This is the most comprehensive guide on storytelling you'll ever read.
It covers everything, from the basics to the scientific power of storytelling, to the core elements of story and advanced tools to master storytelling, plus a neat bonus for marketers.
Everything you need to know to write a compelling story is in this guide.
If you've ever wondered how you can tell amazing stories, read on.
What is story? It's probably the most powerful weapon.
Not only for communication, entertainment or marketing. But also to inspire action, heal our wounds, and transform the world. There's an ancient Indian saying that goes: those who tell the stories rule the world. And it is as true today as it was thousands of years ago.
But most people don’t understand what story is. Something that happens? Something that happens to someone?
„As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change.“ – Cron, Lisa. Wired for Story
Why is storytelling the most important skill today?
In this modern world, everybody has been given a megaphone. Millions of people are online for hours daily. And they all have something to say. There's so much noise out there.
How can you stand out from it? How can you get people's attention?
Attention is something that's not scalable. We have a limited amount of it and we've learned to be very cautious about who gets it and for how long.
People click away in milliseconds. If what you're telling doesn't grab them straight away they won't give you their attention. And if you cannot engage them with your message they will click away sooner or later. They'll never remember you and never take action.
The only way to get people's attention is by telling a story.
Stories have been scientifically proven to inspire people to action, trigger feelings and stay in people's memories for a long time.
Who is this guide for?
Understanding why stortelling works
Every single decision you've ever made has been made emotionally.
Even if you'd like to think otherwise.
A man once conducted an experiment on eBay.
He bought 200 objects worth $129 and hired 200 storytellers to make up a story for every single object. With these stories, he went back on eBay.
Do you think the stories made any difference? Do you think he made money or maybe even lost it?
In total, the 200 objects sold for $8,000.
That's an increase of revenue of over 600%.
Story is most the powerful weapon because of emotional investment.
Every decision we make, we make because of emotional investment. This emotional investment triggers us to be more creative, more proactive, relaxed or focused.
Stories are the things we remember. Stories shape us as individuals and they shape society.
Here’s how neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sums it up:
“The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable—in a word, of how to make it stick—was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution—storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly.… [I]t should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.”
But what happens in our brain when storytelling enters the stage? And what are the essential elements we need to create emotional investment on a scientific level?
The Angel's Cocktail
A well crafted story releases three hormones into our system.
David JP Phillips calls it the angel’s cocktail.
This mixture of three hormones is exactly what we want because it's ideal to combat what Phillips calls the devil's cocktail: an evil mixture of adrenaline and cortisol that makes people intolerant, irritable, uncreative and critical.
Basically – what we experience every day.
Stories are the best antidote for the daily stress we face. There are the three hormones that make up the angel’s cocktail.
Dopamine – the attention hormone
There is one ingredient that makes the difference between a story that goes viral and one that everybody forgets. This ingredient will get you to the bestseller list.
What it is I’ll tell you later in the article.
See what I did here? This is what dopamine feels like, at least in small doses. Dopamine is the hormone that forces you to pay attention.
It also provides more focus and will make your story memorable.
Higher levels of dopamine can be achieved with exercise, protein and meditation. And with story.
How to induce dopamine with storytelling? The answer is: suspense.
You need to hook your audience with a question they need answered. In my demonstration above, it’s the question: What is the secret ingredient that will get me to the bestseller list? But you don’t answer it straight away. You leave them hanging on a cliff.
Neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says: „Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.“
This is where the technique of the cliffhanger is key. You don’t have to use an actual cliffhanger. Just a question that is intriguing enough to make the audience want more.
And in order for it to work, you have to hook with suspense right from the beginning. If you don’t, nobody will even take the time to read your story.
Here’s a stellar example of an amazing hook; Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”
Do you see the surprise? All the questions that pop up in your mind. What descent into murder? What happened on that bus ride? The guy was only eleven?
Dopamine is what will pull the reader into the story and also maintain attention throughout. Don’t give away all the answers at once. Ask intriguing questions and keep the tension until the end.
This way, you’ll have the reader’s undivided attention.
Oxytocin – the bonding hormone
Elliot couldn’t make one single decision after his brain tumor surgery.
His life was falling apart.
His IQ was still in the 97th percent, had a high functioning memory and no problem enumerating all the pro’s and con’s concerning a matter. But he couldn’t decide on the smallest daily things, like what color of a pen to choose.
His doctor discovered that the surgery left him unable to experience emotion. You’d think it would be a good thing, that he is completely neutral and objective? But instead of making rational decisions, we are left unable to make any decisions at all.
