Crafting A Story

The narrative is the argument or statement you make about how the world works. But the story is the series of events you choose to show your narrative. Now that you have a narrative that will counter the dominant narrative and also speak to your audience, it’s time to build a story.

The story you tell through your campaign is not so different from one you’d find in a novel, a movie, a myth or a play. And like those stories, yours will contain certain elements. There will be characters, settings, conflict and plots. If you want to maximize the impact of your story, you’ll need to be as thoughtful about each of these elements as any novelist or filmmaker. This might sound daunting, but don’t worry — every campaign has a story to tell. And here we’ll present some techniques for helping you find yours.

Who

Who is your story about? It's time to choose your cast of characters.

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What

Conflict propels the action forward. It inspires characters to act. It lets the audience know what’s at stake.

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Where

Every narrative has a place, and its specific sights, sounds and smells will give your story texture.

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How & Why

A plot consists of the individual events that make up your narrative—its “how”—and a causal connection that tells you “why” they happened. Together, they form the thread that ties your story together.

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Frames

A frame is the lens through which you are representing an issue, and it has great power to shape your audience’s understanding.

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Strategies for Storytelling

Narratives are always in conflict with each other. Here's how yours can win out over its competitors.

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WHO: CHARACTERS

“Every story, even the driest, has a human face. Draw it well and put it on display, for to readers it is a mirror and a magnet.”

~Francis Flaherty, The New York Times

The story you’re telling is about somebody, it might even be about you. Either way your campaign is about the lives of real people. If you succeed, those lives may improve. As a storyteller, you must keep these people—your characters—front and center. Audiences are hardwired to be captivated by human drama, and you can maximize your impact by casting your characters wisely.

First and foremost is your protagonist. The protagonist is the person whose problem needs solving. They need not be especially “heroic.” In fact, everyday protagonists may be easier for audiences to relate to than someone whose capabilities seem superhuman or whose list of accomplishments boggles the mind. What’s most important is that their personal problem has a clear link to what your campaign is trying to achieve, and that they can put a sympathetic human face to the issue you’re working on. Perhaps a factory is dumping toxic chemicals upstream from their community, or maybe they’d like to convert a vacant lot to an urban garden that provides fresh produce for their family. Find the faces that will capture the human story at the core of the issue. In rendering your story portray your protagonist with dignity even as they experience their struggles. Create empathy for your protagonist, and your audience will understand why your campaign is important.

Next, identify your antagonist. The antagonist is the character who is preventing your protagonist from getting what they want. It might be that corporation dumping the chemicals, or a developer bent on turning that vacant lot into luxury condos.

'Characters of the Story' Handout Thumbnail
To see how the careful casting of characters can turbocharge a campaign, check out these case studies.

Case Studies


WHAT


There is no story without conflict. Conflict propels the action forward. It keeps the audience engaged. It inspires people to act. To identify the conflict that’s driving your story, ask: What does your protagonist want? What’s preventing them from having it? And who is standing in the way?

Maybe an island community desires safety and stability in the face of rising sea levels, or perhaps a city surrounded by coal plants yearns for clean air. The action of your story will be the protagonist’s attempt to fulfill their goals, and the conflict will be in the struggle to reach that goal. Identify that conflict. Your story starts where the conflict starts.

As with the other elements of your narrative, it’s important to keep your conflict as simple as you can while still accurately portraying the truth of the situation. The more time you need to explain it, the more likely you are to lose your audience. Thankfully, many conflicts can be described in terms of opposites. Just as storms are formed when a warm air mass meets a cold one, conflict is generated when two opposing qualities clash with each other. So what primary quality does your protagonist represent? How about your antagonist? Here are some possible dichotomies to get you started:

  • Moral/Immoral
  • Dirty/Clean
  • Gentle/Ruthless
  • Brave/Cowardly
  • Faithful/Fickle

Weave the appropriate conflict through the fabric of your story. While the specifics of your situation are local, the values that underpin the conflict are likely to be universal. Make these values explicit. Your audience doesn’t need to know the intricacies of your issue to know the difference between what is moral and what is immoral. Expressing your conflict in those terms will help audiences understand it, and to feel invested in its outcome.

Want to see how an activist has successfully crafted her conflict with Shell? Check out this case study.

Case Study


WHERE


The setting is the world of your story. Think of the place that your characters inhabit. What does it look like? What does it smell and sound like? How does it make your characters feel? Are they hopeful for its future? Are they concerned about its present path? Does it make them feel safe? Vulnerable? What physical details about this place reveal deeper truths? Be specific in your description. It will help bring the world of your story alive for your audience.

