What makes a good story?

What makes a good story? What makes a bad one? Two main elements are common in all great stories. Here are my thoughts.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fiction writer or a copywriter. If you can’t tell a great story (let alone know what makes a good story), life is going to be unkind. You and I tell stories all the time. Some of us aren’t even aware of it.
 
Your kids tell them to you. What happened at school. Who spat in their food. Your SO might share one with you. Your boss does it too. Maybe they tell awesome stories. There’s a good chance a lot of them will bore you out of your mind.
 
Yes, yes. Stories are all around us. So how do you tell a great story?
 
Well, the point of any compelling story is to create a lasting impression. As copywriters, we also want the story to serve a more specific purpose… and our ultimate end goal? Sales, baby. (Money, money, money… moneyyyy!)
 
Which means, learning what makes a good story and how to tell a great one is a skill set every persuasion artist should aim to master. Having studied storytelling for more than 20 years, I’d like to share what I’ve come to believe are the main components of a well-told tale.

My own quality criteria for creating amazing stories

You can look at traditional metrics for what makes a great story, and hey, that’s cool. But whatever story you’re telling, it’s got to have these 2 elements for me, or it’s dead in the water.
 
Let’s take a look.
 

Character vs. Characterization

If you don’t care about the character, you won’t care about the story. But just because you have a character named Sally, and give her memorable character traits… like a droopy eye, a peg leg, and 2 tongues, that doesn’t mean we care about her story.
 
So when, and how, do we come to care about Sally? When we find out her dad is dying of an incurable disease? Maybe. Even though that’s an external factor, it might make her more relatable.
 
In fact, relatability is a major factor. And although external factors are critical, it’s how our characters deal with these factors that make us invested in their story.
 
For example, what if Sally were a robot? She might then have a strong desire to break free from the chains of human servitude that could make us care. But again, that just makes her more relatable, combined with a character desire.
 
So let’s dig into characterization a bit further, by combining it with another element.

Conflict

Conflict drives emotion. It gets the reader invested in your story. I’m not talking about your mom arguing with your sister because she got caught stealing her special pills.
 
When done well, conflict is what drives characterization.
 
So we have Sally, who we know quite a bit about. But let’s take another character. A fresh one. Let’s call him John.
 
Johnny Boy, we know nothing about. We only know that he’s facing a tough decision:
 
Save his ex-wife from falling down an elevator shaft… or rescue his dog from drowning.
 
He can’t do both. What would you do?
 
He can try to save both and end up losing both, which would make him a tragic figure. But we might admire the effort, or sympathize with him, which means he’s done something we can definitely relate to.
 
What about the moral of the story? Life is about making tough decisions and taking calculated risks. Or maybe it’s a morality tale about how you can’t win ’em all.
 
Either way, real conflict has to be driven by difficult decisions, not easy ones. Characterization isn’t created by simple choices, like, “Will Sally choose the chocolate ice cream? Or vanilla?”
 
Who gives a crap?
 
Difficult choices have severe consequences. And these consequences have to affect your character. If it doesn’t change them as a character, it doesn’t advance their character arc.
 
Some people ask, “Is the plot more important? Or the character’s actions?”
 
You can’t have one without the other. But it’s the character’s decisions and actions that drive the plot. NOT the other way around. When you have it the other way around, you’re forcing your character to act on the plot.
 
The result?
 
Think of every horror movie that frustrated you because the character’s actions didn’t make sense. (Mandy hears a strange noise outside, so she decides to take a shower. You get the idea.)
 
To wit: A great story is driven by characterization + conflict.

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How to use stories in your copy

Now let’s see how this affects your copy. In copywriting, the drama doesn’t have to be this intense. In fact, we rarely tell stories that have such consequences.
 
But we can spin a good yarn when we want to, especially when it’s true. Like adman Bill Bernbach once said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”
 
Anyway. Say you’ve interviewed a founder, who tells you how they decided to launch their company. The whole backstory. Turns out, it wasn’t as easy as, “Hey, let’s launch a company.”
 
David, the founder, was running out of money. His bank had screwed him, and he couldn’t bear to explain it to his wife, let alone his employees.
 
He was facing an impossible choice: Invest everything he had left into ads or rebrand the company… but he didn’t have money to do both.
 
What if we upped the stakes?
 
David happens to mention that he chose to remortgage his house and risk it all to do both. Did his gamble pay off? We want to know. What did he do different? What saved him? Did he have a Eureka! moment?
 
(Note: We already know there’s a happy ending. People don’t go watch a Disney movie because they don’t know the ending. They want to know what decisions the characters make that get them there.)
 
You can even make up a story, obviously, so long as it’s evident that it’s fiction.
 
Me, personally? I like injecting some humor and dark satirical tones into my writing, especially when it comes to storytelling in content writing.
 
That’s because it’s easier to stretch these stories when it comes to content versus copy.
 
Let me write an example off the top of my head:
 
“Joe scrolled through his feed mindlessly and stopped. His eye started twitching as a bead of sweat lingered above his arched brow. He couldn’t resist. He had to click it.
 
He sensed immediate regret once he did. Nothing matched the original ad. The color palette was all wrong, and it sent him writhing in pain, vomiting all over his Boston terrier, as she yelped and scurried away in a panic.
 
If you’ve ever felt like Joe, you know you’ve been the victim of a heinous crime: Relevancy in advertising. Creating a seamless experience is not only critical, it can be bad for your audience’s health when performed incorrectly.”
 
You get the idea.

Storytelling in Brand Copywriting

If you’re a brand copywriter, things can get a bit more interesting. That’s because a lot of branding is an exercise in identity-shaping and management.
 
We are the stories we tell ourselves. Stories also inspire us to become better versions of ourselves.
 
Look no further than Nike’s classic slogan, “Just do it”. They’ve told stories of athletes who have overcome insurmountable challenges over several decades.
 
We buy brands we either identify with, or we want to be associated with, because they are viewed as an extension of our self.

Further reading for great storytelling

If you want to read further, I have 2 recommendations that are a must-read for every serious storyteller.
 
1. Robert McKee’s brilliant “Story“. From story arc to story structure, he covers every principle you can think of. He also backs them up with examples from all kinds of stories (especially movies).
 
2. Joseph Campbell’s classic “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“. Campbell traces the common features that are used as assessment criteria for any good story.
 
Once you read this book, every time you watch a movie, you’ll think stuff like, “Oh, the hero rejects the call!” or “Oof! Too much on-the-nose exposition. Who wrote this lazy crap?”
 
To wit: It doesn’t matter if you’re writing founder or brand stories, case studies, or something else. Being able to tell a great story is a skill set you should have in your copywriting and marketing arsenal.
 
We’ve heard it time and again, folks. Stories sell, so you should learn how to tell them well. (Hey, that rhymes!)

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