Of all the marketing trends that will impact content marketing strategies, storytelling is one people still struggle with. If marketers are struggling to tell a literal story with a piece of content, it’s easy to get caught up in unnecessary Alice-and-Bob characters and backstory.
But all a good story really needs is a character with a goal, obstacles in the way, and a solid plot structure. Convenient, then, that in marketing content you’re writing for a targeted reader with a problem who needs solving.
Structure is a key part of most storytelling. You’ll probably have heard of the three-act structure Hollywood film scripts are written to follow. But in this article, we’ll go over how the five-act structure, and a strong sense of character, might serve you better.
What is a five-act structure?
The five-act structure was formalized by the German playwright Gustav Freytag in 1863, in his book Die Technik des Dramas. He formulated the five-act structure as a symmetrical pyramid peaking in the Act 3 midpoint. Most Hollywood screenwriters would think of their climaxes as being the first half of the final act.
The three-act structure has reigned supreme for most of the past 100 years. But there’s been renewed interest in Freytag’s structure in recent years due to TV producer John Yorke’s 2014 book Into The Woods.
The difference between five-act and three-act structures
So what’s the difference between the five-act structure and the three-act, “beginning, middle, end” structure you’re probably familiar with?
It’s simple: there isn’t one.
Three-act structure, five-act structure, Syd Field’s “Save The Cat”, and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, made famous by its use in Star Wars: A New Hope. They’re all, at their core, about an ordinary world, a journey of transformation, a climactic choice, and a denouement.
The five-act structure
So what does all this have to do with your content writing? Let’s go over the five stages of Freytag’s pyramid and how you can use them to create a compelling story no matter the topic.
Act 1 – Exposition
In Act 1 you’re introducing your audience to the setting and the characters.
Content creator Ali Abdaal, in a video about his creative workflow, revealed a great template he uses to add a “story” to his informational videos. Before he starts writing a script, he answers the following questions, which I’ve answered for this article as an example.
- Who is the character?
- A freelance content writer or in-house marketing professional
- What do they want?
- To turn their ideas and briefs into compelling content
- Why can’t they get what they want?
- They’re not sure how to do so efficiently. Most advice on the internet about “hooking” the audience in is just clickbait rubbish.
- What are the stakes? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?
- Their content won’t be compelling
- Their hard work will be wasted
- The marketing team won’t get the conversions it needs
- The company will suffer
- People may lose jobs
- Who or what helps them?
- Five-act structure
- How do they get what they want?
- Understanding five-act structure
- Using it to speed up their outlining process
- Using it to create more compelling content
- How are they transformed by this experience?
- They feel more confident about their work
- They’re producing content faster
- Their users see the benefits of the product/service being sold
That main “character” of your piece could be the marketer trying to solve their abandoned digital cart problem or a disappointing return on ad spend. The character should be someone your target audience could relate to if they’re not just a fictionalized version of the piece’s imagined reader.
This template is just detailed enough to get you thinking. But it’s flexible enough that you can use it to create compelling content for all stages of the buyer journey, in any context.
Any piece of marketing content – even a dense brick of information for a B2B audience – can be made more compelling and relatable with a focus on the story. As John Yorke writes in Into The Woods, “all good exposition is disguised by making it dramatic – by injecting conflict.” Detailed information about the “rules” of a film’s science fiction or fantasy world isn’t interesting unless it’s tied to the characters’ wants and needs.
Act 2 – Complications
Now that you’ve established the problem, the status quo, the “ordinary world”, take the reader into the unknown. As Obi-Wan Kenobi guides Luke Skywalker through the dangers of Mos Eisley, you’re guiding the reader through a new world of opportunities and pitfalls.
If you’re writing for the manager trying to productize their services, you’re introducing them to the benefits here. If you’re selling audio conferencing software, this is where you raise the stakes and show them how they could lose customers by picking an inferior product.
