Staring at a blank screen can be scary. And writing is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It takes extended periods of concentration to write anything significant. And that’s a rare commodity these days. And even if you manage to beat your attention into submission, the craft of writing is still complex. It can be tough to know where to start. What if my writing turns out to be boring? What if nobody reads it? What if people hate it? Or worse, they start reading and get so bored they quit?
It doesn’t have to be this way. True, writing is never easy. And it will always require effort. But we don’t have to start from nothing. You can learn how to structure your writing so that readers enjoy reading it. You can build a piece of writing that draws people in and keeps them engaged until the end. It’s not hard to learn. You can make your writing more persuasive and powerful. All it takes is understanding a few simple concepts.
Not that I’m an expert in writing or communication. But I have spent a bunch of time researching how to improve my writing. What follows is an attempt to distil my thoughts into some semblance of order.
It’s all about telling stories
The key thing I’ve learned about communication is, it’s all about storytelling. Regardless of the medium or the genre. The more story-like you make it, the more engaging it will be. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a screenplay or a scientific paper. Effective communication comes down to how well you can tell a story.
Lisa Cron puts it this way:
We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what’s important for our survival on a need-to-know basis, and tells us a story about it, based on what it knows of our past experience with it, how we feel about it, and how it might affect us.1
Our brains are hard-wired for story. And the more story-like we make a piece of writing, the easier it is for our brains to process. That’s why it’s much easier to read fiction than non-fiction (for most of us, at least). Reading a biography is more engaging than reading the phone book.2 Our brains prefer to process information in story format. So if we want to write something engaging and persuasive, we have to make our writing more story-like. That is, we conform our writing to a story structure. But what is that? What makes a piece of writing more or less story-like?
The structure of a story
All stories share a common structure. And lots of people have attempted to describe it. Lots of people.3 The models vary wildly in complexity, but they all share common attributes. For our purposes, I’m going to describe three simple models that I find useful. They are:
- Man in a hole;
- Pain-dream-fix; and
- The five commandments of story.
There are plenty of others. If you want to explore more, check out the footnotes and links at the end.
The Man in a Hole model
One of the simplest ways to describe story structure is the Man in a hole model described by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s useful because it’s so simple you can apply it almost anywhere. Mr Vonnegut describes it like so:
Somebody gets into trouble; gets out of it again. People love that story! They never get sick of it.4
Drawn as a chart it looks like so:
In this chart, the vertical axis represents good fortune versus ill-fortune. And the horizontal axis represents time. Things start okay—a little above neutral. Then something bad happens. And by the end of the story, the situation is somehow resolved.
The key thing to remember is: “somebody gets into trouble”. There has to be a problem to solve. Something has to go wrong. It’s not a story if there’s no conflict of any kind. That’s why phone books and family slide shows are so boring. Nobody gets into trouble. Nothing bad happens. If there’s no tension, there’s no story. So, any piece of writing we create must include some kind of hole.
At first, that may seem a little extreme. Any thing we write? Really? What if we’re just stating facts? Surely this story structure stuff doesn’t apply then. A scientific paper isn’t meant to be riveting entertainment. It’s supposed to be an accurate, reproducible account of how an experiment was conducted. It’s supposed to give an unbiased account of the results. Perhaps there might be a little speculation at the end. But there’s no drama. No conflict. No hole. It’s just a factual account.
Except there is a hole. The hole is what motivates the scientific paper in the first place. The hole is the reason the paper exists. The hole is a gap in our knowledge. A mystery. It creates just enough tension to draw you in. A well written scientific paper can be as engaging as any piece of narrative journalism. There’s no reason why a scientific paper can’t be an entertaining and accurate account of an experiment. But most academics aren’t well rewarded for making their papers engaging. So they don’t.
However, the point is, the tension in a story structure doesn’t have to come from a great and terrible evil. It doesn’t even have to be a physical threat or relational tension. It can be as simple as ‘we don’t know something.’ It can be a petty annoyance. ’ It can be a tiny gap in the scientific literature. It can be something people find difficult. For example: ‘Writing is hard. The size of the hole isn’t important. All that matters is that the readers feel the tension of it. The more vivid the hole, then the more engaging our writing will be.
This is the most fundamental model of story. All the other models (even the ones Mr Vonnegut describes) are all variations on this theme. It doesn’t matter how complicated they are. So if you’re ever stuck or overwhelmed, come back to the Man in a Hole model. Someone falls into a hole. They get out of the hole. That’s it.
There are definite merits to some of the other models though. They can help provide a structure that will maintain a readers interest over a long period. And they can help us to target our writing for a specific purpose.
The Pain, Dream, Fix model
What if you’re trying to persuade people of something? Perhaps you want them to take action; join a march; sign up for your free trial; volunteer for your event; buy your book. Calling people to action is tough. People don’t want to change or expend energy if they can help it. And we’ve all seen persuasion done badly. Nobody wants to be a sleazy salesperson. Can a story structure help here?
