9 ingredients for stories that taste of tension
When did you last watch a film about someone for whom nothing ever went wrong? How many TV series have you binge-watched on Netflix where the central character’s story arc is success after success after success – the end?
Few, if any, of us experience life that way. So a story like that wouldn’t resonate with us. In fact we’d smell a rat early on in that tale, and move on. We crave stories with authentic sounding characters we don’t hate because their lives are so impossibly better than our own.
Why bother sticking around until the end of stories like that? Our lives are full of ambitions and the complications that make them difficult to achieve. That’s the stuff good stories are made of.
So we consume stories that all have one vital ingredient in common – tension. Without tension, you might have a sequence of events, but you don’t have a story. At least not a good one.
The same is true for content we create that’s meant to feel like we’re telling our users a story.
What we know about most digital content is that people search for it primarily because they have a question they need to answer or a problem to solve. So they find content about other people who shared that problem. That content tells them why that problem was a problem, how someone else dealt with it, and how difficult that process was.
And sometimes that’s enough. If you’re just looking for instructions, like how to repair the cold tap that’s slowed to a tragic dribble (this weekend’s job) – you don’t need the story of how those instructions came about.
But if you’re trying to give your brand a sense of real life, and encourage people to engage with you in meaningful ways, you tell them a good story.
So why do so many brands and institutions often miss this point about tension?
Perhaps in the drive to present ourselves in a positive light, to position ourselves as problem solvers, we forget the stories we tell just won’t be enjoyable to readers if they lack tension. We fail to reveal the flaws of our characters, the problems they still face, and the weaknesses they have to overcome to succeed.
Too many institutional narratives drain the colour, and suck the tension, from what could be great stories. Too many brands and institutions tell stories like this:
“We just came up with a great new thing!” – the end
Stories without tension taste like porridge; but without the honey, maple syrup, sugar, or salt (if you’re Scottish).
So how do we ensure the stories we tell have the necessary tension, so readers like the taste of what’s on offer?
Well, here are 9 ideas for creating stories that taste of tension:
1. Personify the problems your institution is focused on
What are the challenges your institution is trying to tackle right now, successfully or otherwise? Maybe you have a campaign centred around diversity or equality. Or perhaps your research staff are close to a breakthrough in a long running piece of medical or social research.
In an ideal world your readers should be interested in these things no matter how you frame them, because they matter. But your stories need to abide by the same rules as everyone else’s.
So tell those stories through the lens of the people directly involved in or affected by them. Focus on the lives your work touches and readers will appreciate the institution that touched them.
But it’s not just research subjects who make great stories. So do your staff.
What personal challenges did your research staff have to face in order to persevere with a project? Whose illness or death motivated their work? When and why were they tempted to give up?
2. Real people live lives of tension – brand avatars don’t
The people engaging with your content experience ups, downs and inbetweens every day of their lives. They try, they fail, and they get back up again, because that’s what people do.
Brand avatars – those characters who feel most at home in a piece of advertorial content – live another life. When they experience some major obstacle, they overcome it too easily – and they do it quickly enough that the whole experience fits neatly within a tweet or Instagram story.
And don’t shy away from the reality of the life of a character in the story you’re telling. Let them sound like themselves. It may be that Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde spoke in memorable quotations every day. The rest of us don’t.
If you want a story to feel authentic, your characters shouldn’t sound like everything they say was the best quote from an interview with them. Dialogue between humans doesn’t sound like that.
If you have a few minutes, watch this powerful story from Boston University that contains the ambitions, complications and real-life tension of a classic story arc.
3. Internal and external conflicts complement one another
Stories need tracks to run on; things like plot, character and description form a story. Tension is what keeps it moving forward.
Juxtaposing a character’s internal conflict with the larger external complication of your story adds depth. This gives the reader a choice to anchor themselves in the big picture or in the human detail.
For example, the staff and students you tell stories about are constantly overcoming obstacles within your community, while your university tackles major problems in the world. At the same time as your university addresses its mixed track record on diversity, a staff member from an Muslim country deals with the preconceptions of their colleagues on a daily basis.
Look for the people within the life of your institution who are active or outspoken on the issues you’re taking seriously. Ask them about their personal pain points on those issues.
