Narrative Fallacy

During WW2, London was heavily bombed by the Germans.

One of their methods of attack involved something called a V-1 rocket or ‘flying bomb.’

The Luftwaffe first started work on this early type of cruise missile in 1939 but it didn’t enter service until near the end of the war in 1944. It was nicknamed the ‘doodlebug’ by the British because of the buzzing-like sound of its pulse jet engine as it approached.

At its peak, more than one hundred V-1 bombs were launched at Britain every day. Many of them targeted the country’s capital and caused devastation and loss of life on the ground.

Terrified Londoners began to plot the strikes on a map and soon discovered what they believed to be a distinct pattern. This, in turn, gave rise to theories about which parts of the city were the safest and which were at the most risk.

After the war had ended, statistical analysis revealed a very different picture. The impact sites were distributed completely at random.

The reason?

The V-1’s gyrocompass guidance system was extremely rudimentary and therefore not particularly accurate. Where the bombs were planned to land and where they actually landed were two different things.

The frightened city dwellers’ attempts to infer information from the impact sites is a classic example of ‘narrative fallacy’ in action. This is the human tendency to seek patterns or meaning in things even if they aren’t really there.

Why do we do this?

In basic terms, we have evolved to favour order and predictability. This makes sense. Order and predictability equals safety and therefore an increase in the likelihood of our survival.

As a result, we will do anything to avoid uncertainty. Even if this means making up a story to explain away events that are entirely random. As the social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson says,

“People are masterful spin doctors, rationalisers, and justifiers of threatening information and go to great lengths to maintain a sense of well-being.”

This evolutionary quirk makes us highly susceptible to persuasive stories regardless of their authenticity, which explains how seemingly smart individuals can be co-opted into cults. It also explains why some people are superstitious and why we love things like weather forecasts, despite their frequent inaccuracy.

This readiness to explain away random occurrences as having a ‘story’ behind them is because our minds are primed to create more ‘cause and effect’ scenarios than exist in reality.

For a more detailed look at narrative fallacies, we recommend the excellent books by Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

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The End Goal

Ultimately, all stories have a message.

This ‘end goal’ is what you need to keep in mind when crafting your story.

If you think back to childhood, the books that were read to you inevitably had a lesson about life tucked away in the narrative. Their ‘end goal’ was to help you shape a view of the world and teach you right from wrong.

Brand stories (told through advertising) also have a message.

They want to leave you with an understanding of what it is that they stand for. The ads are simply the emotional vehicle to delivers this.

Let’s take a look at a few car brands as an example.

Volvo, the Swedish car manufacturer, has long been a brand synonymous with safety. All of their communication builds on this, from their innovations like ‘Life Paint’ to their bold goal of achieving no fatalities in any Volvo car by the year 2020.

BMW on the other hand has always been about driving pleasure. They have famously run with the tagline ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ in many countries around the world and the stories they tell tie back to this from their involvement in motorsport to high performance driving schools.  

Lastly, there is Mercedes-Benz who weave their brand narrative around luxury. They want you to feel as if owning one of their cars is a sign of having ‘made it’. To do so, they associate themselves with the Swiss watch brand IWC and sponsor glamorous events around the globe.  

The point is although they have very different stories to tell the outcome is still the same.

They sell you a car.

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The Curiosity Gap

Whatever you do now, do not read any further than this sentence. 

Be honest. Did you find it easy to obey this instruction or are you still reading these words?

If you did ignore it and continued, then congratulations! You are perfectly normal.

As human beings, we have an insatiable desire to figure out what comes next. In other words, we always want to know how the story ends. When we feel a part of the puzzle is missing, this creates what is known as a ‘curiosity gap.’

Think of it as the space between what we know and what we want or even need to know. This technique is so effective because the brain rewards itself for working things out. By incentivising us to problem solve, this serves a clear evolutionary purpose. It’s why those annoying ‘clickbait’ articles are so effective and why every episode of your favourite TV show ends on a ‘cliffhanger.’

This cunning plot device was invented to ensure the audience would return to see how the dilemma was resolved.  It dates as far back as the famous medieval Arabic text One Thousand and One Nights where the character Scheherazade narrates a series of stories to King Shahryār. She does this for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution.

The technique gained broad popularity in 19th Century Victorian England with the writer Charles Dickens. His novels pioneered the serialised format as a money making device (Dickens was able to make more revenue from selling his books as individual parts than as a whole). To keep his readers hooked, each new chapter would end with a key issue needing to be resolved. 