It’s no surprise then that the bonding hormone Oxytocin sparks not only generosity and trust, but also a readiness to act.
In his experiment, Paul Zak found that those candidates who had the highest level of oxytocin (because of the story they saw) were "more likely to donate money generously." The bonding hormone is a crucial ingredient, because it produces the real change – it’s what impacts us to a point where we are ready to act or even change behavior.
How do we make sure oxytocin comes into play? We tell a story story that is relatable on a human level. We make the audience care because we induce empathy.
Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy. Your characters don’t need to be good and friendly to be relatable. How else would anti-heros like Frank Underwood from „House of cards“ or Walter White from “Breaking Bad” work? We don’t have to like them. We need to understand them.
Empathy means that we can understand the motivation behind every single decision. Think about it this way: How do we make friends? Why do we care about people? Not because they are perfect. But because we come to know them on a deeper level, and see the person behind the facade.
Open up. Create empathy. Tell a story on a human level.
Endorphin – the happiness hormone
Endorphin is our most powerful weapon against pain, depression and loneliness.
Studies have found that genuine laughter releases this hormone. A hormone that provides more creativity, relaxation and focus. With endorphin, bonds are more easily formed, trust is built and walls come down.
Why else would we pay millions for entertainment, not information? Life is stressful as it is, and we crave a release from it.
If we want our stories to get to the core, endorphin needs to go in the mix. We need to make the readers laugh.
Even in a highly dramatic stories, make sure you find a place for relaxation, irony and humor. This is a key ingredient.
Don’t just insert random jokes. The key to powerful humor is that it feels natural, organic. Instead, find opportunities for humor that fits both the situation and the character. Ironic and contradictory characters are great to achieve this, as well as misunderstandings and awkward, uncomfortable situations (and the people that try to get out of them).
When you write stories, always think about where you could insert humor.
Now you know what the angel’s cocktail is and how to mix it. But what are the elements that create this perfect cocktail, and how to you bring them in the perfect order to create the chemical creation of a great story?
You’ll find out soon, but first, you need to find out if you have a story at all.
Before you start: Do you have a story?
An idea is not enough.
Everybody has great ideas. But they will never become stories because of one principle they miss.
For a story, you need a concept.
What’s a concept?
„A concept[…] is something that asks a question. The answer to the question is your story.” – Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering
I want to tell a story that shows what heaven is like.
If you’re thinking something along these lines, don’t set out writing a story. You have none.
First, you need a concept.
View the concept as your USP, the „what if proposition“ that describes the specific and unique way in which you want to tell the story.
Here’s an example.
I want to write a story about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
What if we tell the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team through the eyes of the goalie who became the spirit and face of that team, making the journey more personal and visceral, as opposed to journalistic?
Now, you have a story.
The first example was Alice Sebold’s idea. Her concept, on the other hand, was to create a narrator for the story who was already in heaven, narrating the tale directly from heaven, and then turning it into a murder mystery.
Now that’s a story.
The three questions
To find your concept, there are three questions you need to answer.
1. Is the concept original or add a fresh spin to something we know?
There are no new ideas. Let’s face it.
But there are unique and fresh combinations of old ideas. Our first ideas always deviate to something generic we have seen thousands of times before.
So think twice. Or ten times. Make sure you add a fresh spin to the idea to turn it into a concept.
2. Does it set the stage for something greater and bigger?
Some ideas cannot be turned into stories.
They don’t offer the depth to explore something greater and bigger. If authors still decide to pursue the idea, they often end up with trick endings and illogical surprises where the audience feels cheated.
Make sure the idea offers a glimpse into something greater.
3. Are you the right person to tell the story?
Maybe you have a great idea. But what makes this story unique?
It’s your personal viewpoint.
A story has to be authentic. And I don’t mean the „write what you know“ nonsense because let’s face it – if you don’t know, you can always do research.
Maybe it’s more about: „write what you care about“. A story always requires something from you as a writer. It requires emotional investment. It asks that you live the story and embody it – at least for a while.
In a world where noise is abundant, authentic personal stories are those that strive. So first, honestly ask yourself if you are the best person to tell this story, and how you could alter the concept so that it would grew close to your heart.
Inspect your idea in light of those three questions, and turn it into a killer concept. From here on, we will dive into the 4 essential story elements and how to bring them together to create a perfect story.
The 4 core elements of story
Now that you know why storytelling works and the elements you need for the angels cocktail, you need to learn how to construct a story that works.
