Thought Leadership

3 Tips for Building the Perfect Story Template

“Narrative is basically a sequence of events. Something happens, then something else, then something else. Human instinct compels us to stick around to see what happens next.”

— Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life”

Beginning. Middle. End. A chronological approach is the best way to organize most nonfiction narratives.

But instead of simply listing all events in chronological order, it’s important to find the narrative arc. Move the reader from the conflict to the resolution and, finally, the denouement.

Sound complicated? It’s not.

In fact, Roz Chast summarizes the narrative arc beautifully in a New Yorker cartoon. Called “Story Template,” it includes four panels:

  • Once upon a time
  • Suddenly
  • Luckily
  • Happily ever after

In a business context, you might translate Chast’s template to:

  • Introduction (“Once upon a time”)
  • Problem (“Suddenly”)
  • Solution (“Luckily”)
  • Results (“Happily ever after”)

Using this structure, you can develop a narrative lead, case study, testimonial or mini story to illustrate your point.

Tip 1: Move the problem to the top.

A participant in one of my storytelling workshops once shared this advice: “If you’re writing about seeing a snake at a picnic, for gosh sake, start with the snake. Don’t start with fixing the sandwiches.”

The conflict — the snake — is the inciting moment. It’s also the the essence of a story. So, start in the middle of things, at the most dramatic moment of the problem:

  • The day the tax bill came
  • The day the bank called your loan
  • The day you learned the company had shipped its $60,000 circuit board with a fatal flaw

As “the father of advertising” David Ogilvy said: “When you advertise fire extinguishers, open with the flames.”

Tip 2: Sandwich the introduction between the problem and solution.

When writing an opening paragraph, keep things lively and terse. Don’t include 40 paragraphs of background information before something actually happens. If you do that, readers won’t stick around long enough to get to the inciting incident.

Try this structure:

  • Problem (“Suddenly”)
  • Introduction (“Once upon a time”)
  • Solution (“Luckily”)
  • Results (“Happily ever after”)

An alternate idea: Consider blowing up the introduction entirely:

  • Problem (“Suddenly”)
  • Solution (“Luckily”)
  • Results (“Happily ever after”)

Tip 3: Keep it short. 

Stories don’t have to be long to be successful.

Chast’s simple structure is a good reminder that a great narrative can be as short as three sentences. Give one sentence each to the problem, the solution and the result, and you have a mini parable that can help you make your point in an ad, lead or any other media spot.

Anecdotes can be as long as your market, message and medium demand.



Copyright © 2018 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.         

Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. Learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services at Get more of Ann’s tips at Email:


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Ann Wylie

1 Comment

  • Nearly every public relations professional I speak to explains that the key to success in the PR world is the ability to write well. Mastering the skill of storytelling can work wonders for your personal career and your clients as well. These three easy tips are easy to remember and highlight the most important factors in creating an intriguing story.

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