Category Archives for "Storytelling"

A mangle

Stories of Past and Present

Mostly stories told by business people take place in the past. Evoking the past and linking it to the present can be tricky. How do we tell stories of past and present? Here is a part of my personal story.

As a child, I loved biology.  As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a zoo keeper.  I had elaborate plans for cleaning a lion’s cage without being eaten!  Later, I wanted to be a vet and so I needed Biology.  I really enjoyed the subject. As I entered second year of secondary school, the school announced my brilliant exam results meant I had the honour of dropping Biology for Latin. 

I was really frustrated.  Even though Biology meant more sport (the subject I loathed most) because it covered fewer periods than Latin, I still wanted Biology.  My parents discussed the matter with the school.  Fortunately, we had streaming and so it was not too difficult to accommodate my wishes.  I was always top in Biology and went on to study it at University. 

So, how did I end up as a community development worker and lately, self employed as a marketing coach?

Time and Plotting

In an earlier post I wrote about plotting stories.  Most of what I covered relates to time.  I covered chronology, tense, starting and finishing.  In this post, I revisit this from the perspective of conveying passage of time.

All stories take place in the past, apart from science fiction and fantasy.  For the near past, you might use artificial present, eg “I’m walking down the corridor …”  Clearly, you’re not walking down a corridor but people are used to the convention.  It conveys a sense of near past. 

You can use this convention for more distant past.  What if your walk took place 30 years ago?  There are a few things to consider.  First, you anchor the story 30 years ago – the present in your story is long ago.  This doesn’t matter, unless you intend to link events to an incident in the near past.  You can do this but the danger is you’ll confuse your audience. 

You could start in the near past and travel back, thus: “Walking down the corridor to this venue today, I remembered walking down another corridor 30 years ago.”  You may need to say what triggered the memory and explain what the memory was but you establish a link between the two time periods.  This is probably better than beginning 30 years ago and then bringing the story into the near past: “… which is why I remembered this incident as I walked here today.”  It may be a problem if the link between past and present happens late in the story.

Evoking the Past

The second thing to consider is if your artificial present is 30 years ago, how do you establish the time period?  You could try: “I’m walking down a corridor, 30 years ago”, a bit lame but OK where you recount an incident from the past that could have happened yesterday.  What you don’t want is a question from the audience like: “Why didn’t you use your mobile phone?”  “Because 30 years ago, they hadn’t been invented …”  sounds really lame and shows your story jarred for at least one person in the audience. 

The problem is, mentioning the date can break the story: “It was 30 years ago …”.  So, how about mentioning a contemporary event?  It should be something most people recognise.  The fall of the Berlin wall, for example.  Most people have a vague idea it was some time ago.  “At the time, Abba was in the charts and I was humming one of their greatest hits”, sets the scene, probably in the seventies. 

Or refer to objects that we no longer use.  “The phone rang and we scrambled to pick up the receiver”, implies before mobile phones.  “Grandma was folding bed sheets and putting them through the mangle”, implies an earlier time and may invoke a nostalgic response.  Remember though, some people might not know what a mangle is!

Change and Transformation

Another possibility is evolution.  I recently heard a story about the cars the storyteller had owned.  The story spanned about 30 years and the stories evoked the past, more so if you know the models of car. 

This brings us to an important point.  Stories are about change and changes happen through time.  The situation at the end of a story, should be different to the start.  Usually, a character or characters have a goal and the story is about how they reached it (or didn’t) and perhaps the consequences of success or failure.

There are several ways to convey change.  Tell a story that begins at the beginning and builds tension because we don’t know how it pans out.  Did the storyteller win the heart of the love of their life?  Did the divorce happen and what were the consequences?

Alternatively, begin with the present state and show how you got there.  “It was my fault the police came to arrest me.”  Now backtrack and explain why they arrested you.  Then take the story forward, presumably you’re not arrested now!  This may be the best approach, if your story includes a near death experience.  The fact you’re telling the story is a massive spoiler!

Childhood Aspirations

Great storytelling hinges on the goals of characters.  Start with someone, you or your customer, with a goal.  Show how they attained it.  This shows passage through time but it is likely contemporary and took a few weeks or months to pan out.

A special case is where the protagonist conceived their goal early in life.  Such a story develops into a dialogue with your younger self.  The trick is to tell the story from the child’s perspective.  You know a lot of stuff now, you didn’t know as a child.  What did you know and how did you perceive things then?  What changed and how did it change?

Audiences root for a child.  You overcame obstacles and learned stuff on the way.  Don’t attribute contemporary insights to the child, let them make mistakes and celebrate successes. 

We’ll return to these themes in later posts.  Before we do that, let’s pause and consider the use of detail in storytelling.

Upright piano

Setting the Scene for Your Story

This is the start of a story about a massive altercation within a family. I have adapted it from someone else’s story to illustrate setting the scene for your story. What do you need to include to plot your story?

A Sunday Lunch Spoiled.

There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.  Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.  I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.  Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.

A Sense of Place

Many stories lack a sense of place.  Whatever goes on in the story may be interesting but if it is not clear where it is happening, the audience is disorientated. 

Mostly, business people don’t tell science fiction or fantasy stories and so we assume whatever’s happening is on earth!  However, sometimes it’s hard to tell.  You don’t have to spell out every detail.  If you begin the story with “Once upon a time”, the chances are we are entering a fairy tale world.  “Ancient Persia” is enough for most people to imagine somewhere a long time ago and on the other side of the world.

If this is a realistic story, it helps to know roughly what part of the world we’re in.  There doesn’t need to be a lot of detail.  If you say it takes place in Sheffield, even people who have never been there imagine something.  However, it may not be that important.  For example, a story that takes place at a conference.  Perhaps we don’t need to know where the conference centre is and a description of the corporate space may be enough. 

It may be more important to describe a smaller space.  A home, a school or church, a park or shopping centre.  These details offer a sense of where the activity of the story takes place.  Name the city or county, if you think it relevant.

