Not Content, But Story: Lessons in Story Elements, Frostbite, and Finding Your Way Home

December 1, 2016 Bethany Johnson

Young man shows his car's gas guage as one of the most popular classic story elements: forces of antagonism

Would you like to know how I got permanent frostbite?

Frostbite avoidance tactics are among the most important things people should know—but the search term “how to avoid frostbite” pulls up heaps of content that answers the question in a dry, straightforward way. My account of near-death in Wyoming’s Teton mountain range, on the other hand, with unforgettable, terribly true story elements, would have you on the edge of your seat. Of course, in my story, I’d deliver the informative stuff, too, but my triumph against the natural elements (and uncanny odds) would return to you every so often as you were trying to fall asleep. And I, having told my wild story, would enjoy knowing I’m not so alone in my experience of those feelings—the things a human thinks when she might not make it out alive to tell the tale.

There’s a stark difference between content marketing and brand storytelling, and as you can see, story wins. But why? What’s so special about story, especially when informational content creation is (sort of) doing the job?

First, let’s remember “content” is everything. Meaning, it’s your infographics, it’s your press releases, it’s your ad copy, your Snaps, and your blog posts. There’s nothing more vague than the term “content,” except perhaps the word “thing.” So content is a (very broad) thing.

Story is a very specific kind of thing.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Elements of Story

Hold my hand as we travel back to middle school English class, when we first learned basic story elements. Recall learning about a fictional book’s hero, or protagonist. Remember working to paint a descriptive picture of a story’s setting. You then brainstormed a plot. Something must happen to shake the main character out of his normal routine. Once your protagonist is incited to pursue something—be it justice, comfort, truth, love or survival—you have yourself a story.

Antagonism

Or, rather, you have the beginning of a story. What wrenches the audience’s heart is the surprising forces of antagonism that rise up to deter your hero on his quest. Fate has a way of piling on until an audience almost feels sorry for the main character. The smart storyteller relishes that tension as an opportunity to deliver relief. As you tell your brand’s story, keep in mind these very real, riling forces of antagonism facing today’s readers:

Injustice

Actual atrocities are afoot today. Your reader is either moved to empathy or directly impacted by systemic corruption and unlawful mistreatment.

Unfairness

Not quite illegal, but certainly not fair either, wrongful inequality is a killer. Assume it’s at play in your reader’s mind as they land on your content.

Inner personal turmoil

People carry baggage you can’t always ascertain. Since I don’t know if my reader has experienced one of life’s many scarring conflicts to this point, I assume some hurt or resentment lies within the psyche, working against writer and reader alike.

Time

Your readers are way too busy to read everything you publish. On the other hand, people everywhere clock out and get excited for each night’s show, movie or novel. So while we complain of busyness all day, we still consume illimitable hours of story form when given the chance.

Guilt

Your reader knows he’s not living up to his full potential. No one is. The only question is how your hero copes with this (natural) subsequent feeling.

The list goes on. Your readers war regularly against imposter syndrome, fear, laziness, societal pressures, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and competition, to name just a few. In short, there are innumerable forces of antagonism pestering your reader—a fact not entirely inopportune, according to storytelling master Robert McKee. “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them,” he writes in STORY, a book expanding on his seminars. “We pour energy into the negative side of a story—to take the story itself to the end of the line, to a brilliant and satisfying climax.”

Last week my friend got stuck in the snow on a remote road in Hell’s Canyon. The look on his usually blithe face as he vlogged his way through the misadventure still disturbs me.

Forces of antagonism are among the most powerful story elements necessary for a happy, redemptive ending.

Having traveled those roads countless times, I know the feeling of shock as you realize people could (and do) lose their lives on those roads—simply for want of cell signal or tire chains. When one thing after another goes wrong, it’s a surreal feeling knowing you could be next. That this is really happening.

Forces of antagonism are among the most powerful story elements necessary for a happy, redemptive ending.

Then, funny things start to happen. My friend’s face reflects forces of antagonism beyond the cold fingers and simple inconvenience of being stranded. There’s fear. Then denial. Then disappointment, and then more fear.

Forces of antagonism are among the most powerful story elements necessary for a happy, redemptive ending.

After watching the video of his story—the manic joy of finding a simple bag of chips, the agonizing decision to leave behind questionable fuel, and the irony of finding matches after re-entering civilization—I know exactly what to bring on a long trip next time I need to climb a sketchy mountain pass.

Story elements like antagonistic forces make for the most memorable content marketing.

But the story’s hero never once outlined that content. He didn’t include bullet points as takeaways. And (gasp!) he didn’t even sneak in a call to action. Sure, those things would have been informational, but I can connect the dots myself and gear up on my own having seen his scary account. In fact, I guarantee I will. My heart won’t let me forget to pack extra matches.

Story elements like antagonistic forces make for the most memorable content marketing.

What exactly are our emotions doing when we yearn for the success of a likeable protagonist? I don’t know, honestly. But I do know my emotions are doing precisely nothing when I’m reading flat, logical advice, instead.

Story elements like antagonistic forces make for the most memorable content marketing.

Without real opposing forces hounding your reader, there is no moment of redemption, no realization that things are going to be okay.

Matt Prindle

I wouldn’t wish opposing forces on anyone, ever. I will, however, hunt them out for the sake of a story that emerges from what other content creation experts may consider boring material. How else can I make my reader feel like an unlikely hero?

Someday, perhaps I’ll write down my own frostbite story, complete with the dark story elements like forces of antagonism much larger than the cold weather. Until then though, I’m on the lookout for brands that don’t pussyfoot around life’s opposing forces. As a consumer, I’d love to be the hero of many more stories, and only life’s unpredictable hiccups can make that happen.

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