Thank goodness for storyteller Mo Willems.
He is the wildly popular children’s book author & illustrator of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and many other literary gems.
Why am I so grateful to this man?
Well, two reasons.
First, as any of you parents know, kids (particularly toddlers) love to read the same story over and over and over …
So it’s nice to read something with wit and even surprise.
Willems has a knack for humor, especially in twists that occur at the end of his stories.
And second, his books can help me make sales.
By providing clear examples of classic story structure.
(The kind of structure that keeps a reader glued to your message.)
And by seeing how different stories pour their unique content into this structure.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
Aristotle, that ancient philosopher who had a part time job tutoring Alexander the Great, called this central feature the “Unity of a Plot” over 2300 years ago.
As I read in the yellowed pages of my copy of Aristotle’s Poetics,
“… the story … must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.”
And not much has changed since then.
We don’t want to read about a bunch of disconnected bits stuck willy nilly here and there.
A story needs to be a complete whole – beginning, middle, and end – to give us that satisfying feeling.
Like feeling full after a good meal.
We want to be taken on a journey — in movies and marketing — and sticking to classic story structure keeps our audience on the right track.
In fact, Kevin’s 60 Second Sales Hook captures this story DNA.
As you can see below, it parallels the classic “dramatic arc” story structure you may have fallen asleep to in English class:
And we can use that same “Unity of Plot” to make our sales messages into a satisfying meal for our prospects.
Let’s see how Mo Willems does this.
Let’s look at The Pigeon Needs a Bath.
In the beginning, some random guy in bunny slippers informs us that the pigeon “really needs a bath.”
Then he leaves. Thanks a lot.
As soon as the man pads away, the pigeon sets us straight: “That’s a matter of opinion. What a kidder.”
(For some reason, I read the pigeon’s voice with a nasally Bronx accent, so my daughter hears “what a kidduh”)
Anyway, the pigeon plunges into a chunk of “Reason why” copy about why he doesn’t need to take a bath.
He even waxes philosophic.
“Life is so short,” the pigeon intones. “Why waste it on unimportant things – like taking a bath?”
But then the flies start buzzing around – and even they don’t like what they smell: “Take a bath dude!” says one before flying off in disgust.
After a few more feeble protests, the pigeon bows to the inevitable. He knows this battle is lost.
To the bath he must go.
So he approaches the bathtub, his talons clicking mournfully on the tiled floor …
But wait! The battle isn’t over.
Instead, he finds new reasons why he can’t go in:
The water’s too hot. Too cold. Too many toys. Not enough. And so on, for 28 panels of quibbling.
But finally, he takes the plunge.
And he loves it, of course.
“I’m a fish! I’m a fish!” he kicks gleefully.
As with many children’s books, this one’s a moral lesson for the kiddos.
Trust us, we’re telling them, you’ll like taking a bath! (or going to camp or getting a root canal.)
But because this lesson is wrapped up in a complete (and entertaining) story, we don’t mind so much.
Let’s see how the structure breaks down
The pigeon starts from a position of total opposition … [Exposition or IDENTITY]
… bangs his head against all our arguments …[Conflict or STRUGGLE]
… finally takes a leap … [Climax or DISCOVERY]
… and then indulges in a warm pool of pleasure — instead of the cauldron of pain that he feared. [Resolution or RESULTS]
He’s been transformed.
Not just any transformation, either. His beliefs have whipped around 180 degrees – a kind of change that Aristotle identified as “Peripety” in Greek tragedy. (Like when you discover your wife is also your mother, making for awkward family reunions.)
That’s classic story structure.
So the next time your sales message doesn’t flow, take a break and go thumb through the worn pages of your kid’s favorite book — or take a trip down memory lane with your own beloved childhood tale (I’d go with Where The Wild Things Are.)
It’s a quick way to get hip to the simple story structure that makes for a satisfying message.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I self-medicate with stories.