Or How Stephen King Would Build A Story For Your Project
Living generates stories. Stories of our experiences, world and relationships. Businesses and organsiations are also story-generating machines. These stories are an underutilised resource that can take projects to a new level with a process called ‘generative story thinking’.
Generative story thinking is what allows us to function in this complex system known as life. It is an act of sense-making. It can also be used to generate meaning from any situation, from business to personal. It is also how a professional writer farms their lives for story inspiration.
“I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question.” – Stephen King, On Writing
If life is constantly generating stories, how do we harness their power? What do we do with them? A good story should never be wasted, using story thinking to generate meaning can be the difference between a good project and one that grows legs and creates a momentum of its own.
What Is Generative Story Thinking
Generative is defined as having the power or function of generating, originating, producing, or reproducing.
A generative methodology combines different stories to form new relationships. Or as Stephen King said, ‘seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way’. This may sound difficult; however, it is very natural, our human brains are story producing machines. We are so good at it that if we put any two words together, we can generate a story.
Try the exercise below, pick one noun and one verb. Combine them together and make a story.
Noun (Person, Place or Thing) Verb (A doing or action word)
beds – suspend
babies – fade
yarn – carve
girl – memorise
snail – soothe
oven – disappear
cat – glue
steam – touch
copper – perform
mouth – reject
Here is an example of how this exercise works:
Story: I was house-sitting for a friend and her cat jumped over the fence disappearing from the back yard. He had a history of running away, and I was terrified that he would not come back. I waited at home, afraid to leave in case the cat came back. I decided I would call my friend if the cat didn’t return by 11 pm to ask what I should do. I was about to call my friend to explain what happened when I heard scratching on the side of the fence. The cat was hoisting one leg over the top launching himself back into the garden. I simultaneously sighed with relief and cursed the cat as I scooped him up and brought him back inside.
How does this work in a business context? Products or projects need a story to explain what it does and what the value is. In fact, the intersection of generative story thinking and design thinking is particularly powerful. Innovation journeys desperately need stories to create sense-making throughout the journey of exploration, development and prototyping. It acts as a tool for sense-making internally within the team as well as externally for explaining the process to management and other stakeholders.
The following exercise breaks down how generative story thinking works within an innovation process. Choose an imagined or real project you are working on and fill in the blanks below. This process builds on the previous exercise.
Name of your project or product goes here: _______________
Now choose a verb to describe what it does or what impact it will create: (Remember a verb is a doing word, like ‘disappear’ or ‘run’.) ___________________________
Now write a one-paragraph story based what you have chosen. Remember what Stephen King says, stories are generated when we combine concepts together to create something new. Here is an example:
Noun: Product/Project Name: Weather Proof Running Shoes + Verb: Raining
Short Story – A puddle has drowned half the footpath, but it doesn’t stop you. You confidently splash through on your morning run. Your shoes stay dry, the water beads off. No squishy shoes, you run splashing with the rain.
The power of generative story thinking is that it provides different ways to test and explore concepts from the very early concept stage up until refinement and delivery. How do we create generative content or stories based on data or concepts? With strategy.
There must be a clear strategy around ‘why’ you are telling the stories and ‘what’ impact you want them to have. Why you are telling the story relates to the need or problem you are trying to solve. And the impact of your story relates to what you want someone to do as a result of hearing it.
Let’s revisit our previous example of Weather Proof Running Shoes.
Why: To design an all-weather running shoe.
What: Facilitate sense-making during ideation and validation with the design team.
Generative stories combine concepts, ideas and data to unleash a whole new level of meaning and sense-making for projects. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its true power. The next level of story thinking for projects is the use of metaphor.
The Power of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t factually true but helps explain an idea or make a comparison between two concepts.
Some examples of metaphors are:
“All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare from As You Like It, spoken by Jaques)
“It was raining cats and dogs.”
“He was crying like a baby.”
In On Writing, Stephen King says that metaphors help people improve their comprehension of ideas or situations. He explains they help people “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” He continues that metaphors are like a miracle that occurs between writer and reader so they can see something just as the storyteller would like them to understand it. However, it is important to add here this only happens if they are done well.
How often have we heard phrases like ‘The Netflix of Socks’ or ‘The Airbnb of Meal Kits’. While these are comparisons between two concepts, they are not true metaphors. They are not invocating an image in our minds. It is not illustrating something new. These are just downright confusing.
Clever use of metaphor is powerful. Stephen King goes deeper into this idea, “When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. Recently, I read this sentence in a forthcoming novel I prefer not to name: ‘He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.’ If there is a clarifying connection here, I wasn’t able to make it.”
The reason why comparison statements often used by new startups such as, ‘The Netflix of Socks’ don’t create a picture in your mind is because there is no real clarifying connection between a well-known company like Netflix and socks. Using story thinking to create a metaphor for a project is a powerful communication tool to create immediate understanding.
The next exercise explores a metaphor for the product: Weather Proof Running Shoes. After a brainstorming session, the team generates the following statement –
Metaphor: Force field against a wet morning run.
“Force field” – This phrase invites the audience to think of protection and being impenetrable.
“against a wet morning run” – The second part of draws a connection with running in the rain.
This metaphor creates a vision for the project. And explains what it is and why it is important. The true power of metaphor lies in the ability to extend it. Creating unresolved tension moves us forward on our journey, driving us to uncharted territory.
This is powerful tool is the “extended metaphor.”
The Power Of Extended Metaphor
An extended metaphor is a version of a metaphor that extends over the course of an entire story. A metaphor can be extended for multiple lines, paragraphs, or an entire book. In terms of a project, it can be extended throughout many iterations and developments of a product or process.
Stephen King is a master of suspense due to his use of the extended metaphor. Using a metaphor that encompasses an entire novel creates his ability to create page-turning tension.
Shawshank Redemption is the film adaptation of the King’s novella, ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’. This story plays with the extended metaphor of hope within a prison. For main character Andy, a Rita Hayworth poster on the wall of his cell stands for all of the beauty and freedom of the outside world. It represents hope and provides escape mentally and later physically from his imprisonment.
How do we apply an extend a metaphor throughout a product, business unit or even a transformational message for an organisation?
The example metaphor of Force field against a wet morning run could be used for project updates with statements like ‘at this stage the field is operating at 50% effectiveness’. Or use terms like, ‘Field Powering Up’ or ‘Field Fully Operational’ to describe functionality.
Weaving an extended metaphor throughout the on-going story of your business or project should be used to create tension, cliff hangers and mystery. It can turn the life of a project into a story that people want to watch, read or listen to. Suspense is the ultimate hook to keep people wanting more.
Create Mystery and Tension With Foreshadowing
The secret to creating tension, a magical ingredient of storytelling is – foreshadowing, which is a warning or indication of a future event. In novels or films foreshadowing must eventually pay off at the end of the film, because films end. Business on the other hand evolves. It is possible within a lengthy campaign to keep teasing the audience with what may be coming next. The big difference for businesses and campaigns is to not create an ending, rather look for a hook and then another and then another…
What to learn more about how serialised storytelling works for businesses?
All will be revealed in my next article connect with me on LinkedIn or sign up here to be notified when it is released!