You don’t need to mention the place at the beginning of the story.  For example, if the story takes place on a spaceship, the reveal might work towards the end. 

Imaginative Space

The next point is how much detail to reveal about the setting for the story.  “There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.”  Most people imagine a kitchen with four people in it.  We don’t know much about the kitchen so far.  “Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.”  We don’t know what date the story is set in but clearly we have an old-fashioned kitchen here.  “I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.”  “Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.” 

Do you see as I add sentences, we get a picture of the people and of the space they occupy?  Let’s focus on the piano.  When the setting was first mentioned, you would have imagined a generic kitchen and certainly not one with a piano!    The piano has a point.  There’s no point in mentioning the piano in the kitchen, if it is never mentioned again.  When something happens involving the piano, we need to know it is there.  The central table may be important too, as a place for the narrator and Timmy to hide. 

The point is you don’t have to describe every detail but you do need to mention important stuff.  A piano in the kitchen is odd, so you would not mention it if it had no role in the story.  It doesn’t much matter what era the story is set in and the exact layout of the kitchen.  Leave that to the audience’s imagination.

Setting the Scene

Every story is a summary.  Trust your audience to imagine something.  They adjust their vision.  It’s not too difficult to incorporate a piano into a kitchen in your imagination.  Indeed, a microwave might be more incongruous! 

You don’t need to say a lot.  It’s Christmas and someone sets a table for their partner to enjoy a quiet meal together.  This might be the scene of a colossal row but you just need enough for the audience to imagine table decorations, the starched table cloth and crackers. 

Where there is something important to the plot, mention it in passing and try to hide its significance.  It’s often effective if the audience forgets something until you mention it again.  Handled deftly, Timmy on the piano might just seem to be a bit of scene setting.  It’s a family scene.  You have to mention it before the action of the story begins because otherwise, it’ll seem really odd that there happens to be a piano in the kitchen.

Depending on what happens, the bowl of peas might be consumed by 2 children under the table as they watch the ensuing row.  The Yorkshire puddings might be forgotten and burned.  They don’t have to be, some of it is scene setting.  Leave the audience to guess what is significant.

This story could take place any time over the last 50 years.  It doesn’t much matter when it is set.  But time, like space, is important.  So, next time we’ll think about past and present in storytelling.


Plotting Your Story

Recently, I delivered a 30 minute talk about how to find raw material for storytelling.  I described the walk from my home to the venue for the talk.  I showed myself pondering what to say to the group as I walked along.  (Most was prepared in advance!)  Plotting your story means turning mundane material into something your audience wants to hear.

Every incident was something I experienced that same day.  I had ideas before I set out, knowing the places I would walk through.  I prepared teaching and exercises for the group and incorporated reflections on the exercises in the fictional walk. 

On the way in I noted, there was a polling station in Sorby House, this enabled me to remind my listeners to vote!  By the river, I encountered two boys, one of whom threw a half bottle of Coca Cola into the river.  I was annoyed but then celebrated because I could add the incident to my story.

I ended by describing a heron I saw on the river.  I saw the heron that day, several hours before the walk. 

The exercises showed how we find stories from our pasts.  My story illustrated use of material from this day to make a story.  Processing raw material into a narrative is plotting.  “I walked to this meeting and on the way saw a polling station, a boy throw a bottle in the river and a heron” may not feel like a story but it depends on what you do with the material; it depends on plotting your story.

What is Plotting? 

It’s the shape you give to your story.  Once you have a story, work out how to tell it.  One story, many possible plots.  The challenge is to tell a compelling story that holds attention and delivers a satisfactory conclusion. Here are a few things to consider.


If you tell the story in the order in which it happened, it can be very effective.  For my story about the walk, it makes sense to begin at the beginning of the journey, follow the route and end at the end.  Most people don’t know the route and so wouldn’t know if I varied it but the story needs logical progression. 

However, chronological order can be tedious.  We’ve all heard stories begin with “I was born in 1973 and went to school at …”.  There are many things wrong with this approach.  It’s dull.  There’s nothing to root for in this account, why should I care about the year you were born or where you went to school?  If these facts matter, mention them in passing.

Begin stories with action; something the audience cares about.  It could be some dilemma: “Should I hand myself into the police and face years in prison?”  This raises questions like, what had I done?  Did I go to prison?  How did I get out?  Opening this way, deliberately holds back information to share as you tell the story.  The audience trusts you to answer these questions (and more!) as the story unfolds. 

Open in the action and then work out questions that might be in the listeners’ minds?  In what order will you answer them?  How can you tell the story to answer them in that order?  Building tension as you unravel a mystery, is far more compelling than one damn thing after another.

In the Present

One way to avoid dull chronological accounts is to set the story in the present moment.  Here are a few things to think about.

If this is a story of transformation, show us the end-state first.  Say, you recovered from alcoholism.  Perhaps begin the story by showing your present lifestyle.  It needs to be active in some way: “I’m about to go on stage and deliver my keynote speech in front of 400 people.  A few years ago I would not have done this, even fortified by a stiff drink.”  From here flashback to your history and return to the keynote, possibly highlighting what happened afterwards.

Note how I constructed a false present in the telling.  “I’m about to go on stage…” and not “I was about to go on stage …”.  It’s a false present in the sense that the real present is you and your audience.  The false present shows you post-transformation and invites comparison with an earlier time when certain issues were not resolved.  It also enables return to the false present and indeed to the real present: “… and that’s how I’m able to tell you this story today.”  Not particularly exciting as an ending but it shows what I mean.

Begin Close to the End

Bring the action of the story as close to the present as possible.  Usually, you offer your audience hope.  Show how change has happened in your life, explain how it happened and then return to the present.  You could begin with some key crisis point to build tension, while you explain how you got there and finish the story by resolving the crisis. 

This approach satisfies the audience.  When you return to the crisis, the audience knows the tension will soon be resolved and the story will close. 

