As humans, we have pretty hardwired expectations for what a story should be. And it’s not just a series of events happening. Otherwise, we’d be perfectly content looking out the office window all day watching the world unfold. But that’s not interesting. Because there’s no plot.
So we need a plot to make a story interesting. And the plot is basically just what happens in the story. It sets out the story arc, and you can then add in all the rich details that bring your story to life.
And although no two stories are the same, 99% of all stories ever told follow the same 7 basic plots. If you want to study them in detail, I’d highly recommend you read Booker’s 7 basic plots, which discusses them in great depth. But here they are at a glance:
99% of Stories Follow the Same Seven Plots
So when you sit down to write a story, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, your story will probably be better if you don’t. Instead, study these plot types and choose the one that’s most suitable for your use case. Then make it your own by adding specific details, and matching the hero’s journey to your customers’ internal narrative.
Although there are seven basic plots, two of them are not appropriate for business stories. And those two are comedy and tragedy. So that leaves us with five basic plots for brand storytelling:
1. Rags to riches
This is a very popular plot that I’m sure we’re all familiar with. It goes like this: The hero comes from difficult or limiting circumstances and generally has a bleak outlook on life. He’s a typical underdog. But then, one day, and inciting incident triggers his fight (often, a guide). And he discovers a drive or power within that sets off his journey for betterment. He faces struggles and challenges along the way, but eventually overcomes adversity and comes out on top.
Business use: Often inspirational personal stories that tell of humble beginnings, e.g. Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, or Gary Vee.
Another common plot is the story of rebirth. It tells of a stricken hero who is stuck in a negative spiral that he can’t see a way out of. He sinks so low, that everything he loves and cares about is suddenly at stake. His actions or the situation he finds himself in is threatening to destroy his life. Until an event (inciting incident) triggers him to change his ways. With the help of a guide, he fights his way back and comes out on top.
Business use: Rebirth stories are popular in healthcare, for example, related to suicide awareness or drug addiction, where the hero receives help and ends up a better person.
3. Overcoming the monster
In this plot type, the hero sets out to defeat a dark force threatening him or the things he cares about. Tension builds slowly as he successfully defeats smaller villains ahead of the epic battle with the monster himself. His early success lulls him into a false sense of security and he feels empowered and prepared for the fight ahead. But when the monster arrives, he realises that he’s in over his head. To successfully defeat the beast, he needs to become a whole new version of himself.
Business use: Often used in philanthropic, mission-based stories where the brand promises to help the customer (hero) fight the evil monster, e.g. Patagonia
4. The quest
This plot type is what most people associate with the “hero’s journey”. It tells the story of a hero who is fed up with the status quo and wants to change the world for the better. So he sets off on a quest to achieve a noble or notable outcome. But, along the way, he faces trials and tribulations that he overcomes with the help of a guide. He goes through emotional ups and downs, and reaches a place of despair where he thinks about throwing in the towel. The guide talks sense into him and convinces him that he’s got the fight left within him. The hero fights to overcome his demons (conflict), and comes out on top.
Business use: This plot is often used in origin stories or founder stories, where someone’s on a mission to change the world for the better and has to overcome a series of obstacles to get there.
5. Voyage and return
This is a common plot in fantasy stories (think The Odysee, the Chronicles of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland), where the hero accidentally stumbles through a portal and ends up in a strange world. Initially, the world looks appealing, but then things take a turn for the worse. The hero must fight his way back to where he was before and overcome all sorts of obstacles along the way (often with the help of a trusted guide.)
Business use: This is a common plot in the coaching industry, where the client transforms from being overwhelmed and confused to reaching a place of clarity with the help of a coach or mentor.
And they are all expressions of the hero’s journey
Even though “the quest” is the typical plot associated with the hero’s journey, all of the plots we’ve just looked at are different expressions of the hero’s journey.
They all involve a hero, a guide, and a transformation.
So when you sit down to write a story for your brand, you first need to define those variables.
In most cases, your customer is the hero and you’re the guide. But that’s not always the case. For example, in founder or origin stories, you are the protagonist, not your customer. But you can make the story more appealing for them by aligning the transformation with their internal narrative. (If you don’t know your customers’ internal narrative, you can learn how to work it out here.)
So ask yourself who your customer wants to become. What transformation are they seeking for themselves. And see how you can bring that to life in the story by having your story’s hero undergo the same transformation.
How to choose the right plot for your story
If you’re not sure how to choose the right plot for your story, a good place to start is your customer’s pain or problem. (Since the reason for telling the story is to show them it’s possible to overcome their problem and come out on top.)
So to choose the right plot, ask yourself, does the person I’m telling this story to…
- Need to overcome limiting circumstances? Rags to riches
- Need to break out of a destructive cycle? Rebirth
- Need to defeat an evil force? Overcoming the monster
- Want to improve the status quo? The quest
- Want to restore order? Voyage and return
And then map out the story to showcase your customer’s desired transformation.
If you want to build brand awareness, authority, and trust, your best bet is to start by nailing your brand story.
Whenever you are ready, there are 2 ways we can help you do that:
- Join The Storydriven Marketing Academy: Our FREE course that teaches you how to consistently nail your messaging across all brand assets
- Enquire about our Brand Storytelling Workshop: We work with you 1:1 over four guided workshop sessions to craft your storydriven brand messaging & content strategy