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Defining a Story

by Amber Yoder

I once took a digital music class where we were taught that the most basic definition of ‘music’ is this: sound arranged by time. Anything more than that is about technique. So if you’re listening to some of the most challenging, weird, dissonant postmodern compositions and you find yourself wondering Is this actually music? The answer is yes. It is. It is sound arranged by time. Whether you like it or not is a different conversation.

While I’m not a musician, this very simple distillation of music has always stuck with me. I like its simplicity and its directness. Since taking that music class, my career path has been more focused on media and narrative. And let me tell you, the word ‘story’ gets thrown around a lot in this industry. 

What is the brand story?
What is the story of the user experience?
Does this scent tell the right story? 

I find myself feeling a lot of cynicism every time I hear that word. It’s enough to make you feel like it has no meaning. What even is a story? So let’s try to give it meaning. Let’s distill it down to its most basic definition. 

A story is this: change over time.

Simple as that. Every story has a beginning, and every story has an end. And over the course of the time between the beginning and the end, something changes. This is a really simple definition. And it certainly has no bearing on whether a story is good or not. But it can actually be a very powerful narrative tool.

All too often, especially on social media or in documentary filmmaking, creators will rely on character or setting for content. Think: beautiful footage of an Italian shoemaker talking about her passion for detail. Or sweeping landscapes of untouched forest paired with VO about the importance of sustainability. Sure this content could work. It could be moving or beautiful or charming. But it’s also super familiar. It’s been done a lot – mainly because it’s easy to accomplish.

But if you ask yourself Is this a story? Does something change over time? Often the answer is no. A lot of what we call stories these days are really fragments of storytelling – bits and pieces of character or setting in pretty packaging.

I’m not saying this as some sort of take-down of other content creators. But as a writer, I’ve found the challenge of change over time as a measure of storytelling to be extremely helpful in pushing past the easy, familiar trappings of content creation. When I sit down to write something or brainstorm with my team, I ask myself: How can I really tell a story? How can I show change over time? 

Sometimes answering that question means starting the story in a different place or time. If a story is about change over time, there needs to be a before state. “My trip to China was fun” isn’t a story. But if I tell you about how I was depressed before my trip and how my travels helped me find a new perspective on life – then it becomes a real story. (Disclaimer: I’ve never been to China)

Thinking about change over time can also challenge those of us in marketing and brand storytelling to move beyond simply listing product details or service offerings and thinking we’ve told a ‘brand story’. If a story is change over time, then saying “Check out our product” isn’t a story.

Change over time isn’t a revolutionary narrative concept. Much like the Bechdel Test – which measures female representation in media by asking whether a story has two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man – it’s a low bar to meet. And meeting it doesn’t guarantee a story will be good. But change over time is a useful tool, and sometimes it can be helpful to get back to the basics. If you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively, thinking about change over time can help provide a solid grounding for your next great story.

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