Why story?

“… A person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”    Ursula K. Le Guin, Language of the Night, p. 22.

Stories fulfill many purposes. As I discussed in the last issue, they can help us relate facts in a memorable way. They can drive emotional engagement and, as they do, help us make decisions. Stories can be simulators for life, allowing us to preview—and practice for—events that we have not had a chance to experience first-hand. Stories can tap into our “patternicity,” that is, our need to see patterns and our pattern-seeking and pattern-matching ability.

Whatever purpose stories fulfill in our lives, storytelling is universal; similar stories show up in many different cultures from all times in history. And most of these stories share similarities. It’s these similarities that will help us learn how to create messages that stick.

The common element that all sticky stories share is their structure. So, what is the exact structure of stories that makes them stick?

I want to tell you a story

To highlight what makes stories sticky, I’m going to tell you a story. As you read this, pay attention to your reaction. At what point do you really get engaged in the story? At what point is it impossible for you to turn away—when does this story become a “page-turner?”

There was a man and

There was a woman and

They were married and

They had two kids and

They lived in a house and

The house was in a clearing in the woods and

The clearing was beautiful and

They had some pets and

They had a dog and

They had two cats and

One cat was white and

They had a goldfish and

The sun was shining and

The wind was blowing gently and

There were a few clouds in the sky and

The temperature was warm and

The kids were playing outside and

The dog was playing outside and

The dog was jumping and

There was a rocking chair on the porch and

There was a swing in a shady tree and

The swing was made from an old tire and

There was a garden behind the house and

There were beans and tomatoes growing in the garden and…

This is not a story; not yet.

Are you engaged? It’s unlikely. Are you engrossed? Almost certainly not. How long would this story stick in your head—for decades, like the story of the tortoise and the hare? No.

Why? Well, this is not a story; not yet, anyway. This might be the set-up to a story, a first act that introduces the characters. But this is not a story. What’s missing?

The missing element

The missing element is simple: tension. The tension can be subtle, as it would be if the next line of the story was:

…and behind the garden was a freshly dug grave.

Or the tension might be more obvious, as it would be if the next line of the story was:

…and amidst the tomato plants lay a bloody hatchet, half buried in the mud.

Now, two things are clear. First, I’ll never make my living as a Hollywood screenwriter. And second, tension is needed to compel a reader’s interest. With the introduction of tension, the story really starts. Up until then, we just had a collection of facts. There was no compelling narrative. Note that I could have arranged those facts in any order, without making a significant difference to your interest.

Stories need tension, because tension drives stories. As Jonathan Gottschall[i] states in his book The Storytelling Animal: “Fiction—from children’s make-believe to folk tales to modern drama—is about trouble.”

 And the creative writing instructor Robert McKee[ii] writes, “Nothing moves forward in the story except through conflict.”

The monomyth

Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist and writer. He studied myths and stories from many diverse cultures and found striking similarities. His studies revealed a pattern common to so many of these stories that it seemed as if they had sprung from a single original story.

Campbell named this common pattern the “monomyth,” sometimes called the “hero’s journey.” Campbell described the basic narrative pattern in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell describes seventeen stages of the monomyth, though some sources have condensed this number to twelve. Of course, not all stories will contain all stages; some have fewer stages, while some have the stages in a different order.

Here are the 17 stages of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth; the hero’s journey:

  1. The call to adventure
  2. Refusal of the call
  3. Supernatural aid
  4. Crossing the threshold
  5. Belly of the whale
  6. The road of trials
  7. The meeting with the goddess
  8. Temptation away from the true path
  9. Atonement with the father
  10. Apotheosis
  11. The ultimate boon
  12. Refusal of the return
  13. The magic flight
  14. Rescue from without
  15. The crossing of the return threshold
  16. Master of two worlds
  17. Freedom to live

The original Star Wars movie (now known as Episode IV), is reportedly one of the first movies to deliberately follow the structure of Campbell’s monomyth. As he wrote Star Wars, George Lucas was consciously seeking mythic structures to incorporate into his script. He was partway through when he was reintroduced to Campbell’s work and he was able to strengthen specific aspects of the hero’s journey.

The parallel between the 17 stages of the monomyth and Star Wars Episode 4, has been illuminated in many places. And many other movies since Star Wars have used the hero’s journey as a template, just as the Matrix trilogy.

