There’s a common misconception that ‘the plot’ is what constitutes a story, and makes it work.
And to be fair, in certain films and books this is absolutely the case. Some writers map out their stories ahead of time, with each key event or scene viewed as a piece of a puzzle to be arranged and placed with great care. Eventually, a clear framework is constructed. Characters are then inserted into it, and moved around like pieces on a chessboard, with very little agency of their own.
While this is certainly an effective way of structuring a story, it’s not without its risks.
If you’ve ever watched a film and felt detached or bored, or found yourself not particularly invested in the outcome, it’s almost always because the plot is progressing the story, rather than the characters. If the hero in a story becomes passive and things just happen around them or to them, it’s game over in terms of getting the audience to really care about the outcome.
On the other side of the coin, the best kinds of stories feel as though they are driven by their characters, not by a roadmap prepared ahead of time. Sure, those characters have to hit certain fixed points along the way, but when they possess strong desires and convictions and are constantly active, they move themselves into situations that feel organic and ‘earned’. They seem to take hold of the story and drag it along by sheer force of will; forward progression feels natural and unforced, and everything’s more emotionally resonant as a result.
A good example that sums up this contrast in approaches is Game of Thrones. Author George RR Martin is notorious for effectively winding his characters up like clockwork toys, then letting them do what they want, and go wherever they want, whenever they want. It results in natural character development that readers connect with on an incredibly powerful level.
But as soon as the producers of the TV show ran out of books to use as reference and decided to bring everything to a close within a couple of seasons, a huge problem emerged. They had to move every character from wherever they were in the sprawling, complex world of Westeros into their final positions. The only way to pull it off was to use a variety of plot holes, contrivances and contradictory character behaviour to make it happen.
Nothing about the final season felt organic, fans rebelled, and the entire show has basically been erased from popular culture as a result. Not ideal!
Why the heck am I talking about this?? Because in the marketing world, frameworks are hot stuff. And just like the example above, you are encouraged to mash yourself, your business or your product, into these frameworks. While this is incredibly useful for tightly structured, on-brand messaging that fulfils a rational purpose that gets you from A to B, it’ll do you very few favours when it comes to sparking that elusive emotional connection with your audience; the connection that will get them to buy into you, and buy from you. With that in mind, here’s the next shift in perspective you should make:
The best stories are driven by active, authentic characters, not plots or frameworks, and so is your business.
Every situation that you’ve found yourself in that relates to your business, and every facet of that business itself, from its services to its guarantees to its branding, has happened because you made it happen. Nothing magically fell into your lap. Don’t let the idea of fate or the law of attraction minimise your achievements, even if you believe in them. You made all this stuff happen through the force of your character.
So when you’re thinking of your story in your head, I want you to stop picturing a straight line of stuff that has happened to you. Forget about frameworks and structures; lay everything out on the table as fair game.
Any moment that demonstrates the strength of your character in a way that relates to how you run your business is a valuable story on its own. Would it make it into your ‘about’ section? Doesn’t matter – it’s valuable. Would you mention it in the intro of your TED talk? Doesn’t matter – it’s valuable! As long as it demonstrates to an audience why you’re now an expert at solving their problems, even in a minuscule, barely connected way, then it’s a story worth telling.
Think of these moments as individual scenes or chapters in your life story. Crucially, unlike a normal narrative where each scene has to connect seamlessly to the next and follow a strict pattern, you’re allowed to tell your stories out of sequence. Pick one from any time that demonstrates your character, get it told, and move on.
This opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to inspiring your audience in a way that is uniquely yours. No longer is your story a finite, fixed, linear path. You’ve got an unspeakably vast treasure trove of moments to choose from, and I hope I’ve just proved exactly what makes them special.
So let’s sum up what we’ve discovered.
- 1We’ve shown that your story has huge value because it got you where you are, and it’s uniquely yours.
- 2We know that it’s worth telling because you need to demonstrate to your audience why you’re the one to help them.
- 3We know that the perfect business circumstance for storytelling is when you mirror your audience in some way.
- 4And now we understand that your story isn’t a linear chunk of events that follow a framework: it’s any moment that demonstrates your character.
So now we come to the big question; the last stop of this initial journey before you can take your first steps into a wider world for you and your business.
How do you actually go about telling these stories?? Step this way…