Stuck in a Story Structure Rut? 5 Tips for Breaking Out
Whether you write content regularly or just on occasion, it’s easy to fall into the rut of structuring your story the same way — time and again. Maybe all of your blog posts dispense “three key takeaways” or your eBooks outline “eight essential tips.” Perhaps you struggle to organize your content, or just don’t understand why story structure matters.
Content lacking in structure gets published every day, forcing readers to second-guess their way through the story and ultimately fraying their nerves — not what any content marketer wants happening. Even if your content happens to have structure, telling your story the same way each time doesn’t offer your reader much in the way of variety.
While every piece of content needs a beginning and end, there’s no one right way to structure a story. More important is that your story has a structure of some sort — and doesn’t send readers off on a wild goose chase. How can you effectively (and painlessly) arrange your story, and make it interesting and different each time? These five frameworks can help you get started.
If you finished grade school (I’m going to assume you did), you spent years perfecting the five-paragraph essay — and you actually know more about structure than you realize. The five-paragraph essay is at the root of even the most innovative approaches to storytelling. Here’s how it looks:
- Your first paragraph introduces your topic and key point.
- Your next three paragraphs back up the point you make in the intro with credible examples or evidence.
- Your final paragraph wraps up and synthesizes your argument.
Now that you’re a grown up, your story will probably have more than five paragraphs, and in all likelihood, you can bolster your supporting paragraphs with things like statistics and firsthand accounts from your field. As you write, though, just keep the premise of the five-paragraph essay in mind.
The inquiring mind
In content marketing, you’re writing to a specific audience for the purpose of achieving a particular goal. So put yourself in the mindset of your target audience, and structure your story like a Q&A. Don’t make it a standard FAQ (unless you’re writing an FAQ, that is). Rather, use anecdotes and personal insights from the field to give it flavor. And don’t be shy: show some personality and talk directly to your readers. Without these added features, your Q&A post can come across as dry.
The team player
It’s easy to want to associate a single author with a single story. But in content marketing, where the primary objective is to promote an organization by providing a window into your team’s thought process and approach, crowdsourcing can work really well.
What, exactly, is crowdsourcing? It’s a way of telling a story or creating a piece of content by soliciting responses from a group of people. For instance, you might ask your team to share top takeaways from a conference — and then publish the responses in a single blog post. Or you might query colleagues involved with a particular project to contribute one or two highlights.
Last month on Marketing Trenches, we published a round of responses to what we learned in 2014 about content marketing. The result is a smorgasbord of insights from professionals who work in the same field but play different roles — a perfect scenario for crowdsourcing because it showcases various perspectives. Done well, crowdsourcing not only allows your story to align with your company’s bigger story but also to call attention to the individual strengths and thought leadership of your team.
The problem solver
If you’re the expert in your field, then you’re the one who provides a service and fixes your clients’ problems. Content marketing is a great place to let your problem-solving capabilities shine. As you structure your blog post, white paper, or other content, start your story with a problem many of your clients face, and then spend the rest of piece presenting how your organization approaches and solves that particular problem. If you tackle the problem in multiple ways, give a few scenarios so readers can get a real sense of your approach — and so you can build your credibility as a thought leader in your field.
This approach works well for people who don’t like to create outlines and probably work, like I do, at a messy desk. The main set up looks like this: (1) introduce a concept, question, or idea, and (2) spend the rest of your story “thinking” out loud about your concept, question, or idea.
Keep in mind that if you choose this overarching structure, you can’t just write off the top of your head. After all, content marketing isn’t stream of consciousness, and as much as I like James Joyce, emulating him probably won’t bolster your business. So you will need to create an additional layer of structure to make this effective. You can weigh the pros and cons; compare and contrast one method versus another; explore causes and effects; or create a list of options or outcomes. This sets you up nicely for offering your reader a takeaway at the end of your story.
Again, it doesn’t matter so much which structure you use, as long as you use one. If you always take “the thinker” approach, try being the “team player” or “inquiring mind” next time. Whatever you do, don’t overlook the importance of story structure, and don’t get stuck telling the same kind of story each time you write. Your readers will be ever so appreciative.
And if you have ideas for framing and organizing your content, let us know in the comments.