In your character template, this is where you answer the “who or what helps them?” question. Your character is receiving knowledge and gaining the tools–whether it be AI assistance or next-gen live chat software–they’ll need to achieve their real desire.
Tie your product, service, or solution back into that real desire. If they’re in the early stage of your marketing funnel your reader doesn’t want your product yet. They want a promotion, they want a less stressful workday, they want happier customers. You have to remind them of that and illustrate how you’re able to help them achieve their desire.
Act 3 – The climax
In the third act, you’re at the top of Freytag’s pyramid structure. This is the climax of the story, not because it’s the height of the action or the big battle, but because it’s the point at which the character is being pulled from both sides, caught between the comfort of the old world and the opportunities of the new.
Here they’re going to make the choice that defines the rest of the story. It’s Michael Corleone putting his morals aside to shoot his father’s attempted killers. Luke Skywalker deciding to persevere after the death of his mentor Obi-Wan.
In an article about improving team communications, this might be where you make the sale for your product’s asynchronous communication feature. This is the choice that makes the difference. A/B test putting a CTA button right here–by now your reader might be willing to book a sales call if not make the purchase already.
Act 4 – Falling action and crisis
Act 4 of Freytag’s pyramid can be a little confusing. He didn’t discuss it much in his book. But, as people have developed his model over the 20th century, Act 4 has been discussed with names like “falling action” or “the spiral”.
These are the inevitable consequences of Act 3 playing out. The most important part is the turning point at the end of this act which sets up the ending.
In a classical tragedy, this is when all seems to have gone well for the character. In a story with a happy ending, this is the point where it looks like all hope is lost: the “crisis”. The rebels attacking the Death Star are being shot down, and Luke’s damaged targeting system can’t lock onto its weak point.
This is a good point to remind your reader about the problems they’re trying to solve. If you can, save the biggest problems for last: the customers complaining on social media, the tarnishing of a good brand. Then you can bring the reader back to the solution in Act 5.
Act 5 – Denouement
In Act 5, the character deals with the crisis using the knowledge they’ve gained, and the story winds down to its conclusion. You’ve told the reader about the benefits of your solution. But now you’re trying to get them to envision what life could be like after they’ve made the purchase and achieved their desire.
If you’re selling HR software, you’re not selling HR software. You’re convincing the reader to fulfill their ambition of building a quality culture at their workplace using your tool.
The fifth act often mirrors the first act, in an act of parallel structure. In the hero’s journey model the character often returns to the “ordinary world” from the beginning and uses their new knowledge and experience to change it for the better.
Using the five-act structure
Once you’ve filled out the character template from Ali Abdaal, the next step is to take your content idea and turn it into a five-act structure, like so:
- Act 1:
- Inciting incident:
- Act 2:
- Act 3.1:
- Act 3.2:
- Act 4:
- Act 5:
Use these bullet points as the skeleton of your outline. Fill it in with the information you need to get across, and how it relates to your character’s needs and your product, and you’re ready to write a compelling story that’ll engage readers and make sales.
The call to adventure
The hero’s journey model calls inciting incidents the “call to adventure”, reminiscent of the marketer’s “call to action”. By telling your reader a compelling story about your product or service, with a character just like them, you’ve taken them through a little “simulation” of the journey they’ll undergo with your product. It’s an effective persuasive writing technique for marketing copy and content.
As you wind the story down, you can reiterate the call to action your character answered at the beginning of Act 2. If the reader accepts–makes the purchase, books the call–they know exactly what trials and triumphs await.
About the author
Severine Hierso is EMEA Senior Product Marketing Manager for RingCentral Office, the leader in cloud communications solutions with IVR service, and is passionate about creating value, differentiation, and messaging, ensuring a better experience for customers and partners. She has gained extensive international Product Marketing, Market Research, Sales Enablement, and Business development experience across SaaS, Telecommunications, Video Conferencing and Technology sectors within companies such as Sony, Cisco, Cogeco Peer 1 and Dimension Data/NTT. She has written for sites like Valuer and Recruiterflow .