The Anatomy of a Story

The Anatomy of a Story

In 1863, German novelist Gustav Freytag proposed that a dramatic story has five distinct parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This pattern is so prevalent in stories across time, geography, and cultures it has become known as The Universal Story Structure.

Fast forward to present day. Neuroscientist Paul Zak concludes that stories following Freytag’s dramatic arc increase feelings of empathy and connection among viewers/readers. To prove it, Zak took blood samples from his test subjects to measure brain chemistry before and after viewing an emotional story about a boy with cancer.


Stories Literally Change People

He found two chemicals in subjects’ brains after viewing the story: cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol is associated with stress and also causes us to focus our attention on what’s causing the stress. Oxytocin is associated with care and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathy we feel.

Zak then asked his test subjects to donate money after viewing the story. They donated generously-to a children’s charity and also to random strangers. According to Zak’s research, storytelling literally changed the brain chemistry of his subjects and directly influenced their behavior.

Zak’s research is a shining example of just how powerful storytelling can be. Storytelling hearkens back to our basic need to connect. We don’t necessarily know the people in the stories we hear, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling something, from being literally and figuratively moved by what we see, and changing our behavior as a result.


How You Can Use Freytag’s Arc

Not all stories follow Freytag’s arc, but as you can see from Zak’s research this structure is certainly a good place to start when developing emotionally engaging brand stories. First, capture audience attention with lively personalities and compelling scenes (exposition). Next, set the hook with increasing action and vivid details (rising action). This all leads up to surprising/shocking/rewarding your audience with a thrilling turning point (climax) before resolving the tension (falling action) and tying up any loose ends (denouement).

Incredibly, this same structure can play out over the course of a novel or a one-line joke. The story doesn’t have to be as sad as a boy with cancer. (Although, “sadvertising” seems to be a current trend. More on this next time). The key is simply that you take your audience on an emotional journey so they feel connected and moved to action.

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