It is often said that every story can be categorised into one of just a few basic plots. What’s funny about this is that nobody seems to agree how many of these generic plots there are, let alone what they might be. Five? Seven? Twenty? And what’s the difference between a quest and a voyage anyway?
Be this as it may, we at Narrandum have come to the conclusion that it’s simpler than that. Underlying all these plot structures is just one universal pattern which can be applied to any story*, from Moby Dick, to Cats**, to your product’s customer journeys.
This seven-stage structure can be used to make any message more convincing, impactful and relatable. It’s a tried and tested way to breathe life into your design sprints and get inside the heads of your customers.
Oh, and our service includes it as a free template you can adapt to your specific needs.
Let’s take a look at these seven stages.
Weakness and need
Our story begins by introducing our hero. A fine person in most respects. Likeable, relatable, but like all of us, imperfect — because flaws are what make people, and their stories, interesting.
We’re going to build our story around a single, major fault in our hero, because this is the thing which is holding them back in life. Overcoming this weakness is the thing they need most in the world, and it’s the only thing they can think about.
Examples of this are everywhere. Think of the characters in The Wizard Of Oz, each of whom is missing something which will make them complete — a heart, a brain, courage. Their weaknesses, and their need for a solution, is what drives them along the Yellow Brick Road to seek help from the Wizard.
Off to see the wizard.
Just like Dorothy’s friends, your customers are incomplete too, and that’s why they’re looking for something to solve their problem. By understanding what’s missing from their lives, maybe you can create the answer to their question — and find the right way to get their attention.
At first glance, “desire” might sound a lot like “need”, but it isn’t. Weakness is what holds your hero back, but desire is what drives them forward. Love may be what they need, but that tall, dark stranger they just met is who they desire in order to get it. The hero’s desire is the most important thing in the world to them. They must have it, and will do whatever it takes to get it.
You can probably come up with examples of this pretty easily. A recent, well-known one is Thanos in the Avengers movies. His need is to control the universe, and in order to do that, what he desires is the Infinity Stones.
How does this apply to you and your customers? Well, maybe they need something fundamental, like time, or security, or social status. If you want them to desire your product, you need to convince them that it’s the perfect way to meet that need.
Your hero’s opponent stands between them and their desire. Not only that, but — and this is crucial — they want the same thing. The tension between hero and opponent is what makes a story interesting, and helps us understand our hero better.
Although an opponent is often a “baddie” — think Voldemort or Darth Vader — they don’t have to be. In Top Gun, Iceman is Maverick’s main rival for the trophy. He represents everything Tom Cruise’s character is not, and illustrates his weaknesses. But he isn’t malevolent, nor actively out to get him.
Not evil, just in the way.
In some customer journeys, it might seem like there is no opponent, but we can usually find one if we think about it. Perhaps our hero wants more free time, and their boss wants to keep them at work. Or there’s some new software which would make everyone’s life easier, but the CFO doesn’t want to spend money on it. Most of the time, somebody will be getting in the way. And if not, then perhaps the opponent is a thing rather than a person — the deadline, the budget, the unreliable old car.
So now the scene is set. All the key ingredients of your story are in place. Your hero knows what they want, and what stands in their way. Now it’s time to figure out how to get it.
This part of the story is important, and you may take a while over it. This is where you can show your hero failing, learning and improving. If you’ve always wanted to create a Rocky-esque training montage, now’s the time. By the end of this phase, your hero is ready for battle.
"Man, I won, but I didn't beat him!"
For your customer, this might equate to the consideration phase — market research, shortlisting, evaluation, eliminating what doesn’t work.
Time for the rubber to hit the road. The conflict stage is the real meat of the story. Hero and opponent duke it out, revealing more and more about their desires, their needs — and themselves.
People love it when stories surprise them, taking unexpected twists and turns, and this is the most effective time for that. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. The poster on Andy Dufresne’s wall in The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t just a decoration. Keyser Soze is… nope, not spoiling that one.
Maybe this is when your customer is struggling or having doubts. Does this really do what I need? Is it worth the money? Suddenly, something happens to tip the balance in your customer’s favour. Timely advice from a helpful sales representative, a free trial, a discount coupon. The obstacle is overcome, and on we go.
Your hero has spent the story so far struggling — with their need, their desire, their opponent, their own weaknesses. They’ve tried, failed, grown and overcome. Now the struggle is over, and for the first time, they understand who they were, are and will be in future.
Every good story should have a message, and this revelation is how the message is delivered. George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life sees the difference one person can make in the world. In Some Like It Hot, Jerry aka Daphne realises, to his chagrin, that we can’t help who we fall in love with.
"Well... nobody's perfect!"
To understand how this can help us create better customer journeys, think about it like this. Your message is your key sales proposition, and the revelation comes when your hero realises that it’s true. These magical sports shoes really do mean they can run faster, jump higher and beat their arch-rivals. Now they’re going to the NBA and everything’s going to be wonderful, and it’s all because of your product.
The struggle is over. The battle is won. Your hero’s need is fulfilled, their desire has subsided, normality returns. But this is not the old normal. Things will never be like they were before.
This after-the-dust-settles phase is a very common way to end a movie, and perhaps to set up a sequel. Mad Max: Fury Road ends with a glimpse of a fairer, more hopeful future for the people of the Citadel. In Leon, Mathilda’s world has been shattered, but she thinks her new one is going to be okay.
"You’ve given me a taste for life. I wanna be happy. Sleep in a bed, have roots."
It’s easy to see how this applies to any customer journey. The final phase shows how your customer’s life has been improved through using your product. And maybe a happy ending is good enough. But this is also a good time to hint at future possibilities — perhaps going from a one-off purchase to regular business, or upgrading to a higher tier.
We hope this article inspires you to create more interesting, insightful, and impactful customer journeys. And if it does, well, we’ve got just the tool for the job, and you can try it out for free.
The concepts in this article are partly inspired by John Truby’s excellent book, The Anatomy Of Story.
* With the possible exception of Being John Malkovich. We have no idea where that came from.
** This may be another exception, but we haven’t figured out what the story actually is yet. If you have the slightest clue what they were thinking, do let us know.