As humans, we often stick to the worn out narrative structures that we’ve always been used to. A CV is a narrative structure that tells the story of your career chronology. A menu is a narrative structure for a meal. An Airbnb-style homepage offers a narrative structure for a whole host of homepages everywhere these days, it seems.
When we conform to a familiar context its fine, and it’s often helpful. We’re effectively designing something or writing something that is expected of us. It’s a safe formula. Your story might be amazing, and might be less distracting if it arrives in the form of a predictable structure, with a plot that’s intact and no thought to the creativity of the narrative. But what happens if you play with the formula of the CV? Or storify a food menu? It’s a window of design opportunity.
For example, just a few weeks ago, I had a meal in a hotel in Scotland, and between the starter and the main they presented us with an ‘amuse bouche’. Out of the blue. It wasn’t on the menu. It was small, just a few bites of steak tartare on a spoon and some wild mushrooms of a morsel of toast –it wasn’t too radical but it was the surprise. This is what happens when we adjust the usual narrative, the structure. It’s the memorable thing. It’s just a little exquisite shift in the narrative framework. Nom.
Let’s go back to thinking about narrative structure (which is not the same as plot and story structure…think of plot versus structure in Pulp Fiction). Most people, at some point in their lives struggle with finding a structure for the story they want to tell. From wedding speeches to writing the copy for your own website, narrative structure is one major hurdle that stops people from getting started. How to structure the damn thing?
Get started by making a mess.
- Get a pen and a large piece of white, unlined paper.
- Go crazy and write. You are creating the raw materials, you need lots of them and you need them messy and fast. The messier and the uglier the better. You need to bash out thoughts, feelings, hunches, topics, anything that may or may not be relevant to the thing you’re writing. There are two main ways you can do this bashing; either as a mind map or as prose. If it’s a mind map, make it big. If it’s prose, about 2 or 3 sides of A4 spontaneously written in pen should do it.
- Go out for a walk and think about it.
- Come back and do another 5 minutes of extending your mess.
- Get a coloured pen. Circle all the main topics that you care about.
- Get another coloured pen. Circle all the sub-topics that you care about.
Next steps: The Love Points. The BOOM. The Conflict.
- Look at your notes and put yourself in your audiences’ shoes. There are two questions you need to answer at this point. “What are they going to love?” and “What’s the BOOM?“. You will know. I shall not expand further for there are many many blog posts and books out there on storytelling, plot and the hero’s journey (Resonate by Nancy Duarte is a great book for storytelling in presentations, Scott McCloud’s book is great on this too).
- Write the love points and the BOOM big on a piece of paper where you can see them.
- Now you need to make sure you know what The Conflict is that you are trying to resolve. This is your agenda, it’s the thing your piece is fighting for.
- Display these three things in words in front of you.
Proceed to the next level: Question the structural integrity of the thing.
Now that you have the raw materials, the conflict, the love points and the BOOM, you can think about the narrative structure, or the structural integrity of the ‘thing’.
By working through the following questions, you can start to get a sense of the structure. You don’t have to answer them all. Just use them as a springboard.
- Where do you enter the story, if it’s not at the beginning? Pudding first?
- What is the finest, most lovable detail. Where does it appear?
- What is the BOOM. When or where should it appear?
- Do you have a beginning, middle and end? You don’t have to. If they do exist, what order are they in?
- How much detail is too much detail?
- How much detail is not enough?
- What is redundant? What’s a side-issue?
- Can it be spliced into tiny component parts?
- What’s the format for delivering each of the component parts?
- If it was encapsulated with a frame, what would that frame be? Who or what would deliver it (A narrative voice? A person? A thing?)
- How small do you want to make it?
- If you had to cut out the majority, what would you be left with?
- What’s the amuse-bouche? The feel-good bonus?
- Over what time span does it play out? Is there a time span?
- Is it fast moving and hard hitting, or is it slow and contemplative? Define the tempo.
Organise your structure. Get creative.
Put your topics and sub-topics on post-it notes, if you haven’t already. Look at the answer to your questions and begin to organise sticky notes to reflect the narrative structure of the piece. Add notes where necessary.
The reason you are using sticky notes, is that your structure is perhaps not linear. It might be fragmented, like a book of short stories rather than a novel. It might be a diagram, rather than a block of text. It might be a video that people watch as well as a wedding speech. It might start and finish with an amuse bouche.
Let me know how you get on.
I’m excited about how we can make exquisite shifts in the narrative frameworks that we live with in our day to day lives. I’d love to hear more experiential examples, or any other responses that you have to this blog post. Feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
(In progress: Still looking for Brighton artist’s name to credit the image to)