Well, yes. Story-telling is a powerful persuasive technique. But, the key lies in making our reader (the person we want to persuade) the hero. This is powerful because we can’t resist putting ourselves into the story anyway. In narrative stories, we can’t help but identify with the protagonist. But it works for non-fiction prose too. When a story is about us, it’s difficult to resist.
A good way to structure this kind of writing is using the Pain–Dream–Fix model.5 It’s often used to create sales pages and landing pages for websites. But we can apply this structure to almost any piece of persuasive writing. It doesn’t have to be in-your-face and cheesy. You can make it as subtle and sophisticated as you like.
It looks something like this:
Pain: This is the most important part. The idea is to focus on some pain (ie. a hole) that we know our target audience experiences. The more precise and vivid our description of the pain, then the more we will hook the reader. This is important because it’s what makes our reader the hero. The more that pain resonates with their experience, the more they see themselves in the story. And the more they will respect you as the author. We want them to think “Yes! This person gets it. That is so frustrating. That’s exactly how it is.” In a way, you’re showing that you care enough about the reader to understand their experience.
Dream: Once we’ve shown that we understand the reader’s pain, we describe the dream. That is, we describe a world where this pain is no longer present. Once again, we’re building empathy by showing that we get the reader. We understand the motivations and desires behind the pain. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top or corny. We don’t have to start with ‘Imagine if all this was a thing of the past!’ (Though, if that works…). And we don’t mention anything to do with our proposed solution yet. All we want to do is show that we understand the why.
Fix (and call-to-action): Finally, we introduce our solution to the problem. If it’s a sales pitch, then this is where we introduce our product. If we’re trying to convince people of an idea, then this is where we detail what the idea is. If we’re trying to get people to join our cause, this is where we explain how they can help. And it’s common to end it all with some kind of call-to-action. We want people to do something as a result of reading what we’ve written.
Note, these three parts don’t always take up equal amounts of space. We can adjust the relative weights to suit the context. It might be that our solution/idea/product is complicated. It may take a lot of words to describe it. So the fix section may be much longer than the pain and dream. And that’s okay. But the key thing to remember is that the vivid pain and dream are what motivates the reader. Without them, there’s a good chance they won’t care about whatever it is we’re trying to explain.
Someone might be thinking though: “What if I don’t know what pain my readers experience? What if I’m just trying to give them some information?” To which I would respond: If we don’t know how this helps our readers, why are we writing at all? If what we’re writing doesn’t solve a problem, why should anyone read it? Again, the pain may be tiny. But the size of the pain isn’t what’s important. It’s how vividly we describe it.
Once you learn this structure, you’ll start to see it all over the place. It’s particularly noticeable in infomercials. They’ll show someone painfully doing things the old, busted way, looking frustrated. Then they’ll describe a dream world where all that frustration is a thing of the past. And finally, they’ll introduce their product. You can be a hero for three easy payments of…. Informercials work and part of the reason is this structure. If you need to persuade people of something, then I recommend the pain-dream-fix model.
The Five Commandments of Storytelling model
Sometimes we need more subtlety or flexibility to tell our story. We might be writing something lengthy and complex. Or we might want to be a little more subtle than pain-dream-fix allows. In those cases, we can use a more general story structure. One that will work for almost any piece of writing. It’s called the Five Commandments of Storytelling.6 The outline looks something like this:
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive complication(s)
Though its original intent is to help authors write novels, we can adapt it for non-fiction prose. I’ll go through each step in turn and attempt to describe how they work for something like a blog post or essay.
Note that this model is much more complex than the other two. That’s partly because it’s so flexible. And partly because its original design is for creating novels. If you’re finding it too much, don’t worry. Man in a hole will work just fine for most circumstances.
Let’s take a look at each commandment in turn.
Inciting Incident: This is the thing that kicks off our story. Something that knocks the world off-balance. In a novel, this forces the protagonist to do something to get their world back in order. For Star Wars that might be Princess Leia jettisoning two droids to the surface of Tatooine. Or when Gandalf shows up at Bilbo’s door in The Hobbit. For a non-fiction piece, it’s where we introduce a problem (ie. a hole). It might not be the problem your piece is about (if you’re being clever). But usually, it is. There has to be something that hooks the reader in. We want them thinking: “I wonder how they’re going to get out of that hole.”
Progressive complication(s): In a novel, progressive complications have a specific role. They keep the protagonist from getting out of a hole too easily. If the problem is solved too easily, then it makes for a boring story. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, the hobbits make it to Bree but Gandalf is not there. In The Empire Strikes Back the crew on the Millennium Falcon escape to Cloud City. Only to find Darth Vader already there. In a progressive complication, the protagonist almost solves the problem. But they never quite make it. And things go from bad to worse. In non-fiction writing, we do this by proposing a possible way out of the hole, then pointing out its flaws. And we can keep doing this as long as we like. Sometimes the flaw may even become a new hole. But as each flaw is dealt with, it adds strength to whatever we’re trying to say. So the more plausible and reasonable the flaws or counter-arguments, the better.