4. Connect with common sources of tension in your reader’s lives
What creates tension in the lives of your readers? It’s the things they are afraid of, anxious about, or the challenges they feel they lack the tools to overcome.
Perhaps your readers are afraid of failure or underachieving. Maybe some of them are afraid of success, and the pressure of expectation it often brings. Or they might fear rejection by the people they live and work alongside every day. Or they might fear universal experiences such as ageing, illness and dying.
All these factors and many more exist within the lives of the people involved in the story of your institution. This is what makes your students, your admissions officers, and your Vice Chancellors more than their job titles.
This is another reason why knowing your community is crucial to being an effective content creator.
5. Don’t be afraid of the tension between people
Great stories are often built around the tension between ideas, and the people those ideas are associated with. Universities are full of students, academics and administrators finding ways to communicate opposing worldviews or solutions to problems, until they arrive at ways of making progress.
So if you’re telling the story of a major initiative, event, or project, don’t fall into the trap of creating a cast of characters who all sound like they are in total agreement with each other. That drains your story of healthy, creative tension: the stuff educational environments are built on.
6. Let failure set the scene for success
Stories are built around what writers refer to as rising tension. Think about the Tom Hanks film, Apollo 13. What’s that story about? It’s about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
N.A.S.A. attempted something ambitious – it went very wrong – but their perseverance and teamwork enabled them to turn a failure into one of their greatest success stories. They got Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and the other guy home in one piece.
In fact, the term “hackathon” apparently originates with the Apollo 13 story. They were handed a problem, they built a solution. This all sounds like the stuff of educational institutions to me.
Stories where people fail on their way to succeeding – sometimes more than once – are more believable. Your readers will connect more strongly with the achievements you want them to know about, and engage with the institution telling the story, if they empathise more deeply with the people in the story.
7. Add an element of time
Think for a second about the person who pitched the TV series 24 to the studio executives. It must have sounded so simple that they wondered if viewers would buy it. And yet people loved it, for the same reason they loved the A-Team: a group of people had to do something important and the clock was ticking. Tension, tension, and more tension – and it wasn’t rocket science.
Students have to make important decision by deadlines. Research projects have limited amounts of funding. People care about issues when they sense urgency, and urgency equals tension.
So look back at some stories your institution has included in it’s news section recently. Ask yourself how many of them gave the sense of some kind of countdown. If few of them did, how could you reframe those stories to include a time-bound element?
8. How you begin your stories is how you light the fuse of tension
One of my favorite tools as a content creator is Co-Schedule’s Headline Analyzer. Many a dull headline has been turned into something that people clicked on thanks to a few minutes spent trying variations in that tool.
But one thing good content creators know is that if they want their stories to be taken seriously, adding to the authority of their institution, they must avoid overdoing the sense of suspense in their headlines.
We’re not advocating ”And you won’t believe what happened next!”.
Headlines (or introductions to stories) that sound like cliffhangers but don’t deliver will leave your readers once bitten and twice shy. So stick to our tried and tested techniques for grabbing a reader’s attention that won’t jeopardise your credibility.
9. And finally…think James Bond
Almost every James Bond film begins with basically the same scene. Bond is in a high-speed car chase around a cliff’s edge or Monte Carlo street. Or (if we’re reacting to Jason Bourne stealing some of our thunder) Bond is defying death as he chases a free runner through a building site.
Lots of great stories, written or otherwise, begin in the midst of the problem. They drop the reader in to a point of immediate tension rather than building up to it slowly with lots of context.
Context is something you sprinkle throughout your story as it unfolds. Context doesn’t grab a reader’s attention – action does. So look at the first few paragraphs of whatever story you’re writing, and if they weigh us down with context, cut to the chase.
So now you’ve thought about our suggestions for adding tension to our storytelling. Hopefully you’ve seen that people writing stories people actually enjoy reading doesn’t have to be a puzzle only the chosen few “real writers” can solve.
Great storytelling is built upon tried and tested methods. So here are three questions to help you choose your best next step as a storyteller:
1.What stories are you telling that lack the necessary tension?
2. What points of tension in the life of your institution aren’t you telling stories about yet?
3. Do the characters in your stories sound like real people, with ambitions, complications and hard-won resolutions?
Pickle Jar Communications can help you think about how to integrate tension, and other storytelling techniques, across your communications. Drop us a line.