STORYTELLING TEMPLATE

A stranger arrives. A hero departs. A great story captures attention, and these storytelling templates will help you write one.

How can you tell stories in your marketing? Great stories capture attention like nothing else can, but storytelling is hard — that’s why even Hollywood puts out so-so movies.

Instead of starting from scratch, what if you could use tried-and-true templates and frameworks that have been used by writers for literally hundreds of years? The great stories have things in common, and if you start from the formula they use, you can make your story great too.

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4 storytelling templates and frameworks that you can use right away

 

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How do you write an amazing story?

A story grabs attention like nothing else can. According to behavior economist George Loewenstein, unfinished stories are one of the five things that can make people curious — and you can create a captivating story, people are more likely to pay attention to you and your business.

You’ve might have heard of the hero’s journey, Dan Harmon’s story circle, Pixar’s story structure, storyboarding, and Donald Miller’s Storybrand template. Maybe you’ve read books about storytelling — like John Truby’s Anatomy of a Story — or watched South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker talk about their “but…therefore” rule of storytelling.

Whether you’re using an old-school Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey or Randy Ingermanson’s more recent Snowflake Method, all stories fall into similar storytelling templates.

Here are the two most important storytelling frameworks, followed by two templates that you can use and a quick rundown of what makes a great story.

 

 

2 storytelling frameworks that describe (almost) every story ever written

quote usually attributed to novelist John Gardner states that “there are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.

Some authors argue whether you can really capture every type of story in those two buckets, but at a fundamental level most stories do follow one of these two structures.

 

The “stranger arrives” storytelling framework

Everything is going well in sleepy little Storyville, when on a winter night a traveler arrives.

“Stranger arrives” stories are based on disruption. Whether there is a literal traveler arriving or not, something is going to interrupt the status quo, and the status quo will probably never be the same.

“A stranger comes to town” story can mean that a stranger comes and helps the villagers realize that the way they are living is poor and empty of joy (example: Dead Poets Society). It can mean a stranger comes to town and brings news of the world outside, which shatters a utopia (Wonder Woman, and even The Godfather).

The key theme is usually that the town is set in its ways and has to, in some capacity, change.

How can you use this type of story in your business?

Make the point that your customer is set in their ways. They may not even realize it, but the way they are living day to day is impoverished in some way that your product or service solves.

For a “stranger arrives” story, you will usually be pointing out problems. “Aren’t you sick of spending time on spreadsheets?” “Don’t you wish there were an easier way?”

Then you tell the story of how your business helps.

 

The “hero departs” storytelling framework

Our hero has lived a quiet little life in Storyville, but now it’s time to seek the world outside and grow.

“Hero departs” stories are about growth. A hero must leave the status quo in order to achieve their goal, and in the course of the adventures they experience will be forced to face challenges and evolve themselves.

A “hero departs” story can be, funnily enough, triggered by a “stranger arrives” story (example: Gandalf arrives in Lord of the Rings, which causes Frodo to depart). Often the hero departs because they need to discover themselves (example: Disney’s Hercules), and sometimes it is to go on a quest that will ultimately save their home (Moana). Many Disney and Pixar stories follow this format, and Joseph Campell’s work in comparative mythology demonstrates that it is a common structure across cultures.

The key theme is usually that the hero is seeking something greater than themselves.

How can you use this type of story in your business?

This story is perfect when your service is focused on helping people reach a goal instead of removing a pain or cost.

If someone has decided that they are ready to go on their hero’s journey — whether that means get more fit, or read more books, or grow their business, or improve their career — you can tell the story of what they, the hero, will be like in their final evolution.

 

 

2 storytelling templates to write amazing stories quickly

Story frameworks are a good start, but what’s the actual structure of a great story?

Storytelling templates can go a long way to help you write your story, and make it easier for you to not start from a blank page.

These are 2 storytelling templates that help you with overarching stories and specific scenes:

 

What is 3-act structure?

Three act structure is a common storytelling template that divides a story into three parts: Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 (often called the Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution). Three act structure is common because it outlines what needs to happen at each stage of a story.

Here are the main stages of three act structure:

  • Act 1. The inciting incident kicks off the drama and signals that something has changed.
  • Act 1. The hero tries to solve the problem and fails, which increases the tension.
  • Act 1. In failing, the hero realizes the true solution to the problem and realizes that their life has changed forever.
  • Act 2. Usually called “rising action,” the hero now has to solve the problem that they created with their actions in act one.
  • Act 2. Character development is a key component — in solving the problem of their own creation, the hero gains the skills to solve the problem that caused the original inciting incident.
  • Act 3. The secondary problem is resolved, the hero has grown, and the hero faces the main problem or villain in the story’s climax

Three act structure is helpful because it shows cause and effect — an inciting incident happens, the hero tries to solve it and fails, the hero has to clean up their mess, and in the process grows strong enough to solve the original problem.

This tells you which parts of your story need to have which story beats.

 

What is 5-point scene structure?

Five-point scene structure is also called Freytag’s pyramid, and is an expansion of the 3-act structure. Chicago’s The Second City has adapted 5-point structure to apply to smaller scenes, and that’s the version that is probably most helpful to you.

Here are the 5 points of a five point scene:

  1. Who/What/Where. Establish who the characters are, their relationship to each other, where they are, and what they are doing.
  2. The first turn. Something unusual happens (similar to the inciting incident). This answers the question of “why is this scene interesting or important.”
  3. The game. A back-and-forth as the characters try to address the situation.
  4. The second turning point. The second challenge appears, which ends the game. Usually this is counter to expectations.
  5. The out. The final words of the scene.

The show Brooklyn 99 has excellent examples of 5-point scene structure in their cold opens.

For example, here is a breakdown of the scene “Captain Holt Eating a Marshmallow:”

  1. Who/What/Where. The team is in the break room.
  2. The first turn. A question: how would Captain Holt eat a marshmallow.
  3. The game. People imitating Captain Holt.
  4. The second turn. The real Holt walks in.
  5. The out. Detective Boyle’s shouts “I knew it.”

5-point structure is useful because it makes writing a scene or a story very fast, and takes out the guesswork.

 

 

What makes a great story?

Great storytelling can start from a template or framework (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!).

Storytelling templates and frameworks exist because they work. There are patterns in the stories people tell — across time and throughout history, people who never spoke to each other, who wrote in different languages, and who didn’t write at all but had strong oral traditions have shared their stories in similar ways.

The magic happens when you fill in the template. As you fill in your storytelling template, keep in mind a few of the other things that great stories have in common:

  • A character who wants something. A story starts with a character who wants something but can’t get it. An unmet desire is the root of all conflict in a story — so understanding what your characters (your customers) want is crucial and will make it easier for you to write your story.
  • “But…therefore.” Tell stories that have causality. The character’s actions cause the next scene, not random happenstance.
  • Stakes, emotion. Great stories raise the stakes. What happens if the hero fails? It has to be important, or else there’s no reason to pay attention.

Keep these in mind and you’ll be on your way to a captivating story.

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