Interestingly, the term itself seems to have originated later in 1873 with the writer Thomas Hardy. At the end of one of his serialised accounts, the protagonist, Henry Knight, is left hanging off a cliff.

As a storyteller you can exploit this tool to great effect to build tension in your narrative. Just be sure to deploy it in the right set of circumstances to avoid it coming off as forced. 

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The importance of a good headline is worth around $1.5 billion.

Yes. You read that figure correctly.

Just how does a news site that shares what doesn’t appear to be particularly newsworthy material become so valuable?

The answer is because its team of journalists have mastered the art of writing good headlines.

Specifically, ones that use shock, mystery, humour and intrigue to get you clicking your mouse in a frenzy.

Whatever medium your story exists in, it’s going to need a headline that grabs people’s attention. This is particularly true in the mass information age.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five techniques this canny site uses to pull in many millions of page views every month.

1. Hijacking The News

How it works: Leverages the high profile nature of a popular news item to encourage you to read the related content.

E.g. “Donald Trump Secretly Told A Newsweek Journalist What He Really Thinks Vladimir Putin”

2. The Sensitive Topic

How it works: Uses the sensitive nature of certain topics like race, sex, politics or religion to provoke debate.

E.g. “A Black Man Applied For Work Using Popular Names For White Men To See If It Improved His Chances Of Getting A Job”

3. The Cliffhanger

How it works: Teases you with just enough information to make you want more.

E.g. “Things Nobody Tells You About Long Distance Relationships”

4. The Inside Joke

How it works: Makes the reader feel like they’re part of a select ‘in-group’ that gets it. Relies on you knowing your audience extremely well and understanding what motivates them in particular.

E.g. “Heidi Klum Is Embarrassed By Old Throwback Photos Just Like The Rest Of Us”

5. The Silver Bullet

How it works: Promises you a quick and pain-free way to quickly solve your current problem.

E.g. “15 Books That Will Set You On The Path To Business Success”

The reason the above approaches work so well is because they appeal to us on an emotional level. They make us feel something.

More often than not it’s fear because fear is such a powerful motivator. It’s what keeps us alive after all!

Whilst the above techniques won’t necessarily be appropriate for your story they will help you to recognise what is likely to move your audience versus what might send them to sleep.

To finish on a practical note, check out these handy online analyser tools to aid you with coming up with your own attention grabbing headlines.

Good luck! 

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Webb Smith worked as a writer in the animation department of Disney Studios. He is known for his work on the films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941).  

What is less well known is that he was credited by Walt Disney himself with making one of the greatest technical breakthroughs in the history of animation: the storyboard.

It may sound odd but before the invention of this device, the plot was described with words before the animator began drawing out each scene.

The problem with this approach was that it allowed very little margin for error because it relied on everyone ‘visualising’ the words in the same way.

This reliance on accurate interpretation of the scene descriptions coupled with the fact that each frame was hand drawn made early animation a time consuming and therefore expensive process.

One day whilst working away in his studio, Webb had the idea of drawing individual scenes on separate sheets of paper and fixing them to a bulletin board.

This novel approach allowed him to ‘sketch’ out the story in a rougher, less finished form and rearrange elements to improve the flow of the narrative.

You can apply this same technique to your own stories regardless of their format.

All you need is a wall and some post-it notes and you’re ready to go.

Remember don’t strive for perfection. Keep it loose and rough.

The purpose is for you to be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ and how all the pieces of your story fit together.

If your story carries sound you can apply a ‘scratch’ audio and voice over track over the top before you have to commit to doing it properly.

In short, to help better tell your story it’s a good idea to storyboard it first.  

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Archetypes In Storytelling

Carl Gustav Jung was a famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist who lived from 1875 until 1961.

Aside from being the founding father of analytical psychology, Jung also devoted much of his time to the study of religious and mythological symbology.

In the course of his inquiry, he noticed similar patterns and themes emerging despite the fact that the subject matter had very different origins.

From this observation, he put forward his theory that we are not born as ‘a blank slate’ but that we all carry a set of elements ‘pre-programmed’ into our psyche.

Jung labelled these elements ‘archetypes’ and argued that they are ‘universally’ human and represent the sum of our experience as we have evolved over time. Because they are common to all of us, we can recognise and identify with them on an emotional level.

In total, Jung identified 12 separate archetypes. Before we take a look at them in more detail, please pause for a moment and think of some of your favourite stories and the characters portrayed in them.