This monomyth shows up the world over, in all cultures and from all eras. This structure has evolved to be incredibly effective at capturing our attention. In other words, this structure is sticky.

What does Hollywood have to do with life science marketing?

“But wait,” I can hear many of you say. “Hollywood blockbusters are more than two hours long. I don’t have two hours to convey my life science marketing narrative, but I still need to tell a sticky story.”

You’re exactly right. We’ve got to be able to simplify the components of our narrative, because we don’t have the luxury of two hours of our audience’s attention—or a multi-million-dollar budget. Fortunately, Joseph Campbell himself points the way to this simplification. He grouped his 17 stages into three parts: departure, initiation and return.

Part 1, Departure, consists of the first five stages: The call to adventure, Refusal of the call, Supernatural aid, Crossing the first threshold, The belly of the whale.

Part II, Initiation, contains the next six stages: The road of trials, The meeting with the goddess, Temptation away from the true path, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis (becoming god-like), The ultimate boon.

Part III, Return, contains the final stages: Refusal of the return, The magic flight, Rescue from without, Crossing the return threshold, Master of the two worlds, Freedom to live.

Dividing stories into three parts is common. The ancient Greeks divided their plays into three acts. This tripartite division shows up in stories and plays from Henrik Ibsen to the fables of Aesop and the Hegelian dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis).

The actor and writer Alan Alda notes that a three-part structure is not enough by itself to create story; we also need tension. “So, what is a story? Aristotle is often quoted as saying that the story should have a beginning, middle, and end. That’s true, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. After all, a dead cat has a beginning, middle, and an end.”[iii]

The three parts of a story

Act I is the Introduction, also known as the exposition. Here we are introduced to the “normal world.” Now, the normal world may exist in a far future on an interstellar starship, or it may be set in a suburban ranch house with a swing set in the back yard, but the audience will give us great latitude as we establish the definition of “normal.” In this act, we learn the rules that govern this world, and something about the characters that inhabit it. In the Hegelian dialectic, this is the “thesis.”

Act II is the Conflict. This conflict is introduced through an “inciting incident,” an act that disrupts the normal world outlined in act I. The tension introduced during this incident grows throughout the second act. In the Hegelian dialectic, the second act is the “antithesis.”

Act III is the Resolution. The conflict is resolved, and the world and the characters in it are revealed to have been changed. In the Hegelian dialectic, the third act is the “synthesis.”

Tension and the three-act structure of stories

How does tension play out across the three acts? When you search online, it’s easy to find diagrams that show story structure. The following diagram is a synopsis of several of the most common structures.


In this three-part diagram, tension is graphed on the Y axis, and time is graphed on the X axis. Tension is introduced at the end of the first act or the beginning of second, it rises and rises throughout the second act, and then it is released in a climactic moment. The third act addresses the aftermath and the results that spring from this release of tension.

Distilling the three-act structure

How can we condense this three-act structure so that it is useful in life science marketing, where we typically have limited attention and bandwidth to convey our messages? The author and scientist Randy Olson reveals a powerful system in his book, Houston, We Have A Narrative. Olson uses one word to epitomize each of the three acts and thereby creates a story template.

Act 1: And…

Act 2: But…

Act 3: Therefore.

To see how useful this And-But-Therefore template is, let’s revisit a story I’ve referenced in previous issues.

First act:

There was a forest AND

There was a hare AND

The hare was boastful AND

The hare boasted he was the fastest animal in the forest AND

The animals were listening AND

The tortoise was listening too…

Second act:

But the tortoise challenged the hare to a race AND

The tortoise was slow AND

The hare rans so fast that he left the tortoise far behind AND

The hare stopped to eat some tasty plants AND

The hare fell asleep AND

The tortoise kept on plodding…

Third act:

Therefore the tortoise won the race AND

All the animals were cheering AND

The moral of the story is “slow and steady wins the race.”

In the first act of the Tortoise and the Hare, the thesis, we are introduced to the “normal world.” In this normal world, animals can talk and there are no humans. But in this world boasting is socially unacceptable, just as it is in our normal, human world. And just as it is in our world, hares are fast and tortoises are slow.

