To Write Successful Business & Academic Communications, Learn the Architecture of a Story


Human beings seem to be born with a gene for telling stories. Stories from our families, our communities, and the media form our worldview and shape our lives. In fact, scientists have discovered that our ability to create stories is intricately connected to our ability to learn. This is because our brains seek to create meaning through relationship, which is what stories do so well.

Our storytelling faculty comes into play not only when we speak, but also when we read, which means that our brains are unconsciously seeking a well-told story in every kind of writing-whether it be a business proposal, an academic essay or the Great American Novel. When a story connects with us, it can have a powerful effect on our thoughts and decisions. When it doesn't connect with us, however, it may leave us confused, bored, or even angry.

The question is: Why do some stories succeed while others do not?

Successful writers understand the architecture of a story

The answer lies in the architecture of a story, which at the most basic level requires a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The beginning needs a way to draw readers into the story and make them want to keep reading. The middle needs to tell the basic parts of the story in some kind of logical order so that readers can follow and understand it. And the ending needs to tie up loose ends, being sure to answer any questions that have been raised.

Successful stories are always targeted at a particular audience and use language and terminology the audience understands. They also use concrete details and strong, active verbs to add color, emotion and energy.

If any of these elements are missing from our written communications, we will confuse our readers at best and completely fail in our purpose at worst.

Let's take a book for example

When I am browsing in a bookstore and pick up a book, I usually look at the first paragraph. If something about the writing "hooks" me, I read further. If it doesn't, I put the book back on the shelf.

If I accidentally pick up a book in Italian--a language I do not know--I put it back immediately because I am not its intended audience. In other words, it literally doesn't "speak" to me!

Once I begin to read the book, I expect the author to lead me skillfully through his story, giving me as much detail as I need to understand and visualize his ideas. Sometimes, however, the author's plot jumps around so much that I have a hard time following it.

Sometimes the author's characters are so vaguely drawn that I can't keep them straight. The result is that I end up not caring about them at all, and I soon forget the whole thing.

Sometimes I get to the end of a book and find that the author has left me hanging, without tying up loose ends and satisfactorily answering my who, what, when, where, why and how questions.

As I experience each of these frustrations, there is a good chance that I will misunderstand what the author is trying to say, lose interest in his message altogether, or start becoming irritated with the author himself.

This is obviously not the kind of reaction any writer wants to engender. If you are writing business or academic communications, and are not a professional novelist, what can you do to ensure that your "story" succeeds?

One possible solution is to write your communication using the Story Spine technique.

Use the Story Spine to build your narrative

This technique, which is described by Kat Koppett in her book Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning, is especially good at helping writers build their narrative without getting lost. It consists of the following steps:

  • Once upon a time...
  • Every day...
  • But one day...
  • Because of that... (Repeat as needed)
  • Until finally...
  • And ever since then...
"Once upon a time" is your opening. It draws your readers into your communication in some way and introduces your setting and characters. By answering such questions as "Who?" "What?" "Where?" and "When?" it provides the context and sets the stage for your communication.

In the "Everyday" step, you present some background information and further develop your message.

The "But one day" step represents your catalyst. This is where you ask and answer such questions as: "Why is this message/idea important? What is different about it?"

The "Because of that" step represents the heart, or main section, of your story. It presents the consequences that result from your catalyst.

The "Until finally" step is the climax of your communication, where you present your most important points or results. It is what your whole communication has been building up to.

The "And ever since then" step is your conclusion. It is the place you tie up loose ends and leave your reader with a feeling of satisfaction, of completion and understanding.

Concrete details make a story compelling

Ensuring that your story follows a basic structure isn't quite enough, however. You must also provide vivid, concrete details. According to Koppett:

Shakespeare's structure is strong. His "because of that's" flow from one to the other, building in intensity beautifully. But mostly, it is the language Shakespeare uses, the descriptions he employs, the way he develops his characters that makes his work a masterpiece. What makes a story compelling is not just what happens, but how it is related, the specific moments, the images and sensory impressions that are created.

So, again, we come back to our brain's need for meaning and connection. To ensure your writing succeeds, keep in mind that you are, in effect, telling a story. Ask yourself, "Has my story met my audience's needs and expectations?" If you can answer "yes" to this question, your results will show it.

Clarice Kyd Dankers is a freelance editor and learning coach in Portland, Oregon, who works internationally with business and academic clients. To learn more about her services, or to sign up for her free monthly newsletter, go to: PolishYourWriting.com


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