Persuasive Storytelling: Aristotle’s Seven Ways to Tell a Story

In keeping with the Greek theme, and advice from one philosopher in particular, this section will unpack Aristotle’s seven ways to tell a story. They are:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Theme
  4. Diction
  5. Melody
  6. Decor
  7. Spectacle

Plot is the starting place, and it’s a logical point of entry. Broadly, the plot is the outline of the story being told. It is the framework around which all other pieces of the story will fit in. The plot is the change over the course of the story, what happens to the people or things being described.

You’re quite familiar with the concept of plots. When a friend starts describing what occurred in that new movie you’re dying to see, you yell: “Don’t spoil the plot!” In most cases, if you know the plot in advance, the movie won’t be nearly as entertaining. Plot is foundational because everything else in the story develops around it. 

You must then have characters to drive the plot’s narrative. Aristotle suggested that characters ought to have four primary features:

  1. Characters need at least one good quality so the audience can root for them.
  2. The way characters act should be reasonable based on what we know about them.
  3. Characters should be believable.
  4. Characters should have consistent traits. 

These features are essential for good storytelling. 

Next, theme. Theme is all about where the story takes place, the setting or scene. It’s important to frame your story’s theme in a way that makes sense, so the audience can follow along and knows what to expect based on the environment in which it’s told. But it’s more than just the physical space; it’s about the emotion around the scene. How do the people in the story feel, and how is the environment informing the way they acted?

Diction is a word you’re probably familiar with, but what does it mean in this context? It’s the choice of words, or the way they’re presented, and it  can really make a difference. Certain words have a connotation that may be good or bad. When giving a speech and telling a story, are you cognizant of how some people might perceive a word, even if it seems innocent enough to you? A good storyteller is aware of how the audience will perceive the story, and that it may not be as intended.

Melody suggests music, and it has a similar role in storytelling. We think of melody in music as something that sticks in your head after the song ends. It’s a familiar structure, and that’s the parallel with storytelling. 

Aristotle frames melody as the way one sets up and structures a particular story. By using memorable patterns that people understand, it will help them stay attuned to your tale instead of trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. One example might be the boy who cried wolf. It’s easy enough to repackage the message in a new story, but the gist remains the same: Someone repeatedly falsely claims a terrible thing happened, and when it finally does, nobody believes the “boy who cried wolf.”

Decor means exactly what you figure it does: the feel of the room in which the story takes place. In putting together your story, consider what visual aspects you may want to invoke. Paint a picture for your audience that helps bring them aboard for the journey.

Finally, spectacle. This is a pretty simple one that you won’t need to concern yourself with much. It basically describes the actors on stage, the “spectacle” of the story itself. If you put the effort in early to make the story compelling and visually appealing, in the minds of the audience, the spectacle will come naturally as a byproduct.

So, those are the seven pieces of a story that Aristotle described so long ago. They’re just as valuable to us today; they’re commonly replicated in the development of press strategies, and even in the design of websites. Use these tools in every form of your messaging — in the videos you produce, the articles you write. These are all, in their own way, stories, and the rules that have governed rhetoric for thousands of years are equally applicable to each today.

Pixar, for example, has a phenomenal track record in this department, and they’re on the cutting edge in terms of technology and visual arts. Pixar director Pete Docter puts it perfectly: “What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”



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