The story will depend on flashbacks.  A common pattern is CABC.  Here A is how you got into the problem.  This may be childhood issues or some mistake you made.  B is how you resolved the issue.  C is the state you are in now that contrasts with the state you were in when the problem began.

There are many alternative plot structures.  It’s worth thinking through how your story works when you focus on the end of the story and then work out how you got there.

Finish the Story

Once you resolve the tension in the story, finish as swiftly as you can.  It’s tempting to ramble on, drawing out lessons, explaining what happened later and how all your friends reacted to the changes in your life.  When the story is over, it’s over – don’t prolong the agony!

One option is to segue into teaching.  Incorporate teaching into your story or break the story for teaching.  The way to do this is to finish the story with some key idea you draw from the story.  Then start teaching with the same key idea.  This is where to include a call to action or make an offer, if you are telling a marketing story.


There’s a lot to plotting and it’s impossible to cover it all in one blog post.  The genius to good storytelling is in how you tell it.  Indeed, as your skills as a storyteller develop, you’ll make even the most mundane activity into a compelling narrative. 

Future posts will explore other aspects of plotting and next time we’ll look at setting the scene.

bouquet of white lilies

Use Stories to Communicate Information

Last time I asked, what is a story? Here is a story based on a recent experience. How does it communicate information and what information does it communicate?

In April this year, I attended a funeral.  The woman who died was not close, she chaired a voluntary organisation where I was treasurer.  The last time I saw her was when she stepped down in May last year.

Nevertheless, I was deeply moved.  She was 49 years old and had many plans.  Imagine her on New Year’s Eve, looking forward to what 2019 would bring.  Her diagnosis and the disease that overwhelmed her happened between February and April.  After she died her family heard she had qualified for her degree.  It seems utterly pointless and puts all our achievements in perspective.

My father used to say, “You always have 10 years to live.”  Obviously, that is not true for many who read this or indeed perhaps for the author.  We simply don’t know.  The point my father made was we should live as if we have time to complete our plans.  The woman who died had great plans and her mourners were a part of them and saw her plans die with her.

I’ve already lived 15 years longer than she did.  I am in good health and have loads of plans.  I sometimes wish I was 15 years younger because I sense I need more time.  It does run out but also we cannot be certain.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if I gave up for reasons of age and then lived another 3 decades?

Stories Entertain

Perhaps reading this story, you don’t feel entertained.  It’s not a happy story.  But ask yourself these questions.  Did you read through to the end?  Were you moved by the story?  I deliberately held back a lot of detail because you don’t need it. 

Entertainment is not necessarily pleasurable; there is something compelling about a sad story.  A funeral is an ending as well as the beginning of many peoples’ stories.  Her family have much to look forward to, they grieve and move on, perhaps inspired by her example, to build on her story.

We all try to make sense of our lives.  What is the point of a degree I’ll never use?  What is the point of plans that never bear fruit?  We need stories to show us endings are also new beginnings.  We explore these issues because we all make plans. If we give in because one day we’ll die, the world becomes a less colourful place.

Stories Educate

This story aims to educate without hard evidence.  It aims to encourage thinking about mortality.  We face certainty, one day our friends will awake and find we’re no longer with them.  How do we face up to that?  In one sense there is always time and in another it runs out unexpectedly.  How do we respond?  My father’s view is one response.  Does it work for you?

Stories help communicate learning and facts.  Indeed, it is hard to communicate without stories.  If you use statistics to communicate, you project a graph onto a screen but then what?  You can’t leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.  You must point them in some direction.  

Facts delivered as stories are more likely to be remembered and if a story engages the audience, it encourages them to think around your topic.  Whether they pick holes in it or conclude they agree with you, they are likely to interact.  Interaction is much more valuable than agreement.  Don’t believe me?  When did you last share a carefully crafted social media or blog post and receive no feedback at all?  Stories don’t guarantee feedback but increase the possibility you hold attention until the end and help the audience process and raise questions.

Can stories undermine your talk, by taking a topic and making it seem less serious?  If you begin with research and show evidence for your argument, the story reinforces your message.  Back up your story with evidence, even by circulating a fact sheet.

Stories are Emotional

Emotion is a pitfall if you feel too strongly about your story.  Decide what you want your audience to feel and feel that emotion as you tell the story. 

The story may be happy or sad, even traumatic but mostly, especially for business, leave the audience hopeful.  Show there is reason to hope and your audience is moved and inclined to hear your message.

Bring the audience to a point where they see how to address a problem and you bring them to a buying state.  Finish with a call to action and they are likely to follow it if they are moved.

Stories communicate information effectively precisely because they generate positive emotion.  Communicate information in an entertaining story and it is more likely to be remembered. With emotional impact, it is likely to be acted upon, through a call to action.

To achieve this, you must understand plotting, so that is the topic next time.

Canal in Rotherham

What Is a Story?

What is a Story?  I walked yesterday from my home in Sheffield to a meeting in Rotherham and back again.  A total of about 15 miles.  The route is particularly pleasant, along the canal.  It’s flat, a narrow corridor of trees and flowers between roads and industry.  There’s even a very small farm that reminds me of a child’s model!

One thing I noticed was the intensity of colours.  This time of year (early May) leaves are recently in bud and there’s lots of new flowers.  May blossom opens, dandelions bright yellow and forget-me-nots – deep blue.  In some sections the dandelions are a riot of yellow and in others spent, clocks, always something of a disappointment.

Walking for Health and Solitude

I see these things with fresh eyes. I’m aware of my age and whilst I could easily have another 20 years, my chances are not what they were when I was younger.  I’ve adjusted my daily routine to walk for health reasons and I enjoy walking.  My doctor, when I was first diagnosed with diabetes, recommended diet.  “If it tastes sweet, don’t eat it”, he said.  I lost about a third of my body weight because I found his advice worked for me.  (He didn’t remember it!)  Diet is how you lose weight, walking, any exercise, keeps you healthy.

