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Learn how to tell your story by watching television

By Barb Sawyers I've been writing stories for so long that it's becoming like driving a car. I don’t think about it.

Learn to write stories from television

No, I’m not a master storyteller grown rich on block-bluster movies and novels. I’m a practical writer who has spent years telling true tales of employees who rode to the rescue in natural disasters, impossible deadlines and other crises or how one business solved another’s problem. But ever since neuroscientists and marketing kings confirmed how stories open minds to new products and perspectives, everyone wants to know my secrets. Let me confess that I’ve learned more about storytelling from watching television than by reading great literature. That’s because television works with such simple and tested formulas. Here are the four main ingredients in the storytelling formula I learned from watching Law and Order and similar shows:

  1. Drive your plot with conflicts, problems and obstacles.
  2. Lead with the central conflict.
  3. Quickly develop a hero your readers will identify with.
  4. Have a point to your story.

Conflicts, problems, obstacles

While the need to drive your plot with conflict should be obvious, sometimes organizations expect you to write stories without admitting they had a problem. They’d prefer to pretend that the new system launch went off without a hitch, even though everyone heard about the arguments between the strategists and the programmers, the glitches revealed by the testers, the frustrations of the users and more. Of course the story will have little plot and no one will believe it, but some people believe content writers can spin gold from straw. Guess they didn't read Rumpelstiltskin. Case studies are even more challenging because the business whose problem you or your client solved often does not want to confess any weakness. But there’s not much drama in what’s good getting better. And readers are more likely to cheer heroes who reveal vulnerabilities like their own. Can you imagine Law and Order without a central conflict, the murder, then obstacles in the path of solving crime and putting the scum bags behind bars? Of course not.


Open with the murder

In high school English, my teacher insisted we had to open our stories with the setting. Obviously, Mrs. Wilson did not watch Law and Order, Criminal Minds or any of those popular TV shows. If she had, she would have known that murder comes first. She would have realized that as the detectives solve the case, the setting, context and other back story are revealed. Because the murder comes first, I am hooked. That’s why I continue watching after the commercial. That’s what will keep people reading your story. Like the detectives, as the story unfolds or through flashbacks, you can unveil the details the audience needs to understand the plot or cheer the heroes. But lead with the setting or tell your story in chronological order and there’s a good chance readers will remember something else they need to do, right away.

Relate to the characters

Those telling details will not only advance the conflict for your plot, but also create characters your audience can identify with. Law and Order is popular because we relate to the noble yet flawed detectives, lawyers and other law enforcement officials. Sometimes we can identify with the victims and families too. What’s different about your story, though, is the amount of time. Because your story has to be very short, you will have to choose your setting and characters details even more carefully than the Law and Order writers. Each detail should be carefully selected to imply more. For example, we immediately know that Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds is more than a nerd because of her wacky jewelry. To catch on to the really short story formula, you need to watch these shows on commercial television. Like the programs, the commercials' characters are fictional and the story is driven by conflict, with fewer obstacles because of time limits. The more people can identify with the folks in the commercials, the more likely they are to follow their examples.

Your point is the punch line

And following the examples is just what you want them to do. If you are telling a story to promote your business or cause, you know what you want. In Law and Order, the moral — stay on the right side of the law—is implied throughout. But with television commercials, and your content, it has to wait for the problem to be solved, much like the punch line to a joke. You need to tell your story, resolve your conflict, solve your problem before you blab about your point, especially if it’s an aggressive sales pitch, or people will stop reading. "Above the fold" calls to action don't work in stories. Don’t forget that one of the reasons you need to keep your story short is the need to prevent readers from growing impatient and muttering “Get to the point,” much as you do when your boss tells a story that you know is going to lead to more work for you. Mind you, you’ll probably be more receptive to the boss’s request because she has introduced it by talking about the similar guy in the similar company who got spectacular results and a juicy bonus because he tried what your boss is suggesting. It’s much better than being told to “do this” or “don’t do that.” The story opened your mind. Note that your boss’s story is real. You—and your readers—are not going to be as motivated by fairy tales or hypotheticals. People can tell the difference between straw and gold. That’s your biggest advantage over television shows and commercials. Authentic stories are credible and trusted. Law and Order boasts that its stories are ripped from the headlines. Advertisers spend mega bucks testing commercials to make sure the audience will identify. But if you come up with true stories–stories that lead with the conflict, feature heroes your audience can identify with and make your point–you will open minds to new perspectives and products. You will be working with solid gold. Barb Sawyers helps experts pull ideas out of their head and onto the page through her book Write Like You Talk—Only Better, blog, workshops and writing services.

One Comment

  1. Bill Sterling
    Bill Sterling November 22, 2011

    Superb article. Have had some writers bloc coupled with a big transition in my life and my writing has been on hold. Your article helped me remember what I knew and forgot. Thanks

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