You need to learn the elements that will get your reader from beginning to finish and beyond. You need to write a story that hooks the audience, makes them stay invested until the end and not forget your story.
You need the exact right combination of core story elements at the exact right time. And in this chapter, I will show you how to do this.
If you have no characters, you have no story.
Every character in the story has to be human or human-like. The most important characters are the hero and the villain, but there are other characters that play a crucial role.
In a functioning story, characters drive the story by making decisions.
If they don't, the story becomes passive and fails to accomplish its purpose, which is to create change.
Because even if you insert change of circumstances from without, it isn't driven by the characters and they only react. They fail to change over the course of the story. Remember: the characters have to be the driving force of your story.
As mentioned above, the key to great characters is not sympathy. We don't have to like the characters. We only have to understand them.
You can accomplish empathy by making very clear why the characters act the way they do. This is accomplished through backstory, inner monologue, but in the strongest way by the decisions they make when faced with difficult circumstances.
All major characters need a goal. What do they want? What is keeping them from what they want? If you have no goal, you have no story.
A fatal mistake many writers make is that they fail to provide a very specific goal. The goals remain abstract like: become famous or change the world. This is not a specific goal.
A specific goal needs to be attainable in a very real way. For example: Become famous by winning a singing contest. The specific goal thus becomes winning the singing contest.
A second unmissable element is the “need”.
And need is always internal. It's something that has to change inside of the character in order for him or her to reach their goal. They have a flaw that prevents them from reaching their specific goal. The need is connected to mindset—some inner moral flaw they need to change to reach their outward goal.
This is where the antagonist comes into play.
A mistake many authors make is that they give the protagonist and the antagonist different goals. Both of them need to have the same goal, but want to reach it in a different way. This is what makes it impossible for both of them to win. Only one of them can reach this goal on their terms.
An antagonist is also somebody who is perfect at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness. He represents everything that the hero is not.
The perfect antagonist is dangerous because he's the best person to attack the hero’s greatest weaknesses.
Consider that a story is made of a character web as defined by John Truby in The Anatomy of Story. No character stands on his own. All of them are interconnected. They influence each other in ways that make them change.
Like in real life, everybody is connected. When you create a character, always think about how he relates to the other characters in your story.
Never forget: if you have a happy character and a happy story, you have no story.
This is why you need the next core element.
What separates a story from a sequence of events? A conflict.
No conflict, no story.
The more powerful the conflict, the more powerful the story. As mentioned above, a conflict arises when two people want the same thing, but on different terms.
Every story needs two types of conflict, the inner and the outer conflict.
They are neatly connected to what the hero wants and needs. The central outer conflict drives the story and is connected to both the hero’s and the villain’s desire or goal.
This is the constant fight that drives the story and arises because of the opposing values the hero on the opponent hold.
The inner conflict is connected to the need of the hero. He is conflicted inside because he knows that he has to change. But he is fighting the change. A change that makes the attainment of his outer goal possible.
Because a powerful conflict means a powerful story, always strive to maximize the conflict.
Story structure is what helps you insert the right hormones at the right time.
The structure is made up of the Basic Action. This is the main line of your story that is driven by the main goal of the hero and the opponent. If you have more than one goal, the story falls apart.
Especially if you're writing long stories and epics, it's easy to get lost and lose the Basic Action of the story. You need to determine it from the beginning and always stick to it in order to have a story that works.
Here's how the structure of a story looks like:
Always start with a hook. It's the opening sentence or the first paragraph that hooks your reader into the story like a powerful funnel.
The first plot point is a turning point that sets the whole story into motion and forces the hero to go forward. This is the point where the real Basic Action starts—also called the point of no return.
It is followed by the first pinch point where the power of the antagonist is demonstrated fully for the first time.
Directly in the middle, we have the midpoint. It's a contextual turning point that forces the hero to switch from passive to active, thus shifting the context of the story.
The following second pinch point even more demonstrates the power of the antagonist.
The second plot point in the last turning point of the story. At that point, we have all new information brought into play. This is where the final chase scene starts.
Right before that we have the lowest point of the hero where it seems that all hope is lost.
From here on, the final act starts. We jump directly into the climatic moment, where the highest emotions and the self-revelation of the hero take place. Followed by the resolution where all story elements come together and we come to a satisfying ending.
This is the most underrated yet absolutely crucial element.
Theme is about what the story means, how it relates to the world and human nature in general.
