Strategies for Storytelling

Narratives are always in conversation with each other. Whether in history, science, political campaigns, advertising, even personal relationships.

Counter narratives are stories that can challenge or offset the dominant narratives and weaken their power. What are some possible strategies to promote counter narratives?

 

Below are 13 Strategies for Storytelling, organized by the following categories:

CharacterPlot & SymbolismScale & PacePerspective

Character

Use a Counter Character

In your story, are there characters that are traditionally or stereotypically cast in certain roles? Using a counter character strategy, you can flip the tables. Take a princess in a fairy tale (Paper Bag Princess) and make her the one who rescues the prince. Or take a scary ogre and make him the lovable hero. Even in everyday life, challenging expectations in this manner can be a powerful and surprising way to show the humanity, agency and power of “the powerless.”


Tell Personal Stories

Expressed as a counter to dominant narratives (which are often impersonal), stories of personal experience can smash myths. Because these stories’ credibility comes from the simple act of speaking one’s truth, this is a tool deployed by many activists. By speaking your personal story, you can also start a chain effect, giving other people the permission and the language to tell their own stories. Personal stories build solidarity and community by letting people know that they’re not alone. Think of the #MeToo movement as a powerful recent example of this strategy.


Change the narrator

One of the most powerful things we can do to disrupt the existing narrative is to simply change the storytelling perspective. By telling the story from another view, often the person or group that has been silenced or ignored, we can completely upend the dominant narrative.

A celebrated example of post colonial literature, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys does this very thing. The novel tells the story of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre from the perspective of the “mad” wife of Mr. Rochester. In response to the romantic novel set in the English countryside by Charlotte Bronte, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of oppression experienced by a Creole woman who is trapped by patriarchy in England and in Jamaica.


Change the central characters

The way a storyteller chooses their characters tells us a lot about what is important to the storyteller. If the story of climate change is about political leaders or scientists, these are seen as the people who matter most in the story. If the story is about a teenager in a island nation threatened by rising sea levels, this tells us something else.

As you think about the story you want to tell, consider whose story it is. This is who matters most in the story. Have the current storytellers got it wrong? Change the characters!


Find the right messenger for your story

Who is better to tell this story than you? You might limited in who you can reach directly. In these cases, a messenger is necessary. Find messengers that are already speaking to your target audience. Bring them into the issue, collaborate with them as equals, and you’ll go much further.


Plot & Symbolism

Use or reference symbolic representations

This taps into allegory or metaphor, into memories and deeply embedded narratives. This has to be done with care and recognition of the symbol’s historical and cultural meanings.

Consider what are iconic images, paintings, symbols in your narrative landscape and for your audience. Can you reference these symbols in your storytelling?

Examples:

**New symbols can emerge quickly i.e. Shepard Fairey’s posters. Which he has since recast for many uses.


Tap into masterplots

Masterplots are stories that are already very common. Think of a typical hero’s journey or a romance movie. These kinds of stories are based on formulas that are familiar to many people. When you tap into these kinds of formulas, recognize that people have expectations for how the story will progress. Whether you fulfill them or not, people can often enter such stories with greater ease.

Activist movements have often told Rescue stories which has three types of characters in such a story: a Hero, a Victim, and a Villain. The Victim is the least important character in this situation. We want to avoid telling these kinds of stories because they often support problematic and disempowering narratives about “victims.” What masterplots might help guide how you tell your story?

Here are some Masterplots from 20 Masterplots and How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias.


Tap into pop culture

What popular culture matters right now? How can we recast them to shine light onto our cause? What artistic representations in museums and galleries can we recast?

Examples:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World

Redone for Greenpeace by British art collective Kennard Phillipps


Scale & Pace

Use micro stories

We often like to think of the BIG story. A million acres of forest. An entire planet threatened by climate change. But big stories can be hard to understand for many people. Why not go small? Really small! This is can sometimes be the best way to capture the meaning of a story at a level most people can really digest.

For example: The images of Omran Daqneesh captured the inhumanity and suffering of Syria. He became the “face of Aleppo.”

Life is Suffering: This video story captures the struggles of Mexican immigrants in America.

You can even tell a story in a sentence: Subject + Predicate (a person/thing/idea/place + action/condition/effect of subject): “They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, Paradise


Slow people down

Pacing in storytelling is very important. You want to tell certain parts of a story quickly and other parts slowly. In a high paced world, varying the pace of storytelling is important. Slow down your story at significant moments in the story arc. Let the people take in every detail. Pile on the details. Add more and more!

This Soviet era cartoon is an example of how slow stories can be evocative: hedgehog and the fog


Perspective

Make the invisible visible

An oldie but a goodie. We take what’s not seen/seeable and bring it to the light.

This is what Greenpeace’s founders did when they took the world to the edge of Alaska, sailing towards a tiny island that was about to be blasted by a nuclear bomb. Through these brave women and men, we got to learn about a part of the world that many of us would never have known existed. Greenpeace continues to make the invisible visible today through the campaigning work of its ships.


Reframe

Metanarratives are tricky. The more that you struggle against them, the stronger they get. Most of the time, challenging one of these stories directly will only work to reinforce it. Remember, metanarratives entrench themselves through decades of repetition. Argue against them directly, and your audience may respond with defensiveness and even anger. Nobody likes to be told that everything they know is wrong!

So rather than dismantle the old narratives, it’s better to reframe your perspective in a way that already fits in with your audience’s worldview. What does your audience value? Justice? Community? Creativity? A clean and safe future for the next generation? Find a way to connect your issue to the stories and ideas they already believe in, and your campaign stands a much better chance of succeeding.
Want to learn more? See our section on Frames.


Change/dig into the setting

  • How do we characterize the world? Broken, hopeful, a battlefield, a community, a machine, scary, inviting
  • What scale do we use: abstract, distant, regional, national, local, personal
  • Sensory details: Sight, sound, smell, touch.
  • Meaning: who lives here; who want to live here; who’s visible; invisible; memories, history, dreams, ambitions, failures, heartbreak; symbolism of setting: i.e. a ship, a capital building, a statue.