Not just the changing scene and the details I note but also the sensation of walking is a pleasure, even when I tire, it is no problem keeping going.  It is an opportunity to ponder, to solve problems.  Work overwhelms when close up, to walk builds perspective and works out priorities. 

My chosen arena for walking is the city.  I enjoy the changing scenery, with the seasons and the time of day; changes I suspect many miss.  I know many lesser known by-ways and how long it takes to walk to destinations across the city. 

We all need times of solitude.  Some people sit still and meditate.  I’ve always found that difficult.  For me it is the rhythm of walking that moves me to that state.  Maybe it works for you too.

Story as Artefact

Keeping to the theme of aging, I used last time.  This time I have taken a recent experience, it happened yesterday at the time of writing.  Look closely at this story.  What happened?  I walked to Rotherham and back.

You could argue this is not a proper story.  It lacks transformation.  The journey and return did not bring about change.  But look more closely, there is a deeper story about my experience of aging and how I respond to it.

Instead of telling how I responded to the diagnosis by taking up walking, I rooted the story in present experience.  That sense of immediacy gives the story a different perspective from an account of my medical history.    Could I say more about the amusing conversation with my doctor?  Perhaps.

But let’s take a step back.  I started with the recent experience of a long walk, aiming to build on the theme from last week.  Note I set out to tell a story that aims to do certain things.  It picks up the theme of aging and illustrates the idea of immediacy, telling the story from the present.

I didn’t think about aging as I walked yesterday.  It is a theme I have superimposed on a recent experience.  This is an important point.  All storytelling is artificial.  It has to be.  You use the story to make a point that captures attention and is likely to be remembered.

Reproducing Experience

You cannot fully reproduce an experience.  Many life experiences unfold over weeks, months or years.  With 10 minutes tops to tell the story, you leave out most of it.

Emotional impact is even more troubling.  Your audience cannot possibly experience what you experienced.  If your story is about depression, for example, no-one can share months of suffering, not even remotely.  So, what do you want them to experience?

Stories are about transformation, overcoming adversity.  Your story is not about depression so much as what changed to bring you out of it and to the point where you can share the story.  They cannot feel how you felt so you help them feel something else. 

 No Story has a Purpose

This is the beauty of storytelling.  Our lives are full of events and mostly they are meaningless until we give them meaning.  You tell a story to make a point by introducing meaning to the raw material. If you get them to work together, you have a story.

Stories amuse, entertain and make a point.  Sometimes the point is from time immemorial or we retell with a different aim in mind.  Sometimes we start with something fresh and uncover meaning as we work on it. 

No story has a purpose.  You have a purpose telling the story.  The purpose makes the story compelling.  Indeed, your purpose makes the story.  There are loads of possible purposes and we’ll look at some next time.

Aged hands on lap with younger hand on top.

Why Tell Stories?

Why tell stories?  My grandmother, when she was 90, told me that although she was 100 years old (she was a bit confused), she felt as she did in her twenties.  Now that I’m significantly closer to her age at that time, I know what she means.

Someone said that at the age of 60, it feels like you’re eating breakfast every 15 minutes.  Aging is not so much becoming a different person, as finding new perspectives.  Personal development is still important but I’m no longer doing it to set myself up for a lifetime’s work. 

It is easy for the young to mock the old, at least in modern Western culture.  I don’t find wisdom comes with age, I still make the same mistakes.  But older people are survivors – to put it bluntly I’ve had 60+ years, will you?

Why Tell Stories?

Was that a story?  Or polemic?  Did it make you smile?  Were you moved?  Did you want to argue the points I made?

The first three paragraphs are copy.  They open with an anecdote and then expand on the theme of aging, something currently buzzing around my mind. If I developed this as a story, I would seek more to further illustrate these points.  Ideally, I’d replace these paragraphs with a story, moving into teaching towards the end.

Would a story about aging work better than the opening of this post?  Why should a story be more effective than reasoned argument?


Sharing stories helps connect with others at a deeper level.  We all tell stories.  Enter a business network meeting 10 minutes before it starts.  What are the chances you tell someone a story in that 10 minutes?  Or someone tells you a story?

Pretty high!  We do it to connect with others and it works formally too.  For people to know like and trust you, they must hear your stories.  We know this instinctively, although we are not necessarily good at it.  Asking someone what they do is safe but unlikely to trigger a compelling story.

It doesn’t matter what your story is about.  Inveighing at the traffic driving in, may find common ground.  Or your experience of teenage boredom in a rural setting.  Your first kiss or loss of a parent may be riskier.  They’re all common ground and maybe someone needs to hear those stories.


Connection means someone knows you and wants to know more.  You have their attention.  Stories capture attention because you want to know what happens next.  If you capture and hold attention, in speech or writing, your audience will understand what you do and may help you towards your goals.

Stories sell!  Sometimes the right story told to the right audience in the right way leads to sales, even before you say what you’re selling!  Sales sometimes feel as if you’re being hit by a rubber mallet.  Your choices are to run away or buy in order to stop the mallet.  Hear the right story and you’ll buy the mallet!


Stories communicate information.  If someone remembers a story, they remember the lessons within it.  Speakers’ notes help, so long as someone remembers to look at them or remembers enough of your talk to interpret them.  A story with key points is far easier to remember.

Imagine you project a graph that supports your argument, onto a screen.  You must interpret the graph.  Don’t project a graph and leave it to your audience to interpret it.  They will, if they are awake but not necessarily how you want them to! Offer a story they can use to explain the graph.


Stories have emotional impact.  They move audiences to tears or laughter or amazement or enthusiasm. 

None of this matters if emotional change is not matched by action.  The call to action at the end of a story specifies what you want your audience to do.  They do it if they are moved by your story.

So, that’s why we tell stories but what is a story? This is the first post in the sequence, “The Art of Telling”, wherein I share ideas about how to craft a good story

Scrooge meets Morley's ghost

Basic Plots 7: Rebirth

One version of the tragic story type is close to the seventh and final common basic plot, Rebirth.  It is where the hero repents at the last minute .  They are too late, nemesis consumes them, all too aware of the mistake they made.

