Written by Dustin Manley
Storytellers. Raconteurs. Communicators. Their craft is the spark which allows us to discover our true selves and to truly empathize those around and beyond us.
The medium of storytelling has changed over thousands of years, but the narratives remain consistent. For thousands of years ideas, histories, and narratives were transmitted orally from one tribe or generation to another. In 3400 BC the emergence of the written word through cuneiform on clay tablets changed the transmission of knowledge and narratives forever. Each following iteration--papyrus, oracle bones, Linear B, Greek alphabet, books, printing press, and the Internet—serves to increase the dissemination and accessibility of knowledge and narratives.
This is a tremendous boon to communicators who now have unprecedented reach to share stories and forge connections—between brands, people, or communities. While the tools have changed, the content generally falls into the following seven plots:
The coming-of-age story is one of the most powerful and commonly used plots in pop culture and advertising. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most well-known literary examples, but it is found in several famous advertisements like IAMS’ “A Boy and His Dog Duck”.
Overcoming the Monster
The classic plot of a protagonist overcoming the antagonist, and part of the staying power of the James Bond 007 series. In election years, political communicators employ this simple narrative to sway voters through attack advertisements.
Rags to Riches
The Cinderella story: an impoverished protagonist gains wealth and influence while also growing as a person. A great example of this is Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” Super Bowl LI commercial.
Think of The Lord of the Rings or The Legend of Zelda series. Protagonists, like Expedia’s World Traveller venture into unfamiliar locations and experience thrilling adventures while in search of an elusive MacGuffin, like the perfect beach.
It’s relatively easy to spot a comedy; they’re engaging, humorous, and generally have happy endings. Skittles’ “Taste the Rainbow” campaign has been capitalizing on this narrative device for years.
Tragedies focus on protagonists possessing character or material flaws which lead to their downfall. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of the greatest literary examples of this plot device. Television dramas have also been embracing the tragic narrative to critical acclaim in recent years, with antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White.
The common rebirth plot features a protagonist turning over a new leaf and becoming a better person; How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a popular example. However, Rebirth themes are also about regaining youth and independence and are found in advertisements for everything from senior homes to Cialis.
Break down any story—a movie, novel, history, or advertisement--to its basics and you will trace it back to one of these seven plots. Effective communicators understand this and constantly leverage these themes for advertising and persuasion. The tools may have changed, but the stories remain the same.