Good-bye Narrative Arc. Hello Narrative Mark!

Packaging is important. Just ask Steve Jobs. Oh, ok, so that's not possible. Look at Apple and the iPod then the iPhone. These were not new ideas. Arguably there were net new elements but the overall concepts were the same as much technology that had come before. The packing was extraordinary. It was simple, easy to understand, easy to talk about. Apple did a great job. Kudos, pat on the back. RIP Steve, you did good. There is another type of packaging I want to tackle today. That of the Narrative Arc. I believe the concept is deeply flawed and am here to offer you an alternative.

Simple structures that you can apply to your marketing and your business

The Narrative Arc has been bothering me for some time. I have made it my purpose in life to make storytelling as easy to understand and apply as possible. That includes developing simple structures that you can apply to your marketing and your business. Especially those of you in high-tech, speed and feed laden industries.

What was bothering me? Two things. Firstly, I did not like the fact that most "arcs" end where they started, Y-Axis wise. What are they measuring? Rising and falling action? This is inconsistent from one graph to another. Secondly graph should have some related components and lay them out in a logical way to help convey meaning. Most examples of a Narrative Arc do not achieve this at all. Let's take a look.

I will pick on this person's version, sorry whoever you are. So, the X axis is time? OK, got it. The story moves forwards in time. That makes sense. What does the Y axis stand for? Seriously. Think about it. Take as long as you need.

Surely at this point in a story we should be moving to a conclusion, good or bad.

It does not represent anything discernible. What really gets my goat however is the fact the climax is on the downswing of this arc shape which stands for, what, coming down? The energy is reducing? The emotions? What? Surely at this point in a story we should be moving to a conclusion, good or bad.

And if you or I want to use the power of pictures (and graphs) to help convey the structure of a corporate story then surely it needs to be:

  1. Simple
  2. Memorable
  3. Meaningful

Emotional state would be a good candidate for the Y axis. Stories are, at their core, about people and things happening to those people. So, things can either be good, bad, or somewhere in between. Right? And you can graph the shit out of it. Doing so serves a purpose when you are getting into the nitty gritty detail with an expert. But the last I checked the reason I am here, and you, is that the world needs help applying storytelling to business. That means it needs help with simple structures, processes and frameworks. A graph like the below may be too much - and remember Cinderella is a pretty simple story.

That graph was a simple version of these. And in business we want to keep things short and concise (Says he with the long blog post). If Narrative Arcs are too simple and narrative graphs are too complex where is our Goldilocks?

Behold! The Narrative Mark!

Based on the simple concept of a check-mark the Narrative Mark condenses the emotional state of the main character (Y axis) along with time (X axis) and throws in the common three act structure to reinforce it the story angle.

Note: Spoilers for some pretty classic movies coming up. If you haven't seen Finding Nemo, Alien, Knocked Up, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope or Wedding Crashers and you don't want any spoilers then maybe go have a movie marathon and then come back. OK?

Finding Nemo is epic for a kid’s movie. It is practically a tragedy for much of its first half. Slowly things turn around and it gets nice and upbeat. It ends in a pretty safe place for all our protagonists. Awwwwww Nemo and his Daddy made up.

"But what about the ups and downs of a story?" I hear your cry. Yes, all good stories have a beat (Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet concept is awesome) and yes if you want to go down the rabbit hole, we can go down the rabbit hole.

For example, finding Nemo's detail could look something more like this.

However, for the purposes of articulating the flow of the story and its ultimate goals the Narrative Mark is clear, simple, easy to replicate and supports our point. Adding lots of squiggles and bumps scuppers our plans. Try do that in a conference room with a slide behind you and… wait… what? I seem to have lose the audience. Exactly.

Just for fun let us look at what the Narrative Mark looks like for some other cinematic master pieces. What does a brilliant space-horror look like?

Woah! That's a bit different. Ripley and crew start off kind of "OK", if you consider being rudely awakened too soon, billions of miles from home an acceptable situation. It gets worse when they realize they must respond to a distress signal. It keeps going downhill from there. There is a "ahhhhh, things are getting better" moment when Ripley escapes the main ship only to discover there is an alien with her in the escape pod. The general vibe of the film however is that Ripley and crew are screwed and it only ever really gets worse and worse until the final alien is dispatched. Where is she then? Back to square one really, in space, in hyper sleep, heading home for some peace and quiet… or so she thinks (yeah…. Aliens).

Lightening the mood, a little bit how about…

Things are bumbling along in a normal fashion for our protagonist and anti-hero played by Seth Rogen. He is a bit of a loser and does not have many prospects but he did cross paths with a woman he quite fancied. Like many modern tongue-in-cheek comedies, the vibe is middling. Nothing particularly amazing is happening. And then something goes wrong. With hilarious effect. Things are never "that bad" for our protagonist. Seth's Ben Stone may feel like his life has ended when he finds out he needs to become a responsible parent but what was that life anyway? It was just bumbling along. Things hit a turning point (the bottom of our lovely check mark) and then rise quite nicely leaving the characters and those in the cinema feeling good about things. Like the opposite of how you felt at the end of Alien.

And now…!

This buddy comedy things start off with things being good for our main characters. They find some women that like them as much back as the guys like the gals and they all go off on a fun weekend together. Stuff goes sideways. Gets worse. Some characters get pretty down (respect to Owen Wilson) yet a turning point is reached. The action and positive vibe rises and all is well that ends well.

A New Hope has a wonderful Narrative Mark profile. It has a little bump at the beginning. Princess Leia getting stopped by Vader is pretty gnarly stuff but then we bump back into the positive for some Tatooine action until Owen and Beru are taken out by Troopers (if you've never see this comedy take on the dark side of this scene check this out - Troopers - Bad Boys, whatcha gonna do?). Things get more and more tense and they keep going that way until the lowest point in the film where Obi-Wan is killed by Vader (look, I gave you the spoiler warning, and seriously, you haven't seen it??) Things build back up from there as they escape the Death Star, hook up with the Rebel Alliance and eventually take out the first of many many large spherical space objects that the villains build to kill the good guys and the good guys then blow up. I love Star Wars.

Story geek? Star Wars fan? I recommend the Beat Sheet for IV.

Yes, like Nemo there are ups and downs. In the downward swing, we have hilarious Han Solo moments and in the upward swing we have narrow escapes, menace and force chokes.

The point being the general vibe of the story for our heroes does a dance between two extremes. As you can see from these examples there are different shapes, even for movies in the same genre.

How could you use the Narrative Mark to articulate your company story? How about a customer story aka "Case Study"? Leave a comment and let's discuss!