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Scaffolding by Joe Campbell/flickr (used via Creative Commons license)

Science of Story Building: When you want better stories, look how you structure them and how you utilize universal plots

Matt Sheehan
May 10, 2018 · 5 min read

Any discussion of story building starts — logically — with the structure that defines what a story is, and what it is not. As many organizations have embraced the importance of storytelling, the term “story” often gets used when instead we are talking about an organization’s marketing message or a vignette. Vignettes may present personas; messages present what we hope people will believe about our organization, issue or cause. Only stories– with a beginning, middle and end, with conflict and resolution– have the power to capture our imagination and incite empathy.¹

We know human communication can take many forms. Research, however, has shown us that the most effective ways of communicating with non-expert audiences may fall within a construct called the narrative paradigm.² Communication scholar Walter Fisher argues that this form of storytelling is what drives all meaningful communication and that people are more likely to be persuaded by a good story than an exposition of logical facts.³

Why is it so important to utilize information exchange techniques that maximize impact for a wide range of audiences?

Scholarship tells us we don’t process information like we’d like to think we do.

Philosophers and scholars have long considered how humans receive and process information. From the works of Aristotle, who believed that logic ruled all, to contemporary scholars like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky whose work showed that decision-making can run antithetical to analysis purely driven by fact. We are finding that time and time again decisions are based on how we feel versus logic.

Why focus on narrative then to battle our irrationality? Take for example this excerpt from a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the power of using narrative to communicate science with non-expert audiences:

“Narratives are often associated with increased recall, ease of comprehension, and shorter reading times. In a direct comparison with expository text, narrative text was read twice as fast and recalled twice as well, regardless of topic familiarity or interest in the content itself. Graesser and Ottati describe these and similar results as suggesting that narratives have a “privileged status” in human cognition.”

“As such, narrative cognition is thought to represent the default mode of human thought, proving structure to reality and serving as the underlying foundation for memory. This reliance on narratives is suggested to be the result of an evolutionary benefit because narratives provide their users with a format of comprehension to simulate possible realities, which would serve to better predict cause-and-effect relationships and model the thoughts of other humans in the complex social interactions that define our species.” ⁴

For purposes of this discussion, we will use the narrative definition provided by researchers Kurt Braddock and John Horgan: a narrative (or story) is “any cohesive and coherent account of events with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end about characters engaged in actions that result in questions or conflicts for which answers or resolutions are provided.” ⁵

Most of us are probably familiar with Gustav Freytag’s narrative arc:

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The story arc introduced by Gustav Freytag, built on his study of Greek and Shakespearean stories.

While most often evoked when exploring works of fiction, the narrative arc is a useful tool for non-fictional storytelling as well.

So often, when we’re communicating as part of our work, we think we’re telling stories but often we’re telling vignettes or rehashing marketing messages. These “stories” don’t adhere to the structure we see above — they could be segments of, but don’t flow along, the complete arc. It’s important to take a moment to reinforce here as well that we do not advocate mixing fictional (or embellished) information and facts to ensure your story conforms to this framework. We believe very strongly that non-fictional narratives should be just that: entirely non fiction.

Narrative structures work because research shows people interact with the structure of a narrative through construction of mental models.⁶ When audiences encounter a story, they begin to build a model of the narrative world in their mind. This model is built from information provided by the story and plugged into schemas — “preexisting, generic” models of stories that are familiar to audiences from other narratives they’ve heard.⁷

We can tap these known schemas to amplify the power of our work. By tapping into models that our communities know, we spend less time introducing them to this new information and world and more time helping them process what is new or important.

Journalist and author Christopher Booker spent 34 years examining narratives and wrote a book in 2004 outlining his findings. He posited that narratives fall within seven basic plots or models.⁸ They include:

  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.

Further research showed similar structures arise when applied mathematics researchers used computer modeling on more than 1,300 stories to uncover story arcs. They discovered that six major emotional arcs were revealed: “‘Rags to riches’ (rise); ‘Tragedy’, or ‘Riches to rags’ (fall); ‘Man in a hole’ (fall-rise); ‘Icarus’ (rise-fall); ‘Cinderella’ (rise-fall-rise); and ‘Oedipus’ (fall-rise-fall).”⁹

It is important to note Booker’s classification scheme is based on Jungian psychology and places a heavy emphasis on ethical conflicts. Later research shows it may overlook the extent to which audiences see narratives through the lens of their own values.¹⁰ As we’ll see later in this report, personal values can play a considerable role in how people process narratives and information.

So as you are developing your stories, start identifying what global narrative structure to which it may conform. Does it conform to one or more of the seven basic plots? Can your story be told in a different plot structure that could increase its effectiveness or tailor it to a particular audience?


  1. Kreuter, M. W., Green, M. C., Cappella, J. N., Slater, M. D., Wise, M. E., Storey, D., … & Hinyard, L. J. (2007). Narrative communication in cancer prevention and control: a framework to guide research and application. Annals of behavioral medicine, 33(3), 221–235.Hinyard, L. J., & Kreuter, M. W. (2007). Using narrative communication as a tool for health behavior change: a conceptual, theoretical, and empirical overview. Health Education & Behavior, 34(5), 777–792.
  2. Fisher, W. R. (1984). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communications Monographs, 51(1), 1–22.
  4. Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014). Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13614–13620.
  5. Braddock, K. (2016). Towards a guide for constructing and disseminating counternarratives to reduce support for terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 39(5), 381–404.
  6. Busselle, R., & Bilandzic, H. (2008). Fictionality and perceived realism in experiencing stories: A model of narrative comprehension and engagement. Communication Theory, 18(2), 255–280.
  7. ibid
  8. Booker, C. (2004). The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories. A&C Black.
  9. Reagan, A. J., Mitchell, L., Kiley, D., Danforth, C. M., & Dodds, P. S. (2016). The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes. EPJ Data Science, 5(1), 31.
  10. Booker, C. (2004).

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

Matt Sheehan

Written by

Managing director @RealGoodCenter & senior lecturer @UFJSchool. Stints @washingtonpost @merrillcollege, COO at a DC media startup + evolving #pubmedia news.

Science of Story Building

What Science and Research Tells Us About Why Stories Work

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