But what happens where it isn’t too late?  What if such a hero lives?


Just like all but one of the seven basic plots, this story develops in five stages.  At first glance you may think the middle sections are very similar.  Although on one level a lot happens, stasis marks this story-type.  Nothing much happens for years or decades.  Frustration is absent until something precipitates a crisis.

  1. The hero falls under a shadow. Sometimes the hero is innocent until something happens that causes this first change of heart.
  2. The poison takes time to take a hold and perhaps things seem to go well at first. Gradually it takes hold and shows its full effect.
  3. With darkness full on, the hero experiences total isolation, imprisonment, a living death.
  4. Something precipitates a nightmare crisis.
  5. The power of love liberates the hero, who experiences a second change of heart.

From Innocence to Egocentric Obsession

There are three variants at the start of this story-type.  They influence the outcome and perhaps our feelings for the hero.

In the first, the hero remains innocent throughout the story.  They labour under a dark power that immobilises them.  This is common in children’s stories, eg Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Both these heroes are held in stasis until some external influence brings about change.  There are adult versions.  One such is Florestan, the hero of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  He is imprisoned and Leonora, his wife, takes action to free him.  He needs to be released and has no need to repent.  Nevertheless, his release is a rebirth.

The second type is where the dark power springs from within the hero’s personality.  We meet Scrooge at Christmas, well into stage 3 or 4.  We learn during the story the reason why he became a miser.  This is the most realistic of the three variants and one businesses should study.

The third variant is where the dark power takes over the hero and turns the hero into a dark figure.  Peer Gynt is a well-known example, where he discovers late in life he never escaped the magic of the trolls. Kay, from the Snow Queen, is another example.  Neither of these heroes is particularly malevolent, they lead pointless lives.

One constant is the sense of a life lived to no purpose.  The hero often looks back to a time of innocence.  Perhaps a story on the cusp of tragedy and rebirth is Citizen Kane.  He dies with the word “Rosebud” in his lips.  We learn as the film progresses that Rosebud represents the last time he experienced happiness.

Slow Build

The point is the sense of constriction.  The hero is not necessarily a villain, typically he or she shows little malice towards others.  Others may fear or avoid them because they are cold, hard, inured to the feelings of others.  They see the world from a mechanistic perspective, they calculate and measure.  They don’t appreciate or delight in life.

On one level, they may be successful.  Perhaps like Kane, they build a business empire.  They pursue pleasure but see no beauty or purpose in what they accumulate.  From outside, they appear successful.  Within though nothing changes.  They care for no-one, not even themselves.

That one word, Rosebud, is the only clue we have that Kane appreciates he took the wrong road and could not find his way back.

Darkness, Isolation and Nightmare

Typically, we encounter this person without feeling at the height of their power.  It is not that Scrooge hates Bob Cratchit, he simply doesn’t care, he lacks sympathy or compassion.

Some of these heroes are monsters and do terrible things.  But the thing that separates them from the villain in other stories is their lack of malice.  They don’t care.

We baulk at Shahryar’s brutal rule.  He has power and uses it to rape and murder young women.  But we are given his back-story and see what caused darkness to overwhelm him.  Modern people perhaps want to see him punished but the story goes in an unexpected direction.  If we want to see him punished, if we don’t care what happens to him, does that not make us just like him?

In the end it is just a story and it is what it is.  It raises issues for us, it does not tell us what to think.  Scherezade could have run him through with a sword.  But perhaps her strategy was the only one available to her.

Liberation Through Love

Love precipitates rebirth.  Frequently love for a child, a young woman or a dashing young prince.  The hero is incomplete until they feel something for someone outside of the world they created for themselves.  Scrooge falls for Tiny Tim, who does not die.

Of these three the most interesting is the young woman.  A child can make a big difference but is essentially passive.  The hero must choose to take care of the child.  The young prince belongs solely in fairy stories as far as I am aware.  The young woman (who may grow old during the story) is not always passive.  Sometimes she takes action to rescue the hero.  Indeed, perhaps she becomes the hero.  She is the one prepared to love the hero.  Think of Gerda in The Snow Queen or Sonia in Crime and Punishment.


Scherezade is a frame story and so gets lost in 1001 other stories.  Unlike Gerda and Sonia, she does not know Shahryar.  She loves him but cannot possibly feel that way from the start.  What is different about her?

She is a young woman and so are all Shahryar’s other victims.  How is Scherezade different?  She determines not to follow her sisters but to put an end to Shahryar’s reign of terror.  We assume his other victims tried every conceivable seductive charm to no avail.  Scherezade could see this was not about sex.  She was a scholar and so used scholarship to help him rediscover his true self.

She has a plan, assisted by her little sister, who asks for a bedtime story.  Maybe the child’s presence made a difference.  Maybe Shahryar let Scherezade live out of sympathy for the child and found he was gradually drawn into a world of stories and there rediscovered his true self.

Work-Life Balance

The rebirth story is an arrow aimed at the heart of business.  It challenges all business owners to be true to themselves.  To remember who they are, as they contemplate their figures and plan the next sale.

It challenges those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  To ask, what is it that is truly important?

A business person spends 15 years building a successful business, takes early retirement and returns home to a splendid house with a spouse who barely remembers him and a brood of moody Goths.  Yes, he provided for them, made sure they could do anything they wished.  But is that all his family wanted from him?

It is easy in business to lose track of reality.  Seasons come and go and suddenly you are a lot older, wondering what happened to all that time.  Success may have happened but under the surface, everything else has been on hold.  The faithful spouse complains “we had it all planned, we were going to do so much together but he died.”

How many business people die with “Rosebud” on their lips?

Some business owners tell how they realised time was passing and they no longer wanted to work for others.  They longed for freedom to live their lives to the full. Business itself can be a story of rebirth.


