As I mentioned in Pattern Stories Part 1: Pattern stories are narratives that cover a period of time or when multiple stories share a theme, structure, or tone.
So now that you understand a bit about pattern stories let’s go over a bit of their anatomy. You'll need this to understand how to connect the pattern to the message and deliver it with impact.
I hesitate to use the term “story structure” here because that implies these things happen in a specific order every time. It’s not the case in these examples, and it may not be the case in the commercials you create either. So, you should note, they can happen in this order, but they can also overlap and intertwine with each other.
There are too many combinations that can work to give out a straight cookbook formula. It’s better to examine the elements that make up the pattern stories than to get hung-up on a step-by-step tutorial.
Pattern Stories: "Unsung Hero"
Pattern Stories: "Today Is The Day Before"
Pattern Stories: Anatomy
Create the context and construct for the stories. Take the viewer to a specific time and place and introduce your characters. Think about their personal details and how it can relate to your main point. Consider habits, behavior, personality, attire, and attitude. In “Unsung Hero” the set-up is simple. A regular guy does charity for his everyday life.
He does this regardless if it’s asked for or not. In “Today is the day before” the set-up is two office workers going about their daily routine. The construct is that we are watching them side-by-side in a split-screen from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. In some cases, the set-up may include a list of problems that your main character has. You might present their world and point out what’s missing from it.
Pro-tip: Sometimes the best way to figure out your set-up is to write the end first. Then back-up and ask yourself some questions. Usually “How?”, “What?” or “Why?” will do the trick. Then just keep backing up and repeating those questions,(and answering them!) until you get back to your set-up. Refine from there.
The Journey, The Catalyst & The Goal
The catalyst is the moment when the set-up moves into a journey of the story. It’s the moment that will begin the act of change.
While not every story is a journey and not every story has to be about transformation (as evident in “Today is the day before”), every story does need to move forward. TV writer Doug Heyes says that one rule for achieving proper story structure is: “What’s happening now must be inherently more interesting than what just happened.” In other words, it’s all about progression.
Where do you have to go? Who do you have to connect with? What is the challenge? The journey in “Today is the day before” is the office workers wake up, drive to work, high-five some co-workers, kitchen break, take a meeting, go to lunch, do some work, drive home, and go to bed. It’s simple. Just a day-in-the-life. “Unsung Hero” has a different journey that’s a bit more complex, repeats, and evolves over time.
The basic gist of his journey is this: He puts a plant underwater, helps out a street vendor, feeds a dog, gives money to a homeless kid for education, delivers bananas to an elderly lady, prays at night. His goal is to make the world a better place and do good in life.
There are 5 basic throughlines that you can use. I got this from Kelsey Ruger on his blog called The Mole Skin.
- The main character succeeds (through courage, ingenuity, special skill, special weapon)
- The main character fails (through circumstances, weakness, obsession)
- The main character abandons the goal
- The main character’s goal is undefined
- The audience creates the goal
Obstacle vs. Conflict vs. Tension
The obstacle creates conflict and drama. Someone or something is getting in your main character's way. There are 6 major types of conflict.
“What’s the point of a story without a challenge? Challenges create tension and tension makes people want to stay tuned into your story. Without some type of challenge you story won’t be that interesting because there is no motive, intention or desire upon which to build the story. Traditional conflict in stories comes from six sources:”
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Himself
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs. Machine
- Man vs. Fate
“Unsung Hero” has the conflict of Man vs. Society. This guy that was doing charity work for people he encountered in his everyday life was not getting any response. At first, there wasn’t a thank-you or acknowledgment. This was society turning their collective nose up at him. He is taken for granted. The narrator even points it out. “What does he get in return? He gets nothing.” Man vs. Society.
In “Today is the day before” the conflict is more implied. During the everyday journey, there’s really not too much going. No discernible obstacle or conflict. We know that were are supposed to take note of these slice-of-lives because the tone in the background music suggests something is about to go wrong.
