Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
Using a simple story writing format helped me helped me write more powerful content.
Good writers write stories. That goes for reporters and bloggers and copywriters and content creators. Powerful stories make for powerful content.
“Psychologists refer to stories as ‘psychologically privileged,’ meaning that our minds treat stories differently than other types of material,” says University of Virginia professor Daniel T. Willingham. “People find stories interesting, easy to understand, and easy to remember.” Plus, stories make tangible concepts concrete.
Yet my story writing skills — and thus, my content writing — were shaky at first. I’m not a fiction writer. I’ve never had the urge to write The Great American Novel. Even short story exercises in high school language arts class were intimidating to me. All those details about character arcs, rising tension, and denouements leave me boondoggled.
But since storytelling is a key persuasive writing technique — and I wanted to be a content writer — I had to figure out a way to learn the skill. As I read and explored storytelling how-to’s, I noticed a theme.
Without exception, writing experts obsess about three storytelling essentials: character, conflict, and resolution. Those 3 elements combine easily to make a quick story writing format. Soon, I realized that I’d been making storytelling harder for myself than it needed to be. Just three elements — I could manage that!
By using a nifty 3-part story structure, I have an easy formula to follow when writing stories for content. If one of the three points of the formula is missing, the story falls flat. And it doesn’t matter if this story is one sentence or several paragraphs long … the 3-part story writing format still works.
Creating this simple story writing format was my game changer. Maybe it can be for you, too. Try it.
This step to the story writing format is straightforward: every story has a main character. When you’re getting ready to write a story for content, identify yours. If the character has specific strengths or foibles that are important to the story, then jot those down. (And in those situations that call for confidentiality, give your character an alias and then record the real name alongside the code name in your notes.)
Let’s say you’re writing an article about ways to help youth finish high school. You want to open the article with a success story — one you’ve collected from an organization in your local area. So you jot down some notes about the main character:
So far, so good — right? This doesn’t seem too hard.
What problem, question, challenge, conflict, issue, crisis, puzzle, dilemma, predicament, or quandary does your character face? The struggle can be overwhelming or minuscule or anything in between. Maybe it’s a cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s too many split ends. Your job is to identify the problem in a way that is suitable for your article, blog post, letter, or book chapter.
The problem can be external, as in what steps the character needs to take to get ready for the first day at a new job. Or the problem can be internal. The same new employee struggles with an overwhelming fear of being late.
Write down the character’s problem, including both the practical issues and the internal issues. Then, write down how the character faces the problem. Record actual steps the character takes. Use action verbs and emotions.
Here’s the clincher with this step: if your character doesn’t take any steps or experience any kind of change whatsoever, then you have no story.
Let’s return to our information-gathering experience with Desiree. What conflict does she face? What steps does she take in response to that crisis?
And the steps she takes …
What was the outcome of your character’s actions? How is your character’s life different because of her action steps? In this last piece of the 3-part story writing format, you need to show what happened next.
The mark of a great story is that the experience that is being shared has changed the person in some way, says Kate Tellers, co-author of How To Tell A Story: The Essential Guide to Storytelling. “It doesn’t have to be a drastic change,” says Kate. “It could simply be a perspective shift or a reinforcement of a belief or an idea.”
A word of caution: when using a story in content, it can be easy to go overboard and give too much information — that is, multiple ways your character has undergone a transformation. Resist that urge. Your job is not to tell your character’s entire biography. Remember: your story is just one part of a bigger piece of content. Your focus is on sharing one sliver of her story — one life transformation — that that drives home the point you want to make.
To do so, you may need to list your character’s changes. And then choose one that best fits your story. Let’s do that with Desiree.
Once you’ve worked your way through the story writing format, you’ve got the raw material you need. Decide what point do you want to make using your story. Then simply pull out bits and pieces of each of the three elements and write the story to make your point.
Let’s do so with the information you have about Desiree. Her story has multiple angles: homelessness … healthcare … education. But your article focuses on the need for young people to finish high school. So you write a story like this:
When 17-year-old District of Columbia resident Desiree discovered that she was pregnant, she didn’t know where to turn. She was convinced she’d never finish high school, let alone support herself and her baby. Desiree could have been a statistic — one of the hundreds of youth who live on the streets — but she found help online through ABC Agency. Her case manager, Joan, helped Desiree create and implement a plan to become independent. Now, less than a year later, Desiree has earned her high school diploma and is enrolled in a CNA program … all while raising her healthy baby girl, Alena.
Don’t you want to cheer for Desiree and for the organization that helped her? Me, too. How did she and her case manager work through so many issues?
And speaking of issues: notice what’s not in the story. I didn’t give details about Desiree’s housing. Nor health care, apart from saying that she gave birth to a healthy baby. Nor childcare support. All those items are implied. But since the point of the article is ways to help at-risk youth complete high school, Desiree’s story focuses on that precious high school diploma.
Character — Conflict — Change. It’s a simple story writing format that’s a recipe for success. You simply need to gather three pieces of information … and then pick and choose what to use to tell a good story. Do that and you’ll move from, “Here’s an example” to “Wow, that’s inspiring!”
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