Crafting Compelling Stories

Posted on by Aditi Patil

"There's always room for a story that can transport people to another place." -J.K. Rowling.

In my earlier post, I wrote about some of the ways in which organizations can harness the power of story-telling. But, the question is; How do you craft a compelling story?

It was my first day in the creative writing course that I was taking. As my teacher walked in, here is what she said,

 “I am not here to tell you what to write. That is your creativity. Your story matters and is unique. I am here to provide you a structure and tools to apply to your story which will make it more compelling and powerful.”

In many ways writing is about engaging the left brain and the right brain. Creativity and language arts come from the right brain, and structure and patterns come from the left brain. Using both is important to craft compelling stories.

So what are the key ingredients to craft a compelling story? Here is what I learnt from my Creative Writing course.

What is the ONE overarching theme or message your story has?

For a story to be compelling, it has to have one overarching theme or message that you want your audience to hear/see/read. It could be the triumph of good over evil, or inspiration, or never give up. Loading the story with multiple messages or themes dilutes the impact. Cinderella was about good winning over evil. The ugly duckling was about recognizing one’s own potential. Before you share a story, ask yourself, “What is the ONE message I want to deliver through this?”

The four elements of any story: Every story has these basic elements. They form the structure.

  1. Character(s): The central hero, or group of characters who the story is about. Think about Howard Roark from the fountainhead, or Harry Potter. The stories were about their journey. The most memorable characters are relatable, go beyond stereotypes, and it is important for story-tellers to share the motivations the characters have. Would harry potter have been as interesting without his back story of dead parents, and evil aunt?
  2. Setting: This is where the story takes place. It can be a place in time, a physical place, a specific geography. It gives context to the audience, and transports them to a different world.
  3. Conflict: Imagine if Cinderella had no evil stepmothers, or stepsisters. She might have lived a happy existence, met her prince charming and lived happily ever after. Would that be engaging or interesting? The evil stepmom and stepsisters are part of the conflict or problems, that Cinderella faces and form the crux of the story.
  4. Resolution: This can also be called as the climax of the story. Cinderella went through many difficulties to reach the ball. Even after the ball, she had to watch as her sisters tried desperately to fit into her slipper. And ultimately, when the Prince found his Cinderella, we cheered for both of them.

Specific, Succinct & Generous:

Neuroscience tells us that we process information best when it is relayed to  us in short, concise bites. Imagine that you are crafting a story to share at your next team-building session. You make sure you have an overarching theme, and the four elements, but you get so involved in the story that it becomes a long winded story delving into many details, and leaving your audience bored.

  • Specific means that your story is clearly defined.
  • Succinct means that you say it in the most economical way; using just the right amount of words.
  • Generous means that the story almost always has a positive aspect about a character or a situation.

One of my favorite orators is Sheryl Sandberg. Here is a story she shared in her commencement address at Berkeley.

 “One of the women who came here in search of opportunity was Rosalind Nuss. Roz grew up scrubbing floors in the Brooklyn boardinghouse where she lived. She was pulled out of high school by her parents to help support their family. One of her teachers insisted that her parents put her back into school—and in 1937; she sat where you are sitting today and received a Berkeley degree. Roz was my grandmother. She was a huge inspiration to me and I’m so grateful that Berkeley recognized her potential. I want to take a moment to offer a special congratulations to the many here today who are the first generation in their families to graduate from college. What a remarkable achievement.”

 This is a great example of a story that has an overarching theme of triumph over odds, has all the four elements, and is specific, succinct and generous. Would this story have been as powerful if she started the story with “This is a story about my grandmother?”

So, how can we craft stories like these?

Let’s work through this with an example.

What is my overarching theme/ one message that I want to share? If I am a CEO of a company and I want to inspire my team to deliver in tough times. So, my theme is "Chase a seemingly impossible dream & Never give up"

Instead of drawing from personal experience, I want to share the story of Wilbur & Oliver Wright.

One way of sharing this story could be:

In the year 1900, Wilbur and Oliver Wright set across on an impossible dream; to build a flying machine. They were only armed with their single minded focus to make man fly. 

They started in 1900 and tried unsuccessfully many times. It took them three years to make their first manned flight. It was only for 12 seconds, but paved the way for aviation of today.  This is a great example of chasing a seemingly impossible dream, and persisting through many odds and not giving up. 

There isn’t anything wrong with the story above. Yet it lacks an emotional impact. Can we make the same story powerful?

What happens when we add the four elements?

Setting: It was the year 1900. Automobiles were in their infancy.

Characters: Two simple bicycle mechanics were running a successful business. They were satisfied with their income. However, they were consumed by a dream. A dream to make a flying machine.

Conflict: People laughed at their idea, and very few supported them. It took them three years, several failed attempts and significant financial investment to finally fly a plane. And it lasted all of 12 seconds.

Resolution: Those 12 seconds were a defining moment for aviation history, and today airplanes fly over 7000 miles carrying hundreds of passengers at a time. Two bicycle mechanics with a seemingly impossible dream changed our lives forever.

Which story is impactful? Powerful? Which one generates more emotion?

Is it specific, succinct and generous?

The words you put in any story must come from your heart. It can be your own, or you can be inspired by many who have led before you.

The structure is simply a way to amplify the emotional connect and impact of your story. There is no right or wrong way to use it.

 Tell your story from the heart, refine it with the structure.

Check if it has ONE overarching message/theme.

Ask yourself if it is Specific, Succinct, and Generous.

 Harness the power of story-telling in organizations; one story at a time


Aditi Patil, Faculty

About the Author: Aditi Patil is an ICF accredited Coach and a Talent Development Consultant at Thedacare. In her previous avatar, she has done leadership roles at Citibank, and spent time nurturing her entrepreneurial streak. She is a published writer in Chicken soup for the Soul, and loves sharing everyday stories. Her Life purpose is to bring about a world where everyone lives to their highest potential by accepting & celebrating who they are, and courageously making the journey to who they want to be.


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