There are some inherent tension and drama in the score. It’s not until the end that we read about the earthquake that is about to happen and find out the true underlying conflict is Man vs. Nature. This an unusual way to present conflict, and kind of gamble on the audience’s interest.
If they have the sound turned down or muted during the commercial break, this might not work. At the end of the day, the risk was worth the payoff, because the delivery of the reveal is dramatic and powerful.
Overcome The Obstacle
How does your main character overcome the obstacle? If you are advertising a product, is the product coming to the aid of the hero? What strength are they summoning to conquer the obstacle? Is the obstacle too great and do they fail? What’s the solution? It’s helpful to break down this stage in steps.
This where you can make an educational or selling point. In “Unsung Hero” overcoming the obstacle means the gradual acceptance and response of his help. The plant grows, the vendor smiles, the homeless child is enrolled in school. His kindness wins them over. “What he does receive is emotions.” In the conflict of Man vs. Society, Man wins.
Connecting The Pattern With A Call To Action
Pattern Stories: "Norton's Utilities Speed"
I worked on a pre-roll campaign for Norton’s Utilities as a motion designer while working for Arc Worldwide. It was three 15s spots that used a movie tie-in with Superman - Man of Steel. The pre-roll was used before trailers, extra features, and interviews. It’s perhaps one of the easiest campaigns to identify repeating elements and see how it connects in the context of a pattern story. Strength, speed, and flight.
The idea is that each one of these words is a superpower that Superman possesses. The spots all start on a similar background, a yellow floor (Symantec/ Norton brand colors), and a dark blue textured background. Each of the three feature the power set in all-caps in a Symantec approved font.
The powers are illustrated via animation, sound design, and motion extra elements. The product comes into frame, in the same lock-up location. The benefits of the product are animated in a yellow text block in Symantec’s font. There are 3 benefits text blocks in each. The end-tag drives home the message “Discover Your Powers With Norton”, animated in the same way.
That is followed by a callback of the power that animates on (with the exception of “Strength” which due to the story of the power, is always on). A URL for the mini-site animates on after the end-tag and further defines the call to action. “Discover Your Powers With Norton” is the point. The implied question is “where?” Oh, at "Norton.com/superman".
I know I said to forget about formulas, but this one is gold and the whole reason to read this article. The formula for connecting the pattern and making it powerful:
Make the point. Ask a question. Restate the point as a tagline or call to action.
The main message should always relate to the pattern story. In this case, it’s the concept of “Power” that is the hook. Example: Speed is a power demonstrated by the word “Speed” moving fast. It’s tied to the product of Mobile Security that it introduces by benefits statements: ”Quickly track and recover your lost or stolen device”,” Instantly block access to your private information”& “Restore your lost data fast”.
The “Discover your Powers” tagline spells it out as the word Speed quickly moves into the frame. “Faster than a speeding bullet” is a phrase that is commonly associated with Superman because of his powers. Having the URL/ call to action read as “Norton.com/superman” simply wraps everything up in a nice neat bow.
Let’s briefly explore “Unsung Hero”. The main repeating elements are the sequence of events, the framing of shots, settings, lighting/time of day, and the people he interacts with. The basic story is told four times with incremental changes. The formula that connects this pattern in the voice-over:” What he does receive is emotions. He witnesses happiness. Reaches a deeper understanding.
Feels love. Receives what money can’t buy. A world made more beautiful.” That is the main point. The question is powerful: “And in your life? What is it that you desire most?” The point is restated and tied to the brand: “Thai Life Insurance. Believe in Good.”
Wow. I mean this commercial really goes for the fences. It connects your life, desires, believing in good, reaching a deeper understanding, a world made more beautiful all to something as boring and cold as Thai Life Insurance. If that doesn’t make you believe in the power of pattern stories and advertising, I don’t know what will.
This could have easily come off as too schmaltzy or heavy-handed. Yet, the video is color-corrected with a nice down-to-earth muted palette and there were such sincerity and emotions in the actors. Instead of it seeming over-the-top and rolling your eyes, you might instead think “OK, that’s cool. I can get behind that.” That is the power of a good pattern story.