As you consider the setting, think about what scale best fits your narrative:

  • Are you telling a personal story?
  • A local one?
  • A national, or regional story?
  • Or even global one?

Each scale has its own benefits and drawbacks. A personal story has the upside of feeling real and concrete. Audiences can grasp the individuals involved. However, working on a small scale can sometimes make the relevance of your story seem limited. In contrast the universal importance of global stories like climate change are much more obvious, but they can also seem abstract or overwhelming. Thankfully, you can move between scales as you share your narrative. Feel free to zoom in and zoom out as you see fit. Share local details that make your setting feel authentic and lived in, then widen the lens to show how this local conflict ties into national, regional or global issues.

For examples of how activist storytellers have integrated setting into their messaging, look at this case study.

Case Study


HOW AND WHY

Characters provide the “who” of your story. Conflict gives you the “what,” and setting offers the “where.” With the plot, you answer the questions of “how” and “why.” A plot consists of the individual events that make up your narrative—its “how”—and a causal connection that tells you “why” they happened. That connection is important. It’s the thread that ties your story together.

“The king died, and then the queen died” isn’t a plot; it’s just two separate events. A plot might be: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” The specific events are linked by that all-important “why.”

The specifics of your plot will depend on the specifics of your story, but there are some durable plot structures that have endured through the centuries. Deciding on one that corresponds to your narrative can help to structure and streamline the story. Some examples:

  • The Quest — The protagonist goes in search of something: an object, an ally, wisdom, etc.
  • The Rivalry — The protagonist takes on an evenly-matched antagonist.
  • The Underdog Tale — A “David and Goliath” story, where a plucky protagonist seeks to beat the odds and overcome a stronger antagonist.
  • Temptation — The protagonist is tempted to stray from their ideals by an outside force.
  • Maturation — The protagonist learns lessons as they come of age.

These are just a few of the archetypal plots that can help you to shape your story. For more examples, check out this guide from Writer’s Digest. And to see how Greenpeace storytellers have used an archetypal plot to get their message across, check out this case study.

Using Narrative to Cultivate Supporters and Allies

Activism is not a night at the opera with the audiences in the balcony applauding the action onstage. As activist storytellers, we don’t want a passive and polite audience. We want people to engage, to become characters in our narrative and help determine how it unfolds. In fact, it is helpful to think of your audiences and supporters less as an audience and more as a community of collaborators.

Every plot point in your story should have a corresponding action point for your supporters. With each step forward, you can provide an online or IRL opportunity for them to join in with the narrative. Let them know that the story’s outcome depends on their decisions. Will it end in triumph or disappointment? Only they have power to decide.


FRAMES

Any issue can be looked at from multiple perspectives. Take climate change, for example. It’s clearly an environmental issue, but we could also see it as a human rights issue, a security issue, a moral issue and an economic issue. When choosing how you want to portray it, you are choosing a frame. A frame is the lens through which you are representing an issue, and it has great power to shape your audience’s understanding.

Frames already exist within the collective psyche of your audience. You don’t need to create them from scratch. Instead, it’s your job as a storyteller to tap into pre-existing frames and harness their power. Frames aren’t neutral; they are intricately linked to values. So, ask yourself: What do your audiences care about most? What are their driving beliefs? Fairness? A healthy future? A safe and stable world? Cultural traditions? Whatever it is, find a way to tie the specifics of your story to what they already value.

As argued by Professor George Lakoff, it’s helpful to think of frames of existing on three different levels:

1. First are surface message frames. These are the details of data and policies. What is a tolerable percentage of mercury in our drinking water? How soon can a new regulation be implemented? Such details are of course important, but stories that center them will only appeal to the small minority of people who are already on your side and following developments closely.

2. Widen the lens a bit and you have issue-based frames. These tie your specific campaign into broader movements. If you’re working to clean up a polluted river, an issue-based frame might link your individual project together with your audience’s concern for the environment or public health. An issue-based frame can be good for rallying allied organizations and individuals to support your cause.

3. Broadest of all are the deep frames. These frames resonate with our most heartfelt values. Think about the fundamental reasons why you’re working on this issue. Is it your passion for justice? Your love of your community? Your belief that people in vulnerable situations should have more support? Chances are, many members of your potential audience share these values, even if they aren’t currently engaged with your campaign or even with the larger issues that your campaign is a part of. By tapping into these deep frames, you can maximize your potential reach.

 

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