A story is an account of something that changes.
In its simplest form, that's all a story is. Some define stories as entertainment, but that merely skims the surface of why people crave, devour, and want to share them. A story is about the world or people who change around us, and the subsequent effect; whether it's through a lesson learned, a moral told, or even a cautionary warning (tragedies are usually about something or someone who needs to change, but fails).
In his wonderful book The Golden Theme, Brian McDonald describes a story as a shared memory that contains survival information. He says "Stories are a great way to get the benefit of someone else's experience without having to have the experience oneself."
We seek stories in order to hear what others have gone through before us, to learn from their triumphs and mistakes so that we might better understand our world. This is why we describe a villain as a snake in the grass, or falling in love like a flutter in the chest; so that when you see a snake, you sense danger. When your heart skips a beat at the sight of someone, you might realize why.
In order to convey this information, a story must acknowledge the change that results. "The world was this way, and now it's another way," is the core of what most stories say. The "world" in this scenario might be as large as the universe, as small as a high school, or as singular as one person's mind. It might take place over a millennia, or in the span of a single moment. It might be about saving the status quo in the face of a threat, or breaking it down in order to rebuild it anew.
Advertising is not immune to this rule. A good brand story is also about change, usually implying that your life with this product or service is better than it is without. Good branding is able to justify a product's existence by demonstrating its relevant value. Everything from the few seconds of relief provided by a frosty soda on a hot summer day, to years of productivity provided by multi-million-dollar technology integrations; they all imply that a positive change will occur if you engage with this brand.
The creators of Apple's iconic 1984 TV commercial understood the power of story. The dystopian spot speaks of revolution, upheaval, and a complete dismantling of the status quo. These are bold claims to attach to a mere product launch, but they were well-founded; Apple's innovations to personal computing arguably revolutionized the technological world. Because Apple delivered on their promise, and continue to do so more often than not, they have one of the strongest brands in the world.
Here are some examples of very different kinds of stories that all demonstrate some kind of change.
Note: the following contains spoilers for Harry Potter, 1984, When Harry Met Sally, and Hero.
J.K. Rowling's series is about a boy who goes from being powerless to being exceptionally powerful. He begins book 1 of the series by being unloved and as good as forgotten. By the end of book 7, he is the most important wizard in the world. In order to get there, Harry is forced to sacrifice much, including his friends. Yet Harry also becomes wiser over the course of the books.
When he chooses to reject ultimate power at the end, it is a decision he could have made only after having gone through such a journey. The boy at the beginning of the story would likely have made a different choice than the one at the end, and that is why the story resonates. We learn Harry's lessons right alongside him.
I mentioned earlier that a tragedy is a story about something that fails to change, and George Orwell's 1984 is a perfect example. As our empathy for the protagonist grows, we desperately hope his world will change. Unfortunately for Winston, despite his efforts and ambitions, the society lives on, and he ends up worse than before. In this case, 1984 serves as a cautionary tale that we should not allow an influence like Big Brother to rise in the first place.
When Harry Met Sally
In his book on screenwriting formula, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder bundles romance and buddy comedies into one genre which he calls "buddy love." The general rule of any buddy love story—whether it's a bromance, an epic fantasy, or a romantic comedy—is to begin your characters with mutual dislike. As Snyder says, "At first the 'buddies' hate each other. (Where would they have to go if they didn't?)" He's referring to their journey. We want to watch two people fall in love, so if they start out liking each other from the start there's no change, and thus the story is uninteresting. Look at almost any romance or buddy comedy, and I guarantee there will be two potential points of conflict: either when they first meet and dislike each other, or when they're far enough in their relationship that they realize they need each other.
In the case of Harry and Sally, their story extends over a decade. Their relationship changes from one of discordant utilization, to awkward acquaintances, to best friends, to estranged lovers, and finally to marriage. So of course it's easy to see the external change through the years.
However it's far more interesting to see the internal change, especially in Harry. He begins the movie as a cynical know-it-all with a mercenary view of love. By the end of the movie, he realizes that he can either continue to live alone with this philosophy, or change and win back the woman he loves.
Often it's the character who must change, but sometimes the character is merely a catalyst for change. In Elf, Will Ferrell's protagonist, Buddy, stays the same jolly figure throughout the events of the plot. It's up to the people around him to recognize the value he brings to their lives and make room for him. Until they do, Buddy feels like he doesn't "belong anywhere." Once they internalize and reflect the Christmas cheer that he's been championing all along, their lives change dramatically.
It's interesting to note that the type of change in a story can skew based on demographics. For example, many middle-grade stories are about children who fight a risen antagonist in order to re-establish the status quo (such as in Harry Potter). Many YA stories are about disrupting the status quo, especially in dystopian fiction (for example The Hunger Games). Eastern stories are often about the many coming together in order to defeat the one, while in western stories we love the solo underdog who rises to fight the many.
American-made stories especially are rife with tales of revolution against an oppressive power, which is probably a holdover from our country's founding (especially considering that the heroes often speak with American accents while the villains have British accents, such as in Star Wars, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Peter Pan). On the other hand, Hero is a story that hails from China about a revolutionary who realizes in the end that it is better to unite the country than to rise against a perceived oppressor.
The next time you think about a story--whether you're writing a novel, telling a joke, or brainstorming a brand position--make sure you think about the change that is at the heart of your story. Understanding that change will strengthen your message, whatever it may be.
- The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald (unfortunately it appears to be out of print, and is not currently available in the Kindle store, so see if your library has a copy)
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins