Aristotle, Gin and Quantum Mechanics

Issue 009. By Patrick Thomas.

Welcome to The Story is the Strategy, a weekly newsletter about becoming a world-class business communicator. My mission is to help you become a remarkable storyteller and significantly increase your professional impact. Learn more here.

This Week’s Big Idea

Aristotle’s Poetics and the basic dramatic structure. Understanding the power of story arcs will quickly and significantly improve your storytelling. A well-structured story flows better and naturally grabs your audience’s attention. It’s not hard - we’ve all internalized good structure from countless Disney movies - but purposefully building a story arc requires some careful thought. In future issues, we’ll look at the story structures that are best at grabbing attention for business communicators. But before that, let’s go back to the start.

It’s telling that in 2019 we still reference the basic dramatic structure that Aristotle described in his Poetics (written in 330 BCE). After all, we don’t really look to the Ancient Greeks for up-to-date advice on medicine or science. But Aristotle is still relevant for storytellers because humans haven’t changed that much in 2,500 years. We crave exactly the same tension and resolution in our stories now that we did then.

Aristotle’s dramatic structure is the perfect place to start because it couldn’t be simpler: stories need a beginning, a middle and an end. You progress through this simple arc with a causal chain of actions (each step is related to the one before it.) 

In the beginning, we have exposition (setting the scene). We learn about the time and place, and we meet the main character. 

In the middle, we see the “knot,” or central problem our protagonist must solve. Tension rises as the protagonist struggles to unravel the knot until we reach a climax.  

In the end, we have resolution. The protagonist’s struggle has changed him (for the worse in a tragedy, but for the better in other types of stories.)

Later thinkers added color and complexity to Aristotle’s model (see Freytag’s Pyramid), but there’s also virtue in simplicity. You can immediately use this arc in your business communications and make them punchier and stickier:

  • Beginning. Are you quickly and succinctly setting the scene? What information do we need to know? Who is the protagonist (even if it’s just implied - the company as a whole, or the team)

  • Middle. What is the central problem? How can you show tension to build to the resolution (approaches that worked/didn’t work, for example)

  • End. What is the resolution? The “resolution” can be backward-looking (e.g., we solved the problem and here’s what we did) or forward-looking (e.g., we need to make a decision on which action to take.)

What’s something that you’re working on which could benefit from this structure? Reply to this email or tweet me.

Books and Links for Storytellers

📚 Recursion by Blake Crouch. I gravitate toward thrillers in the summertime, and I’ve been excited for this one since the author’s previous novel (Dark Matter) was so much fun. Recursion hasn’t let me down: it’s a taut, rapidly-paced thriller based on interesting concepts from neuroscience and quantum mechanics. Long on ideas, short on character development, perfect for lazy summer evenings. Bonus for storytellers: see if you can identify and follow the different parts of the story’s narrative arc, and ask yourself what techniques Crouch is using to hook you in.

🔗 The UK’s “Ginaissance.” (Link and link.) Gin is having a moment in the UK (which I can attest to as an expat living in London). Sales are up 41% year on year, and for the first time ever, there are more distilleries in England (making gin) than in Scotland (making whisky). I find this fascinating because gin has long been the most humble of liquors, basically cheap grain alcohol infused with botanicals. What changed? For one thing, craft distilleries have started adding more varied, higher quality and exotic botanicals, coaxing out much more complex and interesting flavors. But they’re also telling stories: every little distillery (like the craft breweries that drove America’s craft beer revolution) and each gin has its own story and distinctive bottle. With stories, a simple infused grain alcohol becomes something magical.

As always, feedback is a gift. I’m still figuring out how to make this newsletter as useful as I can for you, so I’d love to hear your thoughts. I reply to every message I receive. And if you’re enjoying it, please share it with your friends and colleagues. Thank you!