7 Basic Plots of Content Marketing: Overcoming the Monster

Previously, we looked at Christopher Booker’s 7 basic plots of how stories are told. Today, we’ll look at the first of these 7 from a content marketing perspective: overcoming the monster.

Overcoming the monster seems elementary. The protagonist battles the antagonist.

The challenge with overcoming the monster is that the story must have a compelling antagonist. Think about how Star Wars begins. Darth Vader boards a ship carrying Princess Leia and her droids.

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Star Wars is unambiguous about who the bad guy is. The story unfolds from there with the ultimate destruction of the Death Star at the last possible moment.

In an overcoming the monster story for marketing, your customers and prospective customers must have a compelling antagonist.

Sometimes the antagonist is a concrete entity, a person or organization. If you’re a customer of T-Mobile (a client of my employer), the antagonists are Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless, and you’re fighting the battle against them.

Sometimes the antagonist is less tangible, like a belief system. If you’re a politician, your antagonists are everyone who doesn’t believe in what you believe. If you’re a conservative, liberalism is your monster to overcome. If you’re a liberal, conservatism is your monster to overcome.

Sometimes the antagonist is a quality, an attribute. If you’re a fitness center, the antagonist is sloth or gluttony. You wage a powerful war against those forces holding people back from health.

Here’s the secret to storytelling in general and overcoming the monster specifically: you are not telling your company’s story. You are telling your customer’s story. Who is their antagonist? You’re not the hero of the story. You’re the able companion, the trusted friend, the powerful ally who helps the true protagonist, your customer.

Your customer must be the hero in order to tell a compelling story.

Here’s how overcoming the monster can go wrong. Think about the overcoming the monster story that Tidal told on its launch. The perception Tidal created was that wealthy musicians were complaining that they didn’t get paid enough. The monster they sought to overcome was the low royalty industry, exemplified by Spotify. Tidal cast itself as the hero of musicians.

What did they do wrong? Tidal’s customer isn’t the musician. Their customer is the consumer, and in their story, the consumer’s refusal to pay more for music transformed who should have been the hero into the villain. No wonder it was so poorly received! Imagine Star Wars casting Darth Vader as the hero.

Overcoming the monster can be a powerful framework for your corporate story as long as you remember who the heroes and villains are supposed to be and you don’t mix them up.

In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about Cinderella.


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The 7 Basic Plots of Content Marketing, Part 1

Back in 2004, Christopher Booker took a series of concepts from Carl Jung’s archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and Arthur Quiller’s conflicts and rendered them down to 7 core plot types. These plots are eternal and form the basic fabric of virtually all our stories.

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The logical question is, do these story archetypes translate well to the stories we tell in business? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the 7 basic plots are a great set of guidelines to understand whether you’re telling a coherent story at all. Let’s take a look at Booker’s 7 plots, via Wikipedia:

Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force which threatens the protagonist and the things/people/places the protagonist cares about. This is the epitome of Star Wars and all the good guy/bad guy movies ever made.

Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, or a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. Stories like Cinderella are based on this trope.

The Quest: The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tells this story.

Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience. Tolkien’s story The Hobbit follows this format.

Comedy: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstances, resulting in a successful or happy outcome. An example of this story type is Bridget Jones Diary or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Tragedy: The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending. Breaking Bad epitomizes this story type.

Rebirth: The protagonist is a villain or otherwise unlikable character who redeems him/herself over the course of the story. Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Ebenezer Scrooge exemplifies this tale.

Many stories blend more than one type. While the original Star Wars was Overcoming the Monster, subsequent films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were more The Quest, while preserving the Overcoming the Monster theme. Lord of the Rings was The Quest, but also had strong elements of Voyage and Return.

In the stories you tell in your marketing, how many of them fit any of these archetypes? If you write a case study or a white paper about how your products or services made a difference, are you telling the story in a compelling manner? A paper about someone buying X product and seeing Y% returns on investment isn’t a story. A series of facts placed in the same document is not a story. Without conflict, without a journey or demonstrating significant change, you’re not telling a story.

How can we retell your corporate stories using Brooks’ frameworks? We’ll explore that in the next post.


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How to get better answers to tough questions

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When studying with a master teacher, one of  the most important things you can do is to arrive with your burning questions. Your burning questions are the questions you must get answers to. This is something that I learned from my teacher’s teacher, Stephen Hayes.

However, some questions are better than others. Some questions will get you an answer, but not an answer that you can use to make advancements in your own growth. Your task as a questioner is to devise questions that yield real, usable answers.

How? The way to devise a great question is to know what a great answer looks like. 

A great answer has in it not only the overall knowledge you need, but what immediate next steps you need to take in order to bridge the gap between the question and the big picture.

A good answer is efficient. It does not contain lots of information you already have.

Finally, a good answer cuts to the heart of the matter immediately. Some people ask questions just to talk, or to show off in front of others. You’ve likely been at marketing conferences where someone’s question during Q&A is a 30 second ad for their business before they finally get around to asking something. 

Based on all of this, what does a great question look like?

A great question has three parts:

  • Create a little bit of context by stating the specific problem you’re encountering
  • Concisely indicate what information you already have
  • Ask for the big picture and next steps

Here is a mundane example using email marketing. 

A mediocre question would be, “I am having some trouble with getting my emails delivered. How would you fix this?”

A great question would be, “My emails to consumer domains like Hotmail on not getting through. I have set up SPF, DKIM, and DMARC in monitor mode. I’ve checked my Sender Score and it is clean. What should I do next? Is there a trend in deliverability that I missed?”

The quality of answer you’ll get to the latter question should be significantly more helpful than the quality of answer you’ll get from the former question. Use this 3 part format when you’re asking speakers questions at conferences. Use it when asking questions of your teachers and mentors. Use it during sales and business development meetings to advance the sale.

Ask better questions to get better answers!


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