As we continue our exploration of storytelling in the non-profit world, enjoy part 2 of Elements of Story. And don’t miss part one of this post here where we talked about the importance of characters and context.
Stories are about change. They generally begin at a time of change and document how a protagonist navigates changing circumstances and achieves her goal. And stories can create change by challenging the way we think about a situation in small or profound ways. In my community, the story of a women’s club that bought a house a hundred years ago and later gifted it to the neighborhood helped tip the balance in a campaign to preserve that landmark property. And in the life of one person I recently spoke to, reading a particular fiction novel made the difference between staying in a toxic situation and getting out.
In our last installment, we discussed the basic elements of story and explored character and context—the protagonist of the story and the circumstances in which they find themselves. This time we’ll get into the meaty stuff: the conflict, including antagonistic people and systems standing in our character’s way, and how resolution and validation work to cement the message.
Antagonist, Conflict, Plot
Every protagonist has a dramatic need—something they want or need to achieve. In our sample story from Part 1, our character, Jane, needs a better job. A story’s conflict is in the fact that whatever the protagonist needs, they don’t have it, and someone or something is actively preventing them from achieving or attaining it: the antagonist. This is the beast—or beasts—Jane must slay in order to win. The plot is how it all happens.
The antagonist can be an actual “villain,” but it doesn’t have to be. In Jane’s case, her supervisor is clearly one antagonist who has the power to prevent her from earning enough money to live. But he’s not the only thing working against her, as we’ll see.
The “plot” is where we detail the conflicts and learn what Jane has done or will do in order to achieve her goal in the face of antagonism: attempts she makes to get what she wants, the earliest of which have failed or will, leading to a moment when it’s hard to believe she can ever succeed. In a fundraising story, the plot can probably be most closely mapped to “what’s been tried” and “what finally works” in the effort to solve a problem. What attempts has Jane made to get more hours, earn a raise, or find a better job, and what was the result? And what finally happens that puts Jane in touch with the help she needs?
A Key Resource
Jane lacks (or believes she lacks) the resources she needs to leverage her skills (or obtain new ones) and find a job that won’t leave her short of money every month. But somewhere in her life, that resource exists. In a fiction story, the resource that will change everything is often an inner strength or a skill that has been referenced in some offhand way early in the story. In a fundraising story, the resource is the organization doing the work, and more importantly, the donor. The resource is the “we” and the “you.”
So let’s revise a bit.
Jane riffled through the folds of her old wallet as if she thought a kindly elf might have hidden five hundred dollars inside while she slept. But other than the business card she’d picked up at the community center on her way to work, the wallet was empty, as she had known it would be. She put it back in her pocket.
Now we’ve laid the groundwork for the resource Jane doesn’t quite realize she has: a business card for an organization that can help. Let’s skip ahead:
After her shift, Jane went home to her tiny studio apartment and continued filling out the job applications she’d picked up that week. It hardly seemed worth the effort sometimes. For every position, there must be dozens of applicants, and apparently they were all more qualified—or, she suspected, were seen as more “hirable” than a Latina who didn’t go to college. She’d had a couple of interviews, but no call-backs.
Above, we’ve presented more antagonistic forces working against Jane: systemic racism, classism, and related biases in hiring; a city with too few jobs and too many applicants. We’ve learned of some of Jane’s efforts to get what she needs and how discouraging and fruitless the process has been. But as we’ve established, Jane has a resource, and it’s time she put it to use.
Jane opened her wallet again, and took out the business card from the community center. “WorkNow” it read, along with a phone number and web address. She dialed the number, and a young man answered. “How can I help connect you with an employer?” he asked.
Fifteen minutes later, Jane hung up the phone, smiling for the first time in days. Ben, the young man at WorkNow, had said her experience painting houses with her dad was a match with a local organization building tiny houses for houseless people under a grant from the city. She could start this week.
Jane shook her head in disbelief. People she had never met, donating to an organization she hadn’t known existed, had given her a chance at a new beginning. She hoped she’d be able to pay it forward one day.
Resolution and Validation
In a fictional story, the resolution is how it all works out once the resource has done its job. Since the resource here is your organization and the donor-dollars that make its work possible, the resolution is ongoing. What will the outcome be if the reader puts themselves into the story and becomes the hero? Validation can help put the final exclamation point on your resolution. In fiction, validation generally takes the form of an answer to a thematic question, which here can be framed as “can your donations to our organization really make a difference?” And as we have illustrated above, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Form and Function
In this post, I’ve opted to tell Jane’s story through her eyes. Here’s a more straightforward version:
When Jane called us, her rent was due and her landlord was threatening eviction. “I was desperate,” she says. Jane’s employer had cut her hours, and her job search had been fruitless. “No one wanted to take a chance on me,” she told us. “Then I found the business card for WorkNow and called them.”
Our rep, Ben, learned that Jane had experience with house painting among other things, so he set her up with a phone interview the same day to talk to one of our career specialists. Within a week she’d been placed with one of our partner contractors and now she’s helping to build tiny houses to transition some of the city’s many homeless citizens indoors, and picking up more skills to add to the ones she already had.
Your donations allowed us to help Jane help herself. Thanks for being a part of what we do.
No matter how you approach your story, the basic building blocks—the elements of story—will serve to create an arc that immerses the reader and works to invest them in your subject: the people you want to help. Here’s to more success stories in your future.