Theme also determines how deeply you touch your readers and how memorable the story will become. Some authors think that theme will just happen. In truth, you need to be proactive and in control of it.
This doesn't mean that you will become preachy. Theme is revealed in the decisions your characters make. It's demonstrated through actions, not in preachy dialogue or explanations.
In order for it to work, it needs to be a deep statement about life. This means that you cannot just have a theme that is about forgiveness. It's needs to be a statement, f.e. forgiveness will help you move on and let go of the past.
“Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world. It is your moral vision.”
John Truby, Anatomy of Story
Theme is accomplished subtly, and throughout the story bit by bit. It starts at the beginning as a seed and is very obvious in the final choice during the climatic moment.
To make theme even stronger, you need to make all characters versions of the theme so that they highlight the moral positions of the story.
Theme also reveals who you are as an author, and if you truly believe in your story. It is the subtle act of trusting the reader to adapt the theme for themselves and interpreted in their unique way.
As soon as you start to explain and preach the theme, your story will become powerless.
Now you have the four core elements of the story. The big picture.
But there are also small elements you need to master in order to weave the story web together and make it an organic and breathing thing.
These advanced tools I will teach you now.
Advanced tools to help you become a master storyteller
„Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does—not by telling us what is right, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves.“
Cron, Lisa. Story Genius
Great sentences and artistic words don't make a great story.
It's a huge mistake to think that beautiful writing is what storytelling is about. The same way beautiful lightning and outstanding camera work cannot make up for a bad script (which has also a storytelling problem), beautiful writing cannot make up for a bad story.
But when you have your story in place, the small techniques and the way you bring it all together to create an organic living story consists of the craft of the advanced storytelling tools.
If you have a good story, but don't master the craft of these advanced techniques, it will render your story powerless. Why?
Because even a good script, if produced badly, will not communicate the story to the audience.
What you produce is supported by how you produce it to create an atmosphere that transports the reader into the story and makes him forget that he's inside one.
If you cannot tell your story in a professional way, it will distract from the fact that you do have a good story. Both have to go hand in hand.
What these tools are and how to master them I will show you in this chapter.
1. Evoke powerful images
For decades, we have gloated over a lie.
The lie of abstract thought. We prided ourselves with the notion that this is what humans excel in.
Even a genius like Einstein had the guts to say: “My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation, but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities, and consequences.“
The key is visualizing.
Why don’t you care when the newscaster announces: the tsunami has killed 3000 people? Not because you’re an egomaniac. But because you’re not wired for abstract thought.
Neuroscientists have come to this conclusion long ago.
Antonio Damasio says: “The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images.”
V. S. Ramachandran agrees: “Humans excel at visual imagery. Our brains evolved this ability to create an internal mental picture or model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world.”
Start your story right from the beginning with an image. In case of the tsunami, how about describing a little boy instead, who sees the wave coming at him and looks into the green eyes of his mother that are filled with dread?
See, already your reaction is different.
How to create powerful images? By picking intimate details.
They have to be few. They have to be specific. And they have to matter in the context of the story.
2. Show, don't tell
You want to pull your readers into the story and make them forget about reality. This can not be done by describing events secondhand.
Show them as they unfold.
“You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”
Renni Browne, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
There are two problems that screw with showing and instead make us deviate into telling. The first one is that we don’t give the readers enough credit. We feel the urge to explain because what if they don’t get it?
Here’s an example:
Robert’s hands shook. He was afraid.
You first describe the emotion. And then you explain it. Maybe the reader thought he was cold? I just need to make sure. But you don’t. Your reader is smarter than you think. Just cut the second sentence.
The second problem is laziness. It’s so much easier to say: Luisa was attractive in a very captivating way, instead of showing:
Luisa entered the room and every head turned towards her. Her thin yet defined body slid across the floor as if the whole apartment belonged to her.
Showing required creativity. But it’s worth it. It will make your reader forget that he's just sitting on his couch. She will become part of the story.
3. Use setup & Payoff
“Setups, when done well, read like fate.”
Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
Imagine sitting opposite your reader.
At any cost, you have to prevent him from getting up before the ending of your story. You have to be a better player than him. You have to outwit him.
Storytelling “is like a cat & mouse game”, as James Patterson points out. To create a believable yet unpredictable story worth sticking around for, you need to nail the technique of setup and payoff.
Give enough hints to raise nerve-wrecking questions and nail-biting tension. But don’t let the audience outwit you by coming to the right conclusion.
