Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Story/Message Theory Construct

This essay is an excerpt from a longer article on Story/Message Theory, originally published November 14, 2010. To read the original article in full, click the link. Links to other excerpts follow at the conclusion of this entry.


Snow Black & White: By Lucia Whittaker
For those old enough to remember, once upon a time, a rapt audience would sit and listen to an entire Story, from beginning to end, regardless of how long it took, regardless of the fact that the only thing that awaited them at the end was some basic principle or lesson it purported to deliver. In fact, one listened to stories, not for the sake of entertainment value alone, but in order to learn something useful.

Since the dawn of man, stories have followed the same model:

Narrative (N) followed by a lesson, a general truth, a rule of conduct or a maxim [Message (M)].

For a modern example, let's draw our analysis to the traditional thirty-second TV commercial as an opportunity to convey a Message, and call this unit 'Story' (Story=S).

Typically, thirty-second spots are constructed so that the first twenty to twenty-five seconds of the work contain a compelling conflict, which is then resolved in the final five to ten seconds with a simultaneous product or service reveal (The Message). In case it’s not completely obvious, the intent of commercials is to fulfill a Marketing Objective.



It looks like math but it's not; it's simply an acronym:

Narrative Plus Message Equals Story

This is as true for movies and modern television commercials as well as for folktales, myths or biblical parables.

Examples of a traditional maxim or message are:
  • Beauty is but skin deep.
  • He who hesitates is lost.
  • Look before you leap.
  • Business before pleasure.
  • Love sees no faults.

Examples of contemporary maxims or messages include:
  • Just Do it.
  • Think Different.
  • A diamond is forever.
  • Have a coke and smile. 
  • Don’t get mad. Get GLAD.
  • Things go better with Coke
  • You Deserve a Break Today.
  • For all you do, this Bud’s for you.
  • Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.
  • There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard. 


Accounting for Time (X), we might also write the equation as:


So that a thirty-second spot might be written as follows:

N25+M5= S30(FO) [Fulfilled Objective]

What is interesting about traditional construction is that the difference between short and long Story formatting lies wholly on the length of the Narrative: Message is never abbreviated. So, if your purpose is to tell a Story in order to say something, you had better leave room for that, no matter how transparent your characters or how thinly drawn your Narrative.

And this is true whether one produces a three-volume novel, a two-hour movie, a half-hour sitcom or a sixty-second commercial. All must terminate with Message fully stated, regardless of whether the various Narratives are concluded in a few sentences or a few hundred thousand.

But if we flip the traditional commercial on its head, and lead with Message, a new paradigm is formed:

[FO=Fulfilled Objective]

Though practically speaking, execution would more closely resemble:


See, it doesn't look like rocket science and it's not. –Notwithstanding the fact that this construction is clearly difficult to achieve in an abbreviated fifteen-second spot, though such spots still attempt to follow traditional modeling.

(I think it's safe to assume that 'FO' is always implied whenever we see 'S'.)

So, really our alternate model, if not impossible is nearly impractical. We might be able to state the Who, What, When and Where, and even the Why, but with such a limited time frame we will invariably lose the sequence of events.

The elements of Story construction alone do not by themselves constitute a Story. Where Narrative alone in other forms might constitute fine entertainment, Narrative alone does not constitute Story in the Story/Message model.

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Articles in this series:

Story/Message Theory (Original full length article)
What is a Story?
The Parable/Fable Framework as Story Algorithm
The Story/Message Theory Construct
So It Goes: Vonnegut's Law
The Power of Effective Messaging
Create Engagement with Compelling Signification
Elevator Pitch: Speed Dating Signification
Static Symbolic Accentuating Triggers
Story is Dead
Leading with Message Signification
Non Linear Cross Platform Transmedia Storytelling
Mythology and Messaging

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