Jason Kottke recently posted this video of Kurt Vonnegut giving a lecture on the shape of stories. It’s a great introduction to how to think about one of the most important aspects of storytelling: the arc of the narrative.
In Vonnegut’s (unique, to say the least) telling, stories can be plotted as a change in the circumstances of a person’s life (the “good fortune/ ill fortune axis”) over time (the “beginning/ end” axis). Using this idea, he diagrams a few simple curves that explains a great many stories that we tell each other, from “boy meets girl” to “Cinderella,” though as he takes pains to point out, “boy meets girl,” for example, needn’t involve a boy, or a girl– it’s just a convenient shorthand for describing a particular kind of human experience.
There’s an important lesson in here for nonprofit storytellers about the mental frames that our audiences bring to the stories we tell them. Our listeners have heard many stories over their lives, and in order to make sense of a new story, it helps to try and fit it into one of a few templates that they carry around in their heads (for more on this, see TV Tropes’ summary of the Seven Basic Plots).
They’re going to do this whether you like it or not, so you might as well think about which common plot your story resembles, and make sure that the moral content of the story you’re telling matches up with what you want them to take away from it.
Are the ugly stepsisters to your Cinderella plainly identified as the societal problems you’re trying to solve? Is it clear that the “man in hole” you’ve described got out with the help of your organization? By taking the time to think through what simple plot your story resembles, you’ll be able to build a narrative that’s more emotionally resonant and more memorable.