Short-form Storytelling 101: What's in a Story?

Given today’s fractured and fast-paced media environment, would you consider yourself an effective digital storyteller?

Capturing hearts, minds, and attention spans is harder than ever. Human biology evolves much slower than the steady progress of technology, presenting an opportunity for us to go back to the basics. Since people have been people, sharing and remembering stories has been essential to our survival. Now, they’re essential to our survival…online. Unfortunately, “selling” short-form digital narratives that are engaging, informative, and actually get eyeballs is no easy task.

Hi. I’m Dustin. I’m a storyteller. When I’m not slangin’ narratives on a museum tour, in the classroom, or online, I help cultural institutions engage new audiences by better communicating the stories behind their collections, spaces, and people. Regardless of context, before I start writing, I ask myself three questions:

  1. What is my one goal with this story?
  2. Who is my primary audience?
  3. Why should they care?

Only once I’m brutally honest and as specific as possible in addressing these questions is it time to write. And when I do so, I follow this four-part structure:

1. The hook

Make them stop scrolling. You can produce the world’s greatest story, but if no one reads it, what is even the point? You’ve got three seconds to capture your audience’s attention, making your initial engagement arguably the most important piece of the entire endeavor.

The hook can be a statement or a question. If it is a statement, it needs to be unusual or controversial so as to force the consumer to pause and think, “Wait...what?!” If the hook is a question, ask your audience something incredibly easy to answer…that you do not already know the answer to. You should key in on a point of personal relevance or connection, making the reader feel like their own personal, unique perspective is the essential onramp to the narrative.
Let’s say you want to share a story that involves a dog. Asking, “Do you like dogs?” is a pretty generic question that doesn’t engage the reader on a truly personal level. It’s unlikely to be “sticky”, and that’s the entire point. Instead, asking “What is your favorite dog breed?” evokes personal memories and speaks specifically to the preferences and experiences of the reader. You are now talking with them, not at them.
The hook is the very first thing in your story, but should be the very last thing you write. Yes, you read that correctly. Let’s build the rest of the house first, and once we know exactly what’s inside, come back and install the entryway.

2. The essential details

Remember that you are telling ONE STORY. People have a tendency to try to pack in as much information as possible to prove content mastery, establish authority, or both. This is not the goal and can fly in the face of your actual objective. You’re attempting to pique interest and curiosity. Your story is an amuse-bouche, not a 7-course meal. Which are the most important and most interesting pieces of background information that the reader absolutely must have in order to understand your narrative? There’ll always be more to say, and if you leave your audience wanting more, they’ll keep coming back. But inundate them with as much information as possible, and you’re likely to lose them. Laying your story’s necessary facts and context is the groundwork that builds towards your anchor…

3. The anchor

Time to hit ‘em with the good stuff! Your essential details were building to this: the crescendo of your story. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for, and even if the listener retains nothing else, this is the one thing they are going to remember. It can be a mind-blowing fact, a hidden secret, or a wild twist they never saw coming (e.g. “The changes are so severe that members of their own species now find them unrecognizable.”)

4. The dismount

In addition to a grabby opening line and solid background details, a good narrative begs for a great conclusion. People always remember how a story ends, so your final sentence should be a dismount that feels like the narrative’s culmination (e.g. “...and that’s why I don’t eat gas station sushi!”), is an invite/call-to-action (e.g. “If you thought that was weird, just wait till you see the centerpiece of the exhibition.”), or a callback to your hook (e.g. “...proving to be a much better rebrand than calling it the Westminster Eugenics Show.”) 

Once you’ve written the essential details, the anchor, and the dismount, it’s time to circle back and write the hook. You know exactly where the road is going, so construct an on-ramp that effectively grabs the reader’s attention and launches them into your narrative. 

Cool? Cool. Wanna see an example of a great narrative constructed using this methodology? I bet you do. You’ll just have to stay tuned for our next installment of Short-Form Storytelling 101…

Written by Dustin Growick

May 16, 2024