Let me tell you a story. I went to school to be a journalist because I liked telling stories. About midway through my education, the media found itself in the throes of an identity crisis. This was the dawn of the 21st century. The Internet was beginning to radically alter what we define as a media outlet and a reporter. It also completely obliterated the revenue models of the print and broadcast giants. Rather than change majors midstream, I stayed the course, hoping that some newsroom egghead would think of a way to rescue the industry from utter devastation.

I’m still waiting for my Superman.

Still, I managed to land a position as an editor at a national business magazine. After working there for a few years, I jumped the journalism ship. I still loved telling stories, but there was no denying that the industry was on uncomfortably shaky footing.

So I began recasting my journalism skills in a way that would appeal to marketers. No longer was I an editor or a reporter; I called myself a content strategist, a content developer and a content curator. My research and critical thinking skills were used to deconstruct a company’s brand, market and business goals. Meanwhile, my editorial mindset made it a breeze to couch goal-driven messaging in compelling content, content that tells a story about the company, its clients and the market itself.

I’m happy to say my skills are now more in demand than ever.

What I saw from my vantage point as a journalist has become a trending topic among traditional marketers—that the razing of the media landscape not only affected media outlets but also audiences’ tastes, from the means of information ingestion to the format of the information itself. Hard sells and hollow promises are met with more skepticism than ever, while dry, lifeless content is relegated to the trash folder. There’s no question that applying an editorial mindset to craft compelling and serviceable content is one of the best ways to engage prospects.

Marketers are transforming into storytellers. As big-name brands, such as Coca-Cola and Cisco Systems, jump on the bandwagon, I feel vindicated for my early proselytizing, but I feel we still have a long way to go. That’s why I’m going to impart onto you one of the most important secrets of successful content marketing: the dramatic arc.

The dramatic arc is the backbone of any good story. It’s that bell-shape curve that begins with exposition, inclines with the conflict, peaks at a climax and sinks back down to a new stasis with the conclusion. Why is understanding the dramatic arc important to content marketing? Because storytelling is essential to crafting engaging, results-driven content. Stories are the prime way in which we as human beings transmit thoughts, feelings and emotions. And what is a brand but a composite of thoughts, feelings and emotions?

Let’s dissect a story to understand how the dramatic arc can be used to create compelling content. If you’ll notice, I already crafted a story for us to dissect. It’s the first half of this article. Let’s apply the dramatic arc to this story to illustrate how to employ this technique:

  • Exposition: This is the introduction of a story; the part that establishes the context. Think of it as the “You are here” sticker on a map. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. In fact, in the above example you’ll notice it is one sentence, “I went to school to be a journalist because I liked telling stories.”
  • Conflict: Sounds bad, right? But it’s actually the engine of the story. It’s that essential “why” that rationalizes why the action of the story is taking place. In the above example, the primary conflict is that the journalism world has undergone tremendous change, thus rendering my chosen profession somewhat obsolete. Note that conflict often runs up directly against the motivation of a protagonist (the main character). In this story, my motivation was to be a journalist. The conflict was that the very definition of what it means to be a journalist was in question.
  • Rising action: These are all the steps that take place between the initial conflict and the inevitable climax. Rising action builds tension and keeps the audience engaged. It does this by having purpose and direction. If conflict is the “why,” then rising action is the “how,” as in “How will the conflict get resolved?”  In the above story, the rising action is when I became an editor at a magazine and then subsequently left my position to recharacterize my journalism skills.
  • Climax: This is the apex of a story, the peak point where conflict is met head on and vanquished, whether through success or failure. In my story, completing the transformation from journalist to successful content marketer represents the climax. 
  • Falling action and conclusion: I lump these two together because I’m of the belief that a story shouldn’t linger too long after its climax at risk of languishing. So once you get to the big point you’ve been building up to, find a way to strategically end the story by expressing the aftereffects of the climax. In my story, it’s that my intuition to transition from a journalist to a content marketer was correct and that the marketing world began, and continues, to understand the importance of crafting compelling content.

I urge you to think of your brand, your clients and your market in a storytelling context. What sequences of events exist that fit this dramatic arc template? Is there a case study you can frame as a story of triumph over insurmountable challenges? Is there an industry trend you can dramatize through example? Is there a story circulating in the news that you can capitalize on?

Once you get your brain into a storytelling mindset, you’ll begin to spot story opportunities everywhere. Seize these opportunities, employ the dramatic arc and take note of the increased engagement you generate.