or network they all had a line that took the reader along for the ride (or allowed them to find their way to the end).

Spiral narrative structure drawing by Ethan Feuer for Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode http://www.ethanjfeuer.com/portfolio/meander-spiral-explode/

It got me thinking about what shapes my stories were—mostly arcs but in my brand storytelling sometimes something different (a post for another day). The books and stories that have captured my attention most have been ones with through lines that deviated from the expected and made the journey to point B that much more exciting. Do you remember mix tapes? The ones you made for crushes or best friends in the 90s and early aughts? Those all had through lines—an experience you created and a cohesion that came over the course of 15-20 songs. Your stories need them. Actually, no. Your audience needs them.

Ask yourself, what’s the through line of your career (mine is storytelling and writing), what’s the through line of your project, what’s the through line of your life (often your purpose will help you with that)?

A Story Well Told

My friend’s husband made this Spotify playlist for her. It’s a house-inspired workout playlist (but so much more). Great for a high energy workout or just to get worked up an energized for life. He put a lot of thought into the build and evolution of the songs and what they represent. It’s 12 hours long but has a definite and clear through line. He was kind enough to let me share it with you.

Subscribing and sharing are the two best ways to help me continue to share my own adventure in storytelling. If you know someone who has a story to tell and may need some help crafting it, please share this newsletter with them and encourage them to subscribe.

Have a question? Something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with? Just ask. Leave a comment below. I’m here to help.

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Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.