It shouldn’t take you too long to realise that characters with similar traits recur time and time again in storytelling. It’s for this reason that archetypes can be a helpful tool for characterisation when telling your own stories.

Now let’s take a look at what defines each one…

1. The Hero

Characteristics: Strength, courage

Weaknesses: Arrogance, delusions of grandeur

2. The Sovereign

Characteristics: Order, stability, control

Weaknesses: Entitlement, greed

3. The Magician

Characteristics: Powers of perception, intuition

Weaknesses: Hubris, trickery

4. The Sage

Characteristics: Wisdom, intelligence

Weaknesses: Passiveness, arrogance

5. The Creator

Characteristics: Nonconformity, imagination

Weaknesses: Over dramatisation, perfectionism

6. The Jester

Characteristics: Humour, irreverence

Weaknesses: Being misunderstood, inefficiency

7. The Innocent

Characteristics: Trust, honesty

Weaknesses: Naïveté, denial

8. The Explorer

Characteristics: Independence, bravery

Weaknesses: Aimlessness, alienation

9. The Rebel

Characteristics: Risk taking, individuality

Weaknesses: Lawlessness, fanaticism

10. The Lover

Characteristics: Belonging, self sacrifice

Weaknesses: Obsession, jealousy

11. The Citizen

Characteristics: Fairness, accountability

Weaknesses: Righteousness, recklessness

12. The Caregiver

Characteristics: Compassion, empathy

Weaknesses: Arrogance, delusions of grandeur

As you can see from the list above, each archetype has its own set of qualities which propel the character in the story forward.

By the same token, they possess weaknesses which provide an opportunity for them to face a set of challenges which they must overcome in order to complete their own journey of transformation. 

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Chekhov’s Gun

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia in January 1860.

His parents, Pavel and Yevgeniya, ran a local grocery store and the young Anton attended a nearby Greek school.

Sadly, misfortune befell his father later on and his parents fled to Moscow to evade debtor’s prison leaving their youngest son to fend for himself.

Gifted and resourceful, Anton found ways to make money and paid for his own education.

He eventually gained a place at medical school and after graduating earned his living as a doctor.

In his spare time, Chekhov enjoyed writing as a hobby.

It was something he was extremely passionate about and he was humorously quoted as saying, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”

Despite it not having been his profession, Chekhov is nonetheless considered to be one of the greatest writers of short fiction in history.

He also had this important piece of storytelling advice which is contained in a book about the art of writing:

‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’

What is the message here?

Put simply, Chekov believed that every element introduced in a story should contribute to the whole.

This isn’t to say that every single plot point must be hugely significant. There will of course be some details to describe an environment or create a certain mood.

Yet each part should correspond meaningfully to the overall story.

In essence, any item introduced to the audience that implies dramatic significance must be given an important role to play.

This principle is known as Chekhov’s gun and it’s something to be aware of when constructing your own story.

Make sure it’s not full of unnecessary details that seem more important than they actually are.


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The Business of Storytelling

Blake Mycoskie is a serial entrepreneur.

By the time he was 30, Blake had already started four businesses. Oh and he also found time to compete in The Amazing Race.

After all that, he needed a well earned break. Somewhere to relax and let his mind unwind.

He choose South America because he wanted to learn how to play polo.

One night he was in a wine bar in Buenos Aires and fell into conversion with two women.

They explained that they were on a ‘shoe drive’ collecting second-hand shoes from wealthy families and taking them to the favelas to hand out.

Intrigued by this idea, Blake tagged along.

It was to prove a life changing experience that sowed the seed for a multi-million dollar shoe empire.

He was waxing lyrical to his polo teacher about his experience when his teacher turned to him and asked ‘But what happens when these kids grow up?’

Blake wrestled with this question overnight. How could he help these kids and make a difference? Would starting a business achieve more than just another charity?

Then one day the idea came to him.

He noticed the canvas shoes worn by the local polo players and thought they would be something cool and different if sold back in his native USA. Blake said “My idea was if we could sell a pair of shoes today, then we’ll give a pair away tomorrow, we’ll call them Tomorrow shoes”

After a few meetings with local manufactures and a shortening of the name to Toms, he returned to Los Angeles with 250 pairs.

With a bit of hustling he got them into a couple of trendy independent fashion stores.

Shortly thereafter, an LA Times fashion writer picked it up and interviewed Blake for a feature.

The day the article appeared in the paper he received orders for 2,200 pairs but only had 80 pairs left in his apartment. And then he got a call from Vogue magazine.

The rest as they say is history.

