Stories for Good – A Brief Guide to Storytelling for Non-Profits

How narrative structure turns a story into an emotional experience with a happy end.

Beemgee is increasingly involved with charities and non-profit organisations, supporting them in their efforts to tell their stories. Storytelling is uniquely suited to the communications of organisations that help people in need or seek to raise awareness for social injustices. This post was originally conceived as an introduction to the principles of storytelling for people working in non-profits. It has been adapted from a post we provided to FundraisingBox (German language). 

Image: Comfreak, Pixabay

Storytelling is a bit of an overused buzzword. While we are all – by dint of being human – storytellers, how aware are you of the principles of dramaturgy? What exactly constitutes a story, in comparison to, say, a report or an anecdote?

And just to be clear, the following is not a story. It’s an how-to article.

Whatever the medium – film or text, online or offline –, storytelling has something to do with emotionally engaging an audience, that much seems clear. So is a picture of a cute puppy a story? Hardly.

Stories exist in order to create a difference in their audience. Stories always address problems and tend to convey the benefits of co-operative behaviour.

While there simply is no blueprint to how stories work, let’s examine the elements that recur in stories and try to find some patterns.

Who is the story about?

All stories are about someone. That someone does not have to be a person, it can be an animal (Bambi) or a robot (Wall-e). But a story needs a character. In fact, all stories have more than one character, with virtually no exceptions. This is because the interaction between several characters provides motivation, conflict and action.

Moreover, stories usually have a main character, the figure that the story seems to be principally about – the protagonist. It is not always obvious why one character is the protagonist rather than another. Is she simply the most heroic? Is she the one that develops most? Or does she just have the most scenes?(more…)

Internal Obstacles

In stories, characters are faced with obstacles.

These obstacles come in various forms and degrees of magnitude. And they may have different dimensions: they may be internal, external, or antagonistic.

Often the obstacles that resound most with a significant proportion of the audience are the ones that force the main characters to face and deal with problems within themselves, in their nature. In other words, with their internal problem.


Internal obstacles are the symptoms of the characters’ flaws, of the internal problem. The audience perceives them as scenes in which the character’s flaw prevents her progress.  


Not every story features characters with internal problems. An internal problem is not strictly speaking necessary in order to create an exciting story.

But it helps.

The Emotional Truth

An internal problem makes the character appear fallible – and thus more credible, more human, more like us. Internal problems are invariably emotional and private. They express(more…)

Change

If there is one thing that ALL stories have in common, it is change.

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A story, pretty much by definition, describes a change. Indeed, every single scene does.

The most fundamental change that stories tend to describe is one of recognition of truth. What is not known at the beginning of the story is recognised and thus becomes known at the end. This is obvious in crime stories, but holds true for almost all other stories too. The story therefore amounts to an act of learning. Often the learning curve is observable in the protagonist, who tends to be wiser at the end than at the beginning. But the point is really that the recipient, the reader or viewer, is actually the one doing the learning – through experiencing the story.

So within a story, what changes?

At the very least,

  1. one of the characters, usually the protagonist
  2. often other characters too
  3. sometimes the whole story-world

(more…)

Real Need

In most stories, what a character really needs is growth.

Internal_2_Beemgee_RealNeed

Characters display flaws or shortcomings near the beginning of the story as well as wants. What they really need to do in order to achieve what they want is likely to be something they need to become aware of first.

The real need relates to the internal problem in the same way the perceived need relates to the external problem. The character has some sort of dysfunction that really needs to be repaired.

That means the audience or reader may become aware of a character’s real need long before the character does.

To recap: The usual mode in storytelling has a character consciously responding to an external problem with a want, a goal, and a number of perceived needs. Unconsciously, that character may well have a character trait that amounts to an internal problem, out of which arises that character’s real need – i.e. to solve the internal problem.

So if a character is selfish, the real need is to learn selflessness. If the character is overly proud, then he or she needs to gain some humility. In the movie Chef, the father neglects his son emotionally – his real need is to learn to involve the child in his own life. The audience sees this way before the Chef does.

Even stories in which the external problem provides the entertainment – and with that the raison d’être of the story – may profit from(more…)

Awareness and Revelation

What’s the problem? Does the character know?

In storytelling, discrepancy between a character’s awareness and the awareness-levels of others is one of the most powerful devices an author can use. “Others” refers here not just to other characters, but to the narrator and – most significantly – to the audience/reader.

Let’s sum up potential differences in knowledge or awareness:

  1. A character’s awareness of his or her own internal problem or motivation
  2. A difference between one character’s knowledge of what’s going on and another’s
  3. The narrator knows more about what is going on than the character
  4. The audience/reader knows more than the character – dramatic irony

In this post, we’ll concentrate on the first point: Awareness of the internal problem. We’ll break that down into

  • Becoming Aware – the importance of the revelation
  • The Story Journey – and where to place the revelation
  • Surface Structure and Deep Structure
  • The Need for Awareness – or, Alternatives to Revelation

Becoming Aware – the importance of the revelation (more…)

Internal Problem

An inner or internal problem is the chance for change.

While the external problem shows the audience the character’s motivation to act (he or she wants to solve the problem), it is the internal problem that gives the character depth.

In storytelling, the internal problem is a character’s weakness, flaw, lack, shortcoming, failure, dysfunction or mistake. If you like, it is the expression of a negative character trait. Classically, this flaw may be one of excess, such as too much pride. Almost always, the internal problem involves egoism. By overcoming it, the character will be wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning. Thus the character must learn cooperative behaviour in order to be a mature, socially functioning person.

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The inner problem is the pre-condition for the character’s transformation. It is the flaw, weakness, mistake or deficit that needs to be fixed. In other words, it shows what the character must learn.

 

Internal problems can be character traits that cause harm and hurt to others. They can be anti-social. And internal problems can also harm the character. They can be detrimental to his or her solving the external problem.


The Internal Problem of a character is revealed to the audience in scenes that show the symptoms of the flaw for the character and her environment. It then results in internal obstacles, where the character’s flaw prevents her from progressing directly towards her goal. Furthermore, the antagonism in the story may well be a sort of symbolic manifestation of the protagonist’s internal problem.


Lack of Awareness leads to Revelation

While at the beginning of the story the internal problem is a hindrance to the character’s emotional growth and may even causes the character to hurt others, it may eventually give rise to self-revelation. The character will(more…)

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