Crisis: At some point, we need to drive home the point we’re trying to make. We do this by creating a crisis moment. In a novel, this is where the protagonist faces their ultimate dilemma. For example, in The Return of the Jedi, Luke faces Emperor Palpatine. And he has to choose: Embrace the dark side and save his friends, or remain a Jedi and face certain death. With non-fiction, we need to present the reader with a kind of ultimatum. Either they accept this big idea (our proposed solution), or they reject it. Often, this is done by presenting the best possible argument against our idea. We build up a seemingly watertight case against ourselves. Or we ask ‘So what? Why should anyone care about this?’ Either way, it creates a question in the reader’s mind: “This all seems so plausible. How can they still hold their position?” And the readers are desperate to know the answer.
Climax: In a novel, once the protagonist has reached the crisis point, the climax tells us how they respond. It is the moment of truth. Now we get to find out what stuff our protagonist is made of. In Return of the Jedi, Luke shuts down his light sabre and declares himself a Jedi. In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee picks up Frodo and carries him into Mount Doom. For non-fiction, this is where we deliver the killer blow (or blows) to any remaining objections. We show that the merits of what we’re suggesting outweigh the disadvantages. Our core idea emerges triumphant.
Resolution: After the emotional high of the climax, we can’t end the story right then. We need to let our reader down gently. Otherwise, it’s too sudden and feels unfinished. In non-fiction writing, it’s common for writers to finish by summarizing what’s come before. It’s the most common way to finish, and also the most boring. Our readers already know what we wrote because they just read it. We want to do something more interesting. One way to build a satisfying resolution is to hint at what they might be able to do with the power of this idea. Like Neo at the end of The Matrix. We don’t want to spell it out for the reader. That would be boring. We want to stimulate their imagination. Or we can steal from superhero movies and end with a setup for the sequel. We can hint at another adjacent problem (or hole). Again, we don’t want to spell it out. We just want to tease the reader that there’s more to come. Done well, we leave the reader feeling that our journey has come to a satisfying conclusion. And we stimulate their imagination, leaving them wanting more.
With The five commandments model, we take our reader on a journey. We start with an inciting incident, a motivating problem to draw the reader in. But with this model, our idea (the eventual solution) is the hero. Eventually, we want the reader to be cheering for our idea. (At least metaphorically, if not literally). The hero faces progressively more daunting challenges until the crisis. And then in the climax, they triumph. And the reader is left saying “Yes! I knew it! I knew this idea was the best. Those counter-arguments were strong, but we won!”
As mentioned above, the five commandments model has a lot more depth than the other two. It’s most useful when you have a longer piece and need to maintain a reader’s interest the whole time. And, there’s a whole lot more nuance to it we don’t have time to explore here. If it feels like too much, leave it.
But this is hard…
These models are really helpful. But they’re also a lot of work. Coming up with a creative crisis, climax and resolution is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. And the pain-dream-fix model isn’t any easier. It’s hard work trying to understand the pains and frustrations of our readers. And it’s even more work to dig under those pain points to uncover their motivations and dreams. Even Man in a Hole can seem like work when you’re in a hurry. All this story-structure stuff seems like it makes the job of writing harder, not easier.
It’s not like we have heaps of time and energy to spare either. We have deadlines and jobs and families and commitments. Our attention spans are decaying. Who has time for all this? And does it make that much of a difference anyway? Why bother?
I think about it like this: Communicating an idea takes hard work. Our brains are hard-wired for story. So to convey an idea of any complexity, it must be converted to a story format. There is a fixed cost that someone has to pay. There are only two options:
- Either the writer does the work of converting the idea into a story, as they write; or
- The reader’s brain does the story-conversion work, as they read.
Except, most people won’t do the work. Their brain will tell them “this is hard”, and they’ll stop reading.
The toll must be paid. And I don’t want to force that burden on my readers. It’s inconsiderate. And think about it: If I do the work of making my writing more digestible once, every reader benefits. But if I avoid that work, every reader pays. If I have any more than a few readers, it’s much cheaper overall if I pay that cost.
So, I think this story stuff is worth the effort. And it doesn’t have to be torturous. You can choose your difficulty setting. If you’re in a hurry or writing something short, stick with Man in a Hole. But if you’ve got something more complex that you want people to understand, try one of the other two models.
- Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds
- How Stories Change the Brain
- This Is Your Brain On Storytelling: The Chemistry Of Modern Communication
- Once upon a time… how stories change hearts – and brains
- How I increased conversion 2.4x with better copywriting
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling
- Wired for Story
- The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know
- On Writing Well
- Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace
Lisa Cron, 2012, Wired for Story, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, p. 8. ↩
Not that anyone has or uses phone books any more. And to be fair, there are some boring biographies that might give the phone book some competition. ↩