TOMS went from zero dollars in annual revenue to $450 million in under seven years, becoming the fastest selling shoe company in the world.

How and why did Blake’s vision become so wildly successful?

Because there was a great story behind it.

People loved the idea that by buying a pair of shoes they would be gifting another pair to a poor child.

The most successful businesses in the world share one thing in common with TOMS: they all tell their stories well.

Storytelling isn’t just fundamental to doing business that is good, it’s good for business full stop.


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Why Storytelling Matters

Stories are the most powerful force for change known to man.

They can influence the way we feel, the way we think, the way we act and the way we behave.

In short, good stories can change the world.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech which began with the words “I have a dream..” is a great example of a story that became a movement and ultimately changed history.

The flip side of this is that stories can also be used for evil.

You only have to look back to Nazi Germany to see how the persuasive storytelling of Adolf Hitler led to the German people being complicit in the Holocaust.  

I think you get their potency.

It’s for this reason that cults rely on strong narratives. The tragic case of Heaven’s Gate demonstrates that even intelligent people can be persuaded to do foolish things if they believe in the story that’s being told to them.

The greatest stories are emotional, novel and memorable. These are the qualities required for a story to have impact and lead to change. 

The best advertising understands this implicitly and here are three examples of Cannes Lions Grand Prix winning work that demonstrate this:

As Plato once said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.”

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The Protagonist

The movie Jaws isn’t really about a big shark terrorising a summertime beach resort.

It’s actually about Sergeant Martin Brody, the newly appointed local Chief of Police. 

He represents the central character or protagonist; the vehicle through which the audience can identify with the moral of the story.

The goal as a storyteller is to make the protagonist believable and likeable. They have to be someone worthwhile investing our emotional energy in. 

To achieve this, it is important to understand the symbiotic relationship between the plot of the story and the development of its primary character.

The plot represents a journey full of challenges that the protagonist must embark upon. It is only through experiencing and overcoming these difficulties that he will learn the lesson that transforms him in some way.

His character plays directly into this.

To be believable and relatable, he must have faults. After all, there is no such thing as a perfect human being. These character flaws meet with the plot challenges to give our hero the ultimate test.

If he can overcome his shortfalls in spite of what he’s faced with, he will emerge a better, more accomplished human being.

In Spielberg’s terrifying film, Brody is introduced to us as the hard working Chief of Police of Amity Island, a popular tourist destination in New England. 

He is presented as a principled man who takes his job seriously. He is also shown to be a family man who will do anything to protect his wife and children.

The shark represents his antagonist. The opposing character if you will that he has to fight to overcome.

If that’s not enough, he also has to face the demands of Mayor Vaughn who is determined to keep people in the water no matter what the cost to protect his tourism revenue.

Throughout the film we witness our hero struggle with his own paranoia and his unpopular desire to ‘do the right thing.’ We feel his mounting tension as the film proceeds towards its infamous climax when the shark attacks and sinks the small fishing boat.

His character works so well because we can identify with his plight. He’s an ordinary man with nothing special about him doing his best to triumph over evil and restore peace. The giant shark is merely a metaphor to represent any seemingly insurmountable challenge we, the audience, face in our lives.

In summary, getting your protagonist right is mission critical to the success of your story. It’s advisable to spend a bit of time upfront ‘sketching’ out your central character to ensure this. 

To help, here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. What is the main point or message that your story is trying to make? How does your protagonist play a role in this?

2. Is your protagonist believable? Do they demonstrate weaknesses and vulnerability?

3. Does your central character evolve with the story? What is the transformation they undergo as  a result? 


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Your Audience

A canoe without a paddle.

A boat without a sail.

A bow without an arrow.

One without the other isn’t much use.

It’s the same with storytelling. Without an audience you have no story.

Understanding your audience and their needs is therefore of paramount importance.

Who are you trying to talk to?

What are their goals?

What are they struggling with in their life?  

Getting the answers to these questions will enable you to craft a story that has impact.

The very best stand up comedians know this implicitly. It’s why they will often ‘test’ out their new material at smaller venues.

They want to gauge the audience’s reaction. See if their initial hunch about what will resonate does so in reality.

Often the first few iterations of a joke fail to meet their expectations so the comedian has to work a little harder to figure out what his fans really want.

The other critical thing to bear in mind is the way you speak to your audience.

Choose your language and tone wisely. Avoid the temptation to be too fancy and come across as a boorish know-it-all.

Remember that good communicators make themselves look smart.

Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.

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