How to Tell an Epic Story in Five Everyday Steps

We already know the power of telling a great story for our clients. We want to sell that punch-in-the-gut moment, the horse and the puppy Super Bowl tear-jerker, time and time again.

I was reading an article recently, however, about what comprises an epic relationship. The author surmised, nicely, that at a distance sweeping romances and lifelong relationships are, indeed, epic, but upon closer look, are made up of 20,000 everyday Wednesdays.

It made me think that in marketing and PR, we are always looking for the next big story, or the next great angle on our product, service or business.

Awesome. That’s our job, and it’s why the people who are making sure their products or services actually work are paying us to take care of this part of the business.

But a truly sweeping story–the ones that snare us from the first gripping sentence to a neatly resolved “the end”–can’t always be full of narrative climax.

Every story has an arc or dramatic structure, and each piece must fit together with the whole (what good old Walter Fisher would call narrative probability). Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, identified five parts of the dramatic arc after studying Greek and Shakespearean dramas.

Each part serves to push the audience through the story, and each part–though some parts less narratively sexy than others–plays an important role in how effectively the climax or main idea of the story is conveyed to the audience.

1. Exposition

In this part, important background information is laid out for the audience. You could also call this “context.” Either way, it’s an essential part for building a story that makes sense.

2. Rising Action

This part of the arc is the series of events that build immediately upon the background information and begins to lead the audience toward the point of greatest interest. Interestingly, this part of the arc is arguably more important than the climax, because without these events, the climax will not make sense, will feel jarring…or, frankly, the audience won’t care about the climax in the first place.

3. Climax

This part of the arc is the big moment people talk about after the movie is over, or that “turning point” where things go from bad to good…or sometimes bad to worse (in the case of a tragedy like Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare was dark, ya’ll.)

4. Falling Action

This part of the arc is “what’s next,” where we see if there is a win or lose situation based on the climax, and how characters respond to the “big thing” or turning point in the story.

5. Resolution

In this part of the arc, all conflicts are resolved, characters return to normal life, and there is a pervading sense that the big events that got us here might still shape the future, but they are firmly in the past.

Critics of Freytag’s model are quick to point that this arc only applies to tragedies or dramas, but personally, I’m a big fan of allowing any storytelling theory to be a guide for the way we do PR and marketing.

I’m also a big fan of any model that very closely resembles a sales or buying cycle, and how those models might give us deeper insight on how we might anticipate where customers are in the cycle, and deliver the information they need before they know they need it.

For example, a customer at the very beginning of the sales cycle who is unfamiliar with a brand or product is going to be in dire need of exposition (“Who are you and why should I care?”) whereas a customer who is familiar with a brand or product’s key selling points might need that extra “what’s next” information or story (“Your product sounds great…how does it positively or negatively affect my life?”).

When we can think of the stories we tell as larger parts of the whole, we can more ably tell the smaller stories that pack a little less punch, because we know how they play into the narrative arc.

So tell that epic story. Just remember epic stories are composed of just a few heroic moments…and 20,000 everyday anecdotes.


Written by Sarah J. Storer. Sarah has been a fan of stories ever since she memorized ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ at the ripe old age of three. Today she channels that passion to help individuals and businesses tell their stories with heart. Learn more at about.me/sarahjstorer or follow her on Twitter @sarahjstorer. Visit PRTini.com where this excerpt is originally appeared.

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