These seven common basic plots are not the only story-types but they open up models for stories that work.  There’s no need to force your story to fit one of these plots but if you can, find a story that resonates, a story you like, that has meaning. Your story will benefit from the dialogue.

If the rebirth story-type shows us one thing, it is the technical side of business is not on its own enough to bring satisfaction to us or our customers.  Remember no-one did business with Scrooge because they wanted to.

Man crowning himself

Basic Plots 6: Tragedy

The word tragedy is from the Greek for goat: tragos!  It is rooted in the idea of the scapegoat, the person who dies for the sins of the community.  Frequently the innocent suffer and die in a tragic story.  Even the central character can be innocent.

This is the only story-type that does not have a happy ending.  All other types show the hero somehow prevailing but in these stories the hero fails.  Does this mean this story-type is less applicable to business?  Who would trade with a tragic business?

Actually, this story-type is really important to businesses but to see why we need to understand how the tragic story works.


Just like most story-types, the tragic story passes through 5 stages.  I shall illustrate it with a simplified business story.

  1. Anticipation – an incomplete hero has a desire that focuses his energies. The new business owner decides his priority is to overcome his competition and make more money than anyone else.  He comes up with a “harmless” scam.
  2. Dream – the hero commits to a course of action that initially goes well. The hero finds his scam goes down well with the public and he establishes himself as a leader in his market.
  3. Frustration – things start to go wrong and the hero has to cheat even more to stay ahead. Our hero must add more lies to the ones he already tells from fear of being found a fraud.
  4. Nightmare – things get out of control, mounting threat and despair. A co-ordinated opposition begins to close in.  More people are suspicious and report their suspicions to the authorities.
  5. Destruction or deathwish. A final act of violence, murder or suicide, precipitates the hero’s death.  The hero is unmasked and condemned to bankruptcy or worse.

This is a complex story type and so the summary should be seen as one possible pathway.  There are several routes to the tragic ending and the threat is not always from the hero.

The Tragic Ending

These stories end in ultimate defeat, namely death.  Fortunately business people rarely kill anyone or commit suicide.  The tragic ending as a final defeat with no hope of reconciliation or rebirth.  It does not have to be death in a real life story.  Clearly, if someone does die, it is not them telling the story!

To understand the scope of this story better, let’s look at the hero.  There are several ways the hero works in tragic stories.  There are dark and light heroes.  Where the hero is dark, they are a threat to society.  Where the hero is light, society is a threat to them.

Four Subtypes Illustrate the Scope of Tragic Stories

  1. Here the hero is an out-and-out villain,  for example Richard III.  This play is an overcoming the monster story, from the point of view of the monster!  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  He does well because determined and few have the courage or convictions to stand up to him.  Out of sight, the opposition grows and in time is strong enough to overthrow the monster.
  2. Here the hero makes a foolish decision. They make a bad decision for the wrong reasons and pay the price for their decision.  Often the outcome arises naturally from the decision, eg Faust condemned to hell or Jekyll overwhelmed by Hyde.  Some of these heroes are also victims of society and common examples are women heroes, such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.
  3. Here our sympathies are completely with the hero. A good person drawn into an external conflict against their own better judgement.  Romeo kills Tybalt because Tybalt kills Mercutio.  He has succumbed to the violence around him and so must pay the price.  He and Juliet are clear examples of the scapegoat, their death brings the warring families to their senses.
  4. Finally, the hero appears monstrous but is actually good. Victor Hugo offers us the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.  The latter is hunted as a criminal and yet all he does is motivated by love for his daughter and general humanity.

The Deadly Focus

The 5 stages describe a journey from hubris to nemesis.  When we think about tragedies, we tend to focus on nemesis.  But from a business perspective perhaps we should focus on hubris.

Hubris is to step over the mark.  You might find a law irksome.  You decide to break it and at first it’s exhilarating.  But then …

Last time when I wrote about comedy, I suggested a typical business comedy might be where the boss is immortal.  The person who identifies with the business to such an extent that they are a single entity.  I’ve seen this several times in my working life and it is always painful and difficult to move on.  In a comedy, eventually they come to their senses; what happens when they don’t?

What is the nature of hubris?  It can be infectious, whole populations can succumb to it, usually out of fear.  What exactly is it?

Some Examples of Hubris

It is a decision to focus on something that challenges the status quo.  We find this often in modern politics where the so-called liberal establishment is the target of so-called radical challenges from the right, eg Brexit and President Trump.

As far as it goes such challenges may be based on a degree of truth.  There is a lot wrong with the establishment.  However, they don’t understand the problem and reach for the easiest solution to hand.

What is the problem Brexit solves?  Is it immigration, loss of sovereignty, too many regulations, austerity …?  Each of these could be solved in several ways and Brexit is proving not to be one of them.

Hubris is where the wrong solution is found to a poorly understood problem.  The hero is bored or frustrated in some way and an apparent solution presents itself.  It can be very seductive and is sometimes called a temptation.

The hero commits to the wrong path and then because of their immediate success becomes more committed to the path.  We don’t know what story-type Brexit will prove to be but we saw the dream stage for the Brexiteers after the referendum result and now frustration and nightmare are setting in.  The opposition is rallying (perhaps) and we may see a final battle.

The thing to note is how positions on both sides become increasingly entrenched.  Focus has shifted from the problem to a badly formed solution that bewitches political discourse.

We even have a saying: “Jumping to conclusions” which means coming up with an ill-conceived solution, most likely to the wrong problem.  Businesses are familiar with this and so are community and voluntary organisations.  Religious organisations too are not immune.


Take any of the four subtypes I listed above and there is another possible outcome.  The hero repents.  They see clearly what is happening.  Number 4 already will have a good sense of reality, which puts them out of step with everyone else.  For subtype 1, the change is likely to be cataclysmic, for 4 less so or perhaps there’s no need for it.

In a tragic story the change of heart is too little or too late to effect the outcome.  The hero contemplates their folly and the disaster they have brought down on their own heads and for their loved ones.

