Three Core Elements of Storytelling (And Why You Need To Write Stories Right Away)

by Sean D'Souza

Think of a story.
Any story.
Maybe just Cinderella, for instance.

What does it bring up right away to your mind?

1) Sequence
2) Suspense and
3) The roller coaster

Three Core Elements of Storytelling (And Why You Need To Write Stories Right Away)

Stories are like magic lamps. They have a sequence, there’s suspense and sure to be a roller coaster.

So if we examine Cinderella’s story we see:

1) There’s the sequence of the daughter who is mistreated and made to work in the kitchen.

The other daughters romp about doing what spoiled daughters do. And they fancy their chances with the prince. But things don’t go their way, and in turn, Cindy manages to get a fairy godmother. And blah, blah, blah.

And there’s a sequence of events each building into each other. But a good story must have some drama, some suspense.

2) The suspense

Suspense follows us all around the storyline. Cinderella’s mother dies and she’s doomed to sleeping near the fireplace (which is how she gets the name, Cinderella). But then the godmother appears from the blue—and suspense builds up—because now Cinderella has a chance like everyone else. Will she make it? Won’t she? She does. And then just as Cindy’s hitting it off with the Prince, the clock goes nuts and her life is miserable once more. What on earth is happening? What’s with this girl? Is she just going to be a loser? Yup, that’s all suspense.

3) Then there’s the roller coaster

Good times, then bad. Then good, then bad. Your story doesn’t have to swing wildly, but it helps to have contrast, because contrast changes the pace of the story. So just as things are really yucky, along comes the knight in shining armour. Or just as things are looking great, an avian flu threatens to kill the entire population. Cinderella’s fortunes seem to bounce up and down, which keeps the interest in the story.

Now let’s head to your story…

Every story you write tends to have sequence, because without sequence a story has no meaning. But suspense? You have to insert a certain amount of suspense. It’s always there in your story, but when you insert a ‘what the heck is happening’ factor, you instantly build suspense. And finally the roller coaster. If your story has been coasting with the fairies for a while, then it’s time to bring out the ogres—and vice versa.

And there are reasons why this storytelling is important:

1) Most writers are unable to capture the core elements of a story. Even if they do get the sequence right, they rarely build in suspense or the roller coaster. That’s because they aren’t aware of these elements, or just don’t know how to go about it. But you, you can practice and get a lot better.

2) Most articles are almost always how-to or reporter-like. This means that your articles automatically stand out when compared to millions of other articles on the Internet. And because most writers avoid this story-telling, your articles are instantly more appealing—and different.

Does it just have to be a story or can you have a case-study?

Case studies also have the same three elements, but you still have to work in the suspense and the roller coaster. The key factor is to realise that you’re already off to a brilliant start with a story because you have the advantage of sequence. And with a bit of practice, suspense and the roller coaster will become part of your case-study (or story-telling).

Kids sit at rapt attention when listening to the story of Cinderella

No matter how many times you tell the story, they’re keen as mustard to hear it again. Now you know why. And you can take the same elements and use it in your articles.

And then everyone who reads it will have that same mustardy-feeling too

The three core elements of storytelling are sequence, suspense and the roller coaster. How have you used these elements in your articles? Share your story here.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary-Helen Rossi March 7, 2012 at 5:03 am

Well done and helpful article, as usual! Could you tell me please how you would insert suspense into a case study of a person who was failing and then found success? I can’t see how it wouldn’t appear to be manipulated (“well, of course there were trials along the way, but since you’re pitching this, there must also be a success – right?”). Maybe the answer’s in Cindy’s story – although I don’t get it. It makes me wonder – why do we not presume from the beginning that she’s going to get the gold ring, since this story is about her and stories like this have happy endings?

Reply

Sean DSouza March 9, 2012 at 5:03 am

Well, there’s no such thing as a flawless case study. Even if you look at the man on the moon, or climbing Everest, or just about any business or nonbusiness case study, there is going to be a whole bunch of blips before the big prize.

And it’s part of who we are. We expect the blips. Not having it in your case study makes it look ‘manipulated.’ Having it in your case study makes it look like it’s real—because it is.

And no, all stories don’t have to have happy endings. Case studies may be lessons and have morals. It depends on how you want it to end.

Reply

Mary-Helen Rossi March 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Thanks Sean, I get it – although i have to say i wasn’t suggesting all stories have happy endings … just that usually the stories used for case studies do.

Reply

Sean DSouza March 11, 2012 at 3:35 am

All the more reason to have some bounce before it ends happily.

Reply

Mary-Helen Rossi March 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Ohhhh. Yesterday I was reading your ebook on the sales page. I was pretty much “getting” it, but not deeply enough to be satisfied. When I got to your statement that the “benefits are the solutions” I broke into laughter. I finally got it! From then on, it all made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before (the curiosity of the bullets, etc.).

Beauty’s in the eye, eh? It’s easy to see your approach as simple – but just like your comment above, about the bounce before the expected happy ending, you’ve got a lot going on. Thanks again!

Reply

Sean DSouza March 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Watch the video too!

Reply

Mary-Helen Rossi March 12, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Your reply is another example of excellent marketing … and of course, I watched it first!

Reply

Gogo Erekosima March 7, 2012 at 5:54 am

You always amaze me with the clarity of your insights. I’m currently working with a consulting firm client, and theirs is a supposedly “boring” expertise having to do with financial and mathematical wizardry. However, they now realize that there is a story to be told and we’re currently crafting a mailer that will now account for these 3 elements you’ve shared above … somehow.

I think storytelling is a cornerstone skill that every marketer, consultant, and leader will need to master in an era of ubiquitous information.

Thanks for a great post.

Reply

Sean DSouza March 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

You’re welcome. Yes, use the story. :)

Reply

Neil Keleher March 7, 2012 at 9:40 am

I’m seeing that with a book I’m reading now. Just like you lay out, things seem to be going bad then something happens to make it better, then things get bad again.
And that’s perhaps what makes a story interesting, the resolution of a problem or conflict.
The problem I find is that I’m scared to leave the reader wondering. My assumption is that I always have to keep them in the know.

Reply

Sean DSouza March 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

That’s the whole idea, right? To get the reader to follow along. The book allows pulls you along because it’s using this concept, so why are you afraid that you’ll leave your reader wondering?

The only reason you’ll leave your reader wondering is if you don’t close the loop.

Reply

Andrew Healey April 2, 2012 at 3:35 am

Nice blog Sean. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about this sequence in my writing. I’ll have to give it a go.

Reply

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