What you want at the ending is the so-called ‘aha’ moment. It’s so good! How didn’t I see it coming? What the reader doesn’t realize is that he didn’t see it coming because you didn’t let him. But the solution also cannot come out of the blue. That’s cheating, and it will feel that way.
What’s a setup?
“In its most basic form, a setup is a piece of information the reader needs well in advance of the payoff so the payoff will be believable.”
Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
A word of warning: reader’s cognitive unconscious always assumes that everything you put into the story is part of a pattern and has a meaning.
Plant setups and seed all along your story. Make sure they are misleading or raise questions. Surprise the reader. Pay off the setups in an epic way.
4. create a symbol web
“Symbol is the technique of the small. It is the word or object that stands for something else […] and is repeated many times over the course if the story.”
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
You can create symbols in your story. John Truby calls is “refer and repeat”. Start with an emotion that you assign to a symbol. Repeat, and it will gain deeper meaning each time you do.
You can also connect symbols to characters to deepen them and define them in a stronger way. If can find one specific yet subtle symbol to attach to a defining character trait, it will communicate to the audience without needing explanation or several scenes.
5. Master pacing
Pacing is about balance. And it’s about directing emotion.
Like a song has several notes, quick and slow beats, and alters in volume, so in your story in need of pacing. Imagine a song made of one single flat line?
This is where pacing comes in.
Look at your story and analyze:
Where is tension high and low? Where are emotions high or low?
Learn to think in units. Divide your story into units of pacing. And make sure they differ in their emotional note.
Your weapon is length: sentence length, word length, paragraph length. It also depends on how those sentences follow each other up and how you build paragraphs.
Punctuation works wonders in pacing: Sub-clauses, commas, colons and full-stops. A long sentence can slow the pacing. A long sentence with lots of commas and words can fasten it. Short sentences fasten it. One short sentence in a paragraph slows it down and makes a statement.
In every piece of content and writing, you have to know your way around how to structure sentences and work with them for the pacing you want to achieve.
6. Raise the stakes
Why should we root for the protagonist?
We may empathize with him. But if nothing happens in case he fails to reach his goal, we will lose interest.
Always answer the question: What's at stake? The more you raise the stakes, the more the protagonist’s success becomes crucial because it’s connected with serious consequences.
If you fail to raise the stakes high enough, you will lose your readers mid story. Answer the question: What will be the consequences if the protagonist doesn't reach his or her goal?
The graver the consequences, the higher the stakes. The more you reader routes for your story.
7. Find your voice
In a world where we’re drowning in noise, personality and voice become crucial.
The problem: you can’t coach voice. It’s who you are.
The best way to find your voice is: practice. Analyze others not to imitate but to understand what makes their voice unique.
The important part is to stay authentic and be true to yourself and your story.
You’ll always notice a “fake” voice because it stands out. Distracts from the story itself because the writer tried to be smart. An organic voice flows and serves the story.
Good writing is effortless reading. These seven techniques will make sure that your story is authentic and takes the reader on a journey that will impact him or her in a powerful way.
Storytelling is not only made for books—fiction and non-fiction. It’s a craft that works for countless other fields, especially with marketing.
So here’s a neat bonus I created—how to apply all the principles you’ve learned to marketing.
Storytelling in Marketing
„Marketing is the act of making change happen. Making is insufficient. You haven't made an impact until you've changed someone. “
Seth Godin, This is Marketing
Remember how in the very beginning, we said that storytelling is the most powerful weapon?
It’s a power shines strongest in marketing.
If you’re a marketer, you’re probably here for this section, anyway. But if you’re a writer, don’t skip this.
Writing stories is only one part of the calling. But creation is not enough. Now your stories have to make a change. They have to impact real human beings. Only then will they come to life and make a difference.
Marketing is exactly this act of changing someone. Of making a true impact.
It’s a privilege that we cannot take for granted. And when the storytelling techniques are applied to marketing, you become invincible.
Where can you apply these techniques? For example, in your own book marketing–your cover, description, author bio and platform tell a story. But also in blog posts, sales pages, branding, and email marketing.
The 4 core elements & how to use them
Let's start with the 4 core elements and what exactly they mean in marketing terms.
7 advanced techniques for brand storytelling
Now that you've created the groundwork for your marketing story, let's have a look at the advanced techniques.
Hopefully, your hands are burning with knowledge and anticipation to finally get into the mud and write this story.
The world is waiting for it.
What is your take on the power of storytelling? What is the story you’re writing right now?
Let me know in the comments below right now.