The truth is folly has implications for not only the hero but for those around them.  Too late they see what has happened to those they love. They repent and the full horror of what they have done comes home to them. They die with regret on their lips.

This is important because to make the wrong decision is likely to cost in terms of turnover, relationships, work-life balance and maybe legal proceedings.  These stories paint the picture in an extreme light but the point they make is highly relevant.  The choices we make matter.

Looking Forwards

Tragedy shows us what happens when repentance is too late.  But what happens when the villain’s repentance allows them time to make amends?  This opens the way to perhaps the deepest, most meaningful story-type: Rebirth.

Basic Plots 5: Comedy

If you think comedy is about humour, you must be joking!  People associate comedy with humour because many situations in comedy provoke laughter.  But many stories that follow the comedy plot are not particularly humourous. And of course not all humour is comedy!


So far, all the plots we’ve explored have a five-fold development.  Comedy is remarkably versatile and one reason is it has fewer steps.  The first two are typically missing; if they are present, you are likely to have another plot with humour!

  1. We are introduced to a small world under a shadow, where everyone is confused, uncertain and frustrated.  Usually the reason is a powerful figure who has taken the wrong path and so everyone has to work around her or him.  The people affected work separately and so all their little schemes confuse one another.
  2. Confusion increases and leads to nightmare consequences, eg someone will be executed or made to marry the wrong person.
  3. New information comes to light that reveals the truth about the dark character who either sees the error of their ways or leaves unreconciled. With shadows dispelled, there is a seemingly miraculous transformation and everyone joins in a joyful union, often around marriage of the right people.

Evolution of Comedy

Most plot types are ancient and their origins lost in the mists of time.  Comedy evolved during recorded history, it is only a few thousand years old.  I’m not going into a lot of detail, you can find an account in Booker but there are a few things worth highlighting.

The key to comedy is the point of recognition, where everyone suddenly sees clearly what has gone on before.  Recognition reveals the key dark character as a hypocrite, who either fesses up or departs never to return.  It is this key revelation that is distinctive to comedy.  This revelation prevents bad things from happening and so results in a happy ending.

Not quite so ancient but from a very early stage, lovers kept apart form comedy’s main preoccupation.  Frequently the resolution revolves around one or both lovers identities.

We naturally find, in these stories, the pompous powerful figure shown up for their hypocrisy, hilarious.  Think of Basil Fawlty, who is manager of a well-run hotel (in his own mind) and spends most of his time covering up the chaos happening behind the scenes.

Four Ingredients

Traditional comedy then has four key ingredients.  You are likely to find vestiges of them in any comic story.

  1. The dark character softens or else is shown up or paid off.
  2. The true identity of at least one character revealed.
  3. Recognition of the true love so that right people pair off by the end.
  4. Division, separation and loss repaired.

There are many traditional comic devices and if they happen you are likely to be enjoying a comedy.  These include disguises, mistaken identities, lost objects found, overheard and misinterpreted conversations.

Three Variations

Three basic variations go back to the earliest forms of comedy.

  1. The dark figure is a third-party and acts as a barrier to the lovers. This figure is often the father of the heroine or may be a rival to either the hero or heroine.
  2. The dark figure is either the hero or the heroine. The other must show constancy and eventually bring them round.
  3. There is no dark figure as such but things are generally confusing. The hidden truth revealed resolves the situation.

Note in the second, the dark hero or heroine must turn around to bring the story to a happy ending.  In the first, the dark figure can be unreconciled and so removed from the story.  This is unlikely where the dark figure is a parent and more likely where it is a dark rival.

Note too that for much of history, women lacked agency.  So, in comedies they are likely to disguise themselves as men.  Many of Shakespeare’s comedies use this device.

Above and Below the Line

Given a powerful person deluded is often the reason for confusion in the story, the question is: from where will they be opposed?  They have power and often the rule of law on their side, so parents decide who their children marry, for example.  The nightmare comprises power misused. The wielders of power do not have all the information and so think they are acting rationally.  The audience sees the full picture and so knows they are mistaken.

Opposition must come from those below the line, those without power.  This may be the dark figure’s wife, children, the lovers and servants.  They may form an alliance to overturn the dark figure.

Below the line is the source of both opposition and insight.  Think of Jeeves, who applies wisdom and helps Bertie out of the tight corners he gets himself and his friends into.  Or Pierre in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.  Here the dark figure is Napoleon and Pierre learns wisdom from the old man he befriends when taken prisoner by the French.

Is Comedy Artificial?

Perhaps of all the story types, comedy is the most self-conscious and contrived.  It is easily burlesqued and the crucial recognition is often missing or the situation is reset at the end of each episode of a situation comedy.

Why then is it so rooted in modern Western literature?  Perhaps because it is about handing on to the next generation.  These stories are about the powerful older generation coming to terms with the new generation coming up to take their place.

Modern storytelling, often separates the serious love story from the comedy.  We have stories like War and Peace, which is essentially a love story, with two main couples and little humour.  Or else we have comedies like Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, where the lovers take second place to the humour.

Comedy and Business

Is it possible to use comedy in a business environment?  Note this is not the same as use of humour.  Certainly the heavy dependence on lovers and marriage suggests perhaps only for dating agencies!

However, from the earliest times, comedy pivots on a truth hidden from the players in a story revealed.  Anyone who can say they were unable to see clearly and their misunderstanding confused others, may have a real life comedy story.

A Typical Business Comedy

A small business is in a state of confusion.  The business owner is no longer clear about the orders she gives.  She gives contradictory orders to her staff, or else they make no sense or someone else has already completed the task.

She plays the staff off against one another and does not encourage them to collaborate and in their efforts to please the boss, they compete and become more confused.  Eventually a few realise they must confront their boss and tell her why she is no longer able to lead them.

Gradually it emerges the boss faces some life crisis and her attention has been elsewhere.  Now all the staff can rally round and help her sort out her affairs and get the business back on track.