In the second act of this fable, the tension is introduced when the slowest animal issues a racing challenge to one of the fastest animals. The tension is increased as the race progresses; the hare runs so fast that he cannot even see the tortoise behind him. And the tension is increased again as the hare stops to eat a snack and then falls asleep in the sun.

In the third act, the tension is released when the tortoise crosses the finish line to the cheers of all the other animals. And the moral of the story is established.

There are many ways to tell the same story

There are many ways to tell the same story. Notice where the tension is introduced in the following version of Aesop’s fable.

There was a boastful rabbit AND

There was a slow tortoise AND

They decided to race…

BUT the rabbit fell asleep AND

The tortoise plodded on…

THEREFORE the tortoise won the race AND

The moral is: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

This version is a lot shorter. It has a different inciting incident: the hare falling asleep, rather than the tortoise issuing the challenge. But the end result is the same.

There are many ways to tell the same story. With the And-But-Therefore template, we can choose to structure our story differently, depending upon the exact story we want to tell and the specific details we wish to emphasize — in other words, where and how we wish to add tension.

Using the And-But-Therefore template in life science marketing

How would this And-But-Therefore story template be useful in life science marketing? Well, here are two examples, one focused on services, and one on products. First let’s look at the And-But-Therefore for a service organization.

Many patients are suffering AND

You’ve developed a promising new molecule AND

You want to get your drug to market

But clinical trials are complicated AND

FDA regulations are complex AND

Recruiting the right kinds of patients is really difficult AND

Without these patients, your trial will fail

Therefore, work with the team that has unparalleled patient recruitment experience AND

Is therapeutically specialized AND

Can help you through the regulatory challenges you face.

This next example covers a laboratory product.

You need accurate scientific results from your laboratory equipment AND

Your team is depending upon you to deliver these results quickly AND

You need the highest resolution possible

But processing high resolution results takes a long, long time using current technology AND

High-resolution equipment is typically very expensive

Therefore, select the XYZ-1000, the innovative new equipment that costs no more than other equipment AND

Has the best resolution available anywhere AND

Delivers results in half the time that other equipment does.

Do you see how tension is introduced in these messages, how the use of the word “But” drives interest? In Act I, we are introduced to the normal world and the desired goals. In Act II, tension is introduced, through factors that prevent the achievement of the goals outlined in Act I. In Act III, the conclusion sets up a call-to-action, one that would drive changes in attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.

 Story DNA

Would the wording I’ve just used in these examples actually show up in an ad or on a web site? No, these examples are not “public-facing” language. But this And-But-Therefore template will form the DNA of your core narrative.

With this DNA, you can guide the creation of specific “proteins,” that is, specific language that will show up in public-facing touchpoints. Remember, there are different ways to tell the same story. The message you create for your web site will differ from the message you create for the boiler-plate at the bottom of your press release, which will differ from the message you create for a webinar—because each is responding to specific needs. But each would follow the And-But-Therefore template you have established.

The And-But-Therefore template is useful precisely because it temporarily puts aside the need to craft public-facing language, and focuses instead on the key structure of the narrative you need to communicate to your audiences.

In our work with clients at Forma, I have found that the use of the And-But-Therefore template helps clients clarify the distinction between those message points that are important enough to show up in their core message, and those that should be left out. This distinction is crucial.

This template is a powerful tool to create effective, sticky messages. I urge you to try this out. How would your organization’s core message be developed through the And-But-Therefore template? What does your “normal” world look like? What challenges do your prospects face? Which ones of those are both important to them, and able to be addressed by you?

Sticky stories come from structure, driven by tension

In this issue, I’ve explored the driving force behind compelling narratives: tension enveloped in a three-part structure. Following the lead of Randy Olson, I’m using the And-But-Therefore template as a way to set up and harness tension, and enable you to deliver life science marketing messages that stick.

In the next issue, I’ll explore some additional implications about the And-But-Therefore template, and describe how it can best be used to develop compelling marketing messages, and to present interesting and impactful case studies.



[i] Gottshall, Jonathan The Storytelling Animal. How stories make us human. Boston: Mariner, 2012. 52. Print.

[ii] McKee, Robert Story: style, structure, substance, and the principles of screenwriting. New York: Harper-Collins, 1997. Print.

[iii] Alda, Alan If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? New York: Random House, 2017. 117. Print.