storytelling technique — February 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

The Simple Shapes Of Stories


Stories are journeys, and those journeys have a simple shape. Put simply, a beginning, a middle and an end.

What varies from story to story, however, is the way we structure or shape the journey between those three main acts.

And those variations are finite. There are just a few basic shapes that apply to nearly all stories.

Kurt Vonnegut Explains Story Shapes.

Story shapes fascinated legendary author Kurt Vonnegut. It even provided the basis for his master’s thesis when he was a student at the University of Chicago. Regrettably, that thesis was rejected by his professors who claimed “it was so simple and looked like too much fun.”

In the video above Vonnegut explains his concept.

And below you’ll find a graphic created by designer Maya Eilam in which she visually represents Vonnegut’s thesis, charting familiar narrative shapes like “Boy Meets Girl” and the “Cinderella” story.

Shaping Stories For Business.

Simply being aware that stories require a shape can immediately make your business storytelling more engaging and effective, whether your creating a Powerpoint presentation, making a speech, shooting a video, delivering your elevator pitch or developing a brand.

In fact, the main reason why you might not be effectively engaging your audience is that your stories lack shape and structure. They may contain all the right information, with content that on its own should hold people’s attention, but without organizing it into a clear simple structure, your story will meander, lose focus and your audience will drift away.

Narrative Vs. Expository Stories.

What Vonnegut fails to address in his thesis is the particular nature of many of the stories we tell in business. His emphasis, you see, is on narrative, dramatic storytelling.

In business, however, we’re often called upon to explain procedures, give recommendations or persuade customers to consider our product or service. I call this “expository” storytelling and its more akin to writing an essay than a novel. Or more like non-fiction vs. fiction.

There is certainly overlap with what Vonnegut is saying. Expository stories also demand a beginning, a middle and an end, require a simple shape and can include the dramatic ups and downs of a “hero.”

But often those shapes take different forms from the examples Vonnegut delivers in his lecture. There’s the “Funnel” shape, for example, the “Say What You’re Going to Say/Say It/Say What You Said” shape, and others that are used almost exclusively in business and reporting.

I go into this in some detail in my Strategic Storytelling Seminar and Workshop.

Shapes Engage.

The key thing to remember, no matter what kind of story you’re creating, is that your story requires a structure, a form. In order to engage your audience from beginning to end you have to guide them along a clear, well-lit path.

Keep that in mind and I guarantee your storytelling, and the reaction it receives, will be in much better shape overall.

Become a better storyteller. Check out our Strategic Storytelling seminars and workshops.

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