OK this is not a brilliant story but the point is to see the overall shape.  A situation like this is rarely funny.  It can be painful for everyone who lives through it.  Usually businesses resolve such issues because the boss must leave or everyone else will.

Business people telling their life story often recount how something got in the way of their business, eg alcohol or depression.  In telling the story, they often focus on their own experience and rarely on those around them.

Someone going through a personal trauma might say they were going into work wearing a cheerful mask.  People see the mask and perceive the contradictions under the surface.

This story type may be helpful to those who can tell a story of personal pain and the impact it had on their immediate community.

Looking Forwards

The positive ending depends upon that crucial insight that opens everyone’s eyes so they see reality as it is.  But what happens where the revelation never comes or comes too late?  What happens where the dark figure triumphs and precipitates those around into tragedy?

woman facing huge horizon

Basic Plot 4: Voyage and Return

In some respects, Voyage and Return is like The Quest.  Both involve a journey but beyond that they could not be more different.


Let’s start with a summary of the story structure.  Note it has the 5-fold structure of all the story types we’ve explored so far.

  1. Anticipation and fall into another world.  The circumstances of the hero or group of heroes is often relevant.  They lack something and usually they are not aware of what they lack.  And note the journey out is usually not significant, often effectively instantaneous and in any event, little significant happens during the journey.
  2. Initial fascination or dream. They find themselves in a new world and at first they are intrigued maybe excited by it.
  3. The experience feels unreal but because the rules are unknown, the experience becomes more frustrating.  Sometimes they make enemies.
  4. Nightmare or serious threat. Their presence triggers a real threat and things come to a crisis.
  5. Thrilling escape and return. The return is important because it poses the question: what difference has the voyage made?

Story Types

Voyage and Return is a common story type, often haunting and mysterious.  It takes several forms.  There are at least 4 main types:

  1. Marooned somewhere in our own world, eg Robinson Crusoe.
  2. A strange civilisation in an imaginary world, eg Alice, Narnia
  3. Social, where the hero finds themselves in a different social setting, eg Brideshead Revisited
  4. Switched identities or transformation, eg Kafka’s Matamorphosis, Freaky Friday (film and novel).

Three Questions

To understand the nature of this story type, we need to answer three questions.

How Do They Get There?

Unlike The Quest, the hero or group of heroes have no purpose in making the voyage.  The voyage is usually involuntary.  Even where the hero plans the voyage, there is no aim other than to see what’s there.  Usually they stumble upon it; there is rarely significant planning.

However, the hero is often psychologically ready for something to happen.  They may be frustrated by their life or job and ready for a change.

Whereas the journey in The Quest often takes up about half the story, preparing the hero for the challenge to come, the Voyage is often just a means to effect a transition to a different world.

What is The Nature of the Other World?

The hero or heroes are trapped in an unfamiliar world, perhaps where their inability to interpret what’s going on makes it more threatening.  Encounters with the inhabitants gradually lead to a sense of increasing threat.

The early stages are often quite pleasant.  The hero makes contact with the inhabitants.  In many stories this includes bonding with a sympathetic character of the opposite sex.  However, the outcome of this relationship is not the same as it is for The Quest.

What Happens to Them?

This is the crucial question for this story type.  They return transformed or not transformed.  Occasionally, the untransformed are left trapped in the other world.

The transformation often leaves them chastened, repentant or visionary.  They return as a different person, able to deal with the issues they face in their own world.  Consider the five stages from the point of view of such a hero:

  • They begin in a state of unawareness, possibly even as a dark character.
  • Their current state plunges them into a new world
  • Increasing frustration leads to
  • A nightmare that causes something significant to change
  • Meaning they understand their own world better, a victory over their former selves

The untransformed can be neutral or dark.  There are many examples of neutral, where the hero shows no change, perhaps because it was all a dream.  Examples include Alice and Dorothy.

Often a sign of lack of transformation is leaving the friend of the opposite sex behind.  They return with a sense of loss that reinforces their original state.  There is some inadequacy in the relationship that is never rectified.  They are tested and fail.

Whatever the outcome, this story type poses the question: what difference did the voyage make?

Application to Business

Like Overcoming the Monster, this is a popular story type but perhaps one with fewer business applications.

The social voyage and return may be the most helpful here.  Many people have stories to tell about an accident that moved them into a new world and how they returned as a different person.  Examples might be victims of crime, spending time in prison, paralysis.  Any event that knocks a life off-course, raises similar questions.  The interest in the story is how the hero found their way back and the nature of the transformation they undergo.

This story may work for markets of survivors of some life-changing event who seek help in finding their way back.  But it is worth pausing here because we can see in real life it is not possible to return to life as it was before.  Everything changes.  This is not just a personality transformation, return is not possible if by return we mean the same state as at departure.  The world visited creates a new world in the here and now.  The state at the end of the story combines the old and new worlds.

Perhaps the key is in the return journey?  In The Quest, the outward journey is important.  In this story type it is the return journey.  Where the return is precipitate, leaving important elements behind, then transformation is unlikely or unsuccessful.  Where the return is planned and taken seriously, then transformation is likely to be successful.

Case Studies

There are at least two types of case study based on this  story-type:

  • A client stuck in a humdrum or stressful environment, realises they want to see change. A coach might help them, perhaps leaving a job or a marriage and entering a new world.  They might help them navigate the new world they create for themselves until they find they have transformed their lives and feel fully engaged.
  • A traumatic event precipitates someone into a new world, eg prison or hospital and they need to find their way back to autonomy.

Telling this story-type may help coaches find clients who are somewhere in this story.  The threat they must overcome is internal and often they are not clear what they are up against.

Looking Forwards

There is another story type that takes this same concern, of overcoming inner darkness, in a different direction.  What do we do when someone close to us is trapped in their inner darkness?  What if we don’t understand what is happening to them?

Maybe the best solution is to resort to Comedy!