WWN2: What's the Story?

Empathy, Education, Entertainment, Endless Es.

Welcome back to the Write Way.

Today we’re going to continue our journey into storytelling, with a discussion of what type of stories you need to be telling for different purposes.

Because contra the gurus, they’re all different…

We’ll cover three main types of story:

  • Entertainment stories

  • Educational stories

  • Empathy stories

And why and when to use each.

What story when?

Last week we mentioned that there are three types of story, and if you were listening in to my Spaces on X-Twitter with David Garfinkel last week then you’ll be familiar with some of what I’m about to tell you.

But I want to quickly recap:

The fundamental difference between these three types of story is the purpose and the product. Which is why I split them like I do.

In entertainment storytelling the product is the story itself, and the purpose is to entertain.

In educational storytelling, the product is knowledge or moral change, and the purpose is to educate and effect change.

In empathy storytelling, the product is whatever you’re using the story to sell, and the purpose is the empathise and persuade.

One of the easiest ways to tell the difference is to think about when money changes hands. In entertainment storytelling, they pay you and you tell them a story in return. In empathy storytelling, you tell them a story and then (hopefully) they pay you for something. With educational storytelling there’s not normally money changing hands at all.

Let’s break those down.

Entertainment Storytelling

Entertainment storytelling is simple. And breaking it down is fairly straightforward because it’s the storytelling type that everyone already knows.

Hollywood blockbusters, artsy foreign films, pulp fiction, short stories, literary novels.

Whatever your choice is, it’s all storytelling for the purpose of entertainment. The story here is the product. If it’s good, people come back for more of the same product, but it’s rarely selling something else directly.

Except for perhaps some product placement.

In fact, many of the sins of modern media, and the absolute cringefests that Disney and Marvel and Hollywood have put out lately are simply because they’ve forgotten that rule. They’ve forgotten that the story is what matters, and their purpose is to entertain.

So they try and “educate” in a hamfisted way that doesn’t fulfil the purpose of an educational story (which we’ll get to in a minute) and also busts up the entertainment value because you’ve taken people out of the world.

E.g. setting Wheel of Time in an isolated medieval village in a mountain…

…with the racial diversity of downtown Manhattan in 2024.

It doesn’t make sense, unless there’s been some serious inbreeding across the decades since the village was founded. But all that’s by the by so I won’t multiply examples and turn this into a rant.

What makes a good entertainment story?

It’s beyond the scope of this issue of the Write Way to breakdown exactly what you need here. After all, whole libraries have been written on this already and no doubt we’ll come back to it in future.

If you want more now, then the best book to read on this is “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain.

But at its most basic, you need a simple three act structure. You need a villain, a hero, a conflict. And you need a satisfying resolution.

Act One: Villain acts. In most disappointing stories, the problem is that the villain is just kinda… there.

The writer was too busy bigging up their hero that they forgot to spend time on the villain. But for the first two thirds of your story, the villain is driving your plot!

You need a good one. And they need to make sense, not just be “evil” for the sake of it. Remember that the villain is the hero of his own story (even if he’s objectively evil, he still thinks he’s in the right) and has his reasons. So in act one the villain acts in his interests…

…in a way that creates a problem for our hero. Who responds right as act one ends.

Act Two: Villain prevails. Our plucky hero or heroine just can’t catch a break. If they’re stuck up a tree in act one, act two is where we light the tree on fire (HT Rachel Aaron). The problem gets worse.

The villain’s villainy knows no bounds! The hero struggles, they attempt, they move against the villain. And they’re knocked back again and again. Act two ends with what should be the low point of the story.

Act Three: Hero overcomes.

Said hero picks themselves up, goes through a motivational montage, and kicks butt.

The end.

Wildly oversimplified, and of course, for a tragedy and so on that looks a little different, and there are many other complexities to weave in but I could spend a whole month and more on that…

…Maybe one day I will.

But for now, let’s cover one last type of story that I rarely hear mentioned. The educational story.

Educational Storytelling

The neglected story art.

These are the Fables, the folktales, the fairytales, the “just-so” stories. And while they’re neglected today, they’re extremely powerful.

How many of you have heard the tortoise and the hare and know that you should go slow and steady instead of being arrogant and complacent?

Or remember Brer Rabbit and his Briar Patch?

Or have said to your kids “We don’t want to be like [insert character from film here] do we?” when they’re misbehaving?

Stories stick in our minds, they sit with us for a long time and help us remember.

The educational story exists to take advantage of that. To teach.

To quote C. S. Lewis again, one of the great storytellers (of entertainment stories primarily):

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings…. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

C. S. Lewis, Letters


Don’t misunderstand here, I’m not saying that entertainment stories don’t have a moral message to them. Lewis here is talking about his entertainment stories, The Chronicles of Narnia (I think, at least I haven’t read the full letter) and those definitely have a moral core.

In fact, I’d go so far as saying that all satisfying stories must have a moral message. See “The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success“ by Stanley D. Williams for more on that.

Neither am I saying that educational stories should avoid entertainment. Again, to be effective they must be entertaining.

But with educational stories, the lesson is front and center. Like in Aesop’s fables, it’s not trying to be subtle. Often the lesson is stated clearly on top of the story as an associated proverbial saying, but the simple story helps it to stick.

There is not a set structure here, but the story should be simple and memorable. Rhyme helps, as do vivid characters and artwork.

My kids’ book The King and the Dragon is an example of educational storytelling with rhyme and vivid art. It’s entertaining, kids love it, but it’s designed to teach.

I even have my own Fable project, sporadically updated at the moment, what with all my other projects, but you can read (and subscribe) here for a modern example of a fable:

So don’t neglect the lost art of educational storytelling, especially with kids. If there’s a lesson they need to learn, try and think of a story to wrap it in.

Or borrow someone else’s (mine, Aesop’s, there are many).

And of course, read fables yourself to get the hang of it.

Empathy Storytelling

Empathy storytelling is my coinage for what David Garfinkel calls “$tory”, or some people call “storyselling”. The persuasion stories.

They’re the stories you use in copy, in persuasive writing.

But actually they’re more…

…they’re the stories you use every day without even realising it. Stories that connect with people and move them emotionally.

The empathy story is storytelling boiled down to its core components. It’s barebones, no mess, no fuss. There are enough details to anchor it, but it’s far more stripped back than any entertainment or educational story.

I’m not going to go on and on about it here, because I’ve got two resources to point you to instead that will help you master empathy storytelling.

First, go back and listen to the recording of last week’s Twitter space here:

Second, buy David’s book “The Persuasion Story Code” because it’s excellent.

And then practice…


Three types of stories.

Three very different purposes.

Three very different styles.

And honestly we could spend a few thousand words on each and only scratch the surface, but for now, I recommend just taking some time to stop and think about what types of story you’re using.

What kind of storyteller are you?

Because that will shape your approach to it.

And remember to scroll back up, check out the sponsor offer, and use the code “EBC” for 50% off if it’s useful to you.

Until next time, may your pipe be well selected for your tobacco and your stories well shaped for your purpose,

James Carran, Craftsman Writer

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