#65 The Four Elements You Need to Craft a Meaningful Story

Have you ever wanted so many things at once and been so excited about them all that you didn’t know where to begin? That’s where I find myself while trying to write today’s newsletter. I find myself there often when I sit down to write Adventures in Storytelling. I want to share it all, at once, to everyone so you can take it and apply it to your life or work or project and start benefiting from this amazing thing called storytelling immediately. There’s just so much of it. Where do we begin?

I know. It’s an amazing problem to have—it’s all so good I don’t know where to start. But it demands discernment and choosing what makes sense to share in the context of everything else I’ve shared and what I think you can use right away. I want to inspire you with the wonder and magic of storytelling, but also give you practical tools and frameworks that you can actually apply in your life. Like all storytelling, it’s about finding the right balance of elements and bringing them together in a way that creates meaning for your audience.

Today I decided practical knowledge. Next week we’ll try for a bit of magic and inspiration.

I’m reading a book called Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, by Angus Fletcher. It is a delight for this story and literature nerd. Early in the text Fletcher mentions in passing that storytelling, also known as narrative, has four elements. You can lean into any one of these or all of them at once to craft your story. Consider this a primer of sorts on the elements of narrative Fletcher mentioned.

We’ve talked about the elements of story before, but it’s important to go back to these types of fundamentals because they makes the difference between a story told well that helps create meaning and one that falls flat and leaves us uncertain or confused.

So Fletcher’s four elements:

  1. Plot. This is action or movement. The WHAT of your story. As in, what is happening. What is the change? What are those key moments that you bring to life in order to get your audience from point A to B? In your career it may be key lessons you’ve learned along the way, in your business key moments in its growth and evolution, in your life it’s the moments that stand out for you as still real and alive even 20 years later. In your art or craft, it’s the experience of the final piece and what it may convey.

  2. Character. This one is about the WHO. The people who populate your story, who you choose to bring to life, how you choose to bring them to life, and why you choose to bring them to life. It’s about who you include in the telling of your story. It’s the hero and all the people or things you infuse life into over the course of your story. What makes them unique? Ask yourself, who is the hero of this story? Whether it’s you in the story of your life or career, your customers in the story of your brand, or someone else whose story you may be sharing.

  3. Storyworld. This is also known as context. WHERE is this story taking place and, again, why there? It’s the world of your brand, the context of your life, what is the setting your hero and characters find themselves in. And what elements of it are significant and influence your story? I encourage my clients to consider their context the things that are happening in culture that are influencing the lives of their customer, the category and their brand. That’s because that is their brand’s storyworld. My personal storyworld is my family and friends and the apartment where I’ve spent much of the past 18 months. What is yours?

  4. Narrator. The person telling your story or the perspective from which it is being told. It could be you the all-knowing “I” or someone else created for the purpose of sharing your story. This one is about personality and tone. It’s the voice of your story. Ask yourself, who is telling this story and why are they the right person to tell it? What are they like and how do they sound? What do they see and what unique perspective and personality are they bringing to the narrative?

But remember, there are no hard and fast rules to storytelling and not every story has all of these elements, though many do. These are the things that I want you to consider as you begin to think about and start sharing your own stories. Ask yourself, what is happening? Who is involved? What’s the context? And who is doing the telling?  There may be one of these questions that is most relevant to your particular story whether it’s a piece of art, your resume or LinkedIn page, or your business.

I just want you to think about your life and work and business in the context of story. Get into the habit of seeing the stories you’re creating and sharing every day and get more purposeful about it. Because storytelling is meaning making—we all do it every day as humans—researchers have found that we understand and construct our lives in the form of narrative. I want to arm you with elements that help you create meaning and clarity in your own stories. It’s a big part of what we’re doing here together.

Let me know in the comments what elements of narrative you find yourself leaning into in your own stories.

And if you haven’t already:

A Story Well Told

I’m late to this one, but I finally got to experience the joy and glee of going to a movie theatre to see a film after over a year of missing out on this essential activity in my life. My favourite kinds of storytelling are cinematic. It lights up my brain and joy sensors and it’s how I connect with and get to spend time with some members of my family. I missed it. My family and I rented out a theatre to (FINALLY!) see Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Renting out a theatre is shockingly affordable to do because of the pandemic. I think many of you know I am a huge Marvel fan, but I’m not sure you know I grew up watching Kung Fu movies and still love them today. Subtitled Bruce Lee and Jet Li? Straight into my veins please. Which made Shang-Chi, a combination of fantasy and martial arts film pure bliss for me. I turned to my brother at one point and said, “I’m so happy right now,” and I was. That is the magic of great storytelling. The pandemic release context means that this great film (truly great and nuanced and surprising and fun and just a story well told) didn’t get the attention and accolades it deserves. If you’ve been curious about Marvel movies or have never really tried out martial arts films or fantasy, this is a wonderful place to start. If you check it out or have seen it already, let me know what you thought.

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