Don’t Get Mad. Make It Up.

story formula horizontal

It started out as a joke, a silly way for us to blow off steam. We invented something out of sheer frustration.

Ever since I started teaching creative writing, students have been asking me for the magical elixir: What is the formula for writing a story?

I found this exasperating and annoying.

After a deep breath to calm myself, I always answered that there is no formula. Every story is different. Stories share certain elements, but how we put those elements together has an infinite number of possibilities and depends on the writer, purpose, emotion, experience, perceptions, goals, risk-level, etc.

But one day, my attitude changed. Back up a few months, before any of us had started thinking about AI algorithms and their formulas for writing and picture this



Jill and Beth in video chat, venting about a client who wants us to just hand out the sales message as if it’s a one-size-fits-all.


Wait till you hear this. I was describing our storytelling workshop plan and X said, just tell them what to say.



I am so sick of people wanting just a formula.

It’s like they don’t want to take the time or use their energy to create. Maybe it’s because they don’t have enough creative confidence to think of themselves as a creator or storyteller. Even though we all are.






Still, this question has been dogging me ever since I started teaching creative writing all those years ago.

Jill’s face turns red. She starts speaking louder and pounding her desk.



They want a formula, fine, here’s your formula:

 It takes you and your subject plus what your customer needs. Add in the right details and voila! There’s your damn story.

Beth’s face starts to brighten and she begins scribbling out of frame.



That’s it!



That’s what?



That’s the formula.



Hm, I guess it is in a way.



Absolutely. How do we make it more vital? Make it clear that you really have to understand what the customer needs now?

I got it! Instead of a number squared here it would be the customer to the power of now.



Can we make it into an actual formula? Like a math equation?

Beth uses her incredible powers of visual storytelling to put the formula together lickety-split. They both stare at the screen in surprise.


OMG. This actually works!


Beth and Jill tinkering, adjusting, laughing, fussing, marveling, and showing off what they created.

And just like that, the Story Mode Story Formula was born.

How would Einstein Feel About This?

You know Einstein had a great sense of humor. I think he’d look at this equation the same way we did and chuckle. But on closer inspection, he’d agree: It Works.

Try it for yourself. Who do you have a meeting with later today and what do you need to accomplish? Fill in the formula and see what you get. HINT: It’s the Details that will make or break your story. Don’t skimp on the kinds of good details that will help us picture what you’re describing.


The Unveiling

Last December Story Mode was invited to present a “storytelling” workshop at a conference for people who sell products, often over a counter in both fast and slow transactions. Some of the people on the organizing team didn’t think their attendees would be interested in talking about stories.

Of course, we knew nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone tells stories and everyone likes to listen to good ones. Once you know how to use good stories at work, not only are you more successful, but your relationships with customers, clients, and colleagues deepen.

Good stories at work often depend on answering in the moment, making the story specific to the people involved. When we showed the Story Formula on screen, phone cameras came out and there was a lot of haptic clicking in the room.


What’s the Moral of this Story?

Now, I’m not making a case to use this formula every time you’re at the bar telling your friend what happened to you the other night. Those stories come out naturally.

And I’m not talking about using this or any formula when it comes to creative writing. In fact, writing that breaks form and formula is what’s interesting.

What I am talking about is being persuasive at work. That might mean getting a customer interested in a new product or convincing your colleague to imagine what success can look like.

Remember to have a real person in mind when creating a business message so you know how to tell that specific person the right story in that moment. This skill puts you in a position to sell products, ideas, or a vision of the future.

When you should use this formula:

1. Preparing a presentation at work for an audience of one or many can get some much-needed energy if you speak about what those people in front of you need NOW.

2. Feeling like you don’t know what to talk about when you run into your customer at an industry event, in the hall, or even on the street. (We use the term “customer” broadly. If you’re an HR leader, for instance, then the “customer” may be your employees.)

3. Running into someone you want to get to know better, share a story that you know will resonate with them, and you’ll get a “second story” (watch for that blog post coming next month).


When you don’t need this formula:

1. Telling tales around the holiday dinner table.

2. Blabbing at the bar to the stranger next to you.

3. Feeling angry or excited and like you just want to get the words out whether they make sense or not.

4. Engaging in some pillow talk with your partner.


Our next invention?

You know the answer is a Story Mode bourbon cocktail, right?

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