Monday 14 December 2015

Learning Story Structure from the Christmas Advert War

Festive Face!
Ahhhh, Christmas...mince pies, cosy fires, presents under the tree and the Christmas Advert War.
At their best, these adverts pull at our heartstrings and stick in our minds, at their worst they can leave us baffled or outraged  How do they stir up such strong emotions in such a short space of time? By using classic story telling - the tightness of the  structure, and some emotive tricks. Examining these tiny vignettes gives us a powerful insight into how story works.

There are structural elements that exist in almost all story. They may be placed at different points and even mashed together, but when you deconstruct most narratives you'll usually find these basic elements in this basic order:

1 - The opening scene: the establishment of the ordinary world, often the reveal of "the problem". The set up of the characters motivation.
2- The doorway of no return - the scene that catapults your story into action.
3 - The mid point - literally in the middle of the story - should be a critical turning point.
4 - Another turning point, often in character development.
5- Climax - the high point of your story in terms of drama.
6 - The final mood, the pay off,  where everything is resolved and we are left satisfied - or not...

 In addition , a story with strong pace often fills the gaps between these elements with the mantra "things must get worse".

Let's deconstruct John Lewis's 2015 Man in the Moon advert.

Watch this and see if you can identify points 1-6 above.

What did you think? Anything odd? 

Here's what I see:

1.  Lilly is looking at the moon, she is restless and possibly lonely.
2. Lilly spies the man in the moon! He's lonely too! She resolves to reach him somehow.
3. Smack in the middle comes the Christmas party at which Lilly seems to be happy.
4. We see why, she's managed to send the man in the moon a gift of a telescope.
5. They can see each other - close up shot of both their eyes! 
6. The final mood...the man in the moon is still alone but now he can see what he's missing out on.

Superficially, it's all there, sitting against the emotive trickery of a softly sung backing track and arty camera work, is a strong story. But there's a real problem with this one - that final scene is delivering a message and what's the message?

 That it's OK to leave your elderly relatives on their own so long as you send them an expensive gift? 

No, no, no, John Lewis, that's no good! You've all the structure, including "it gets worse" as Lilly tries and fails to reach the old man and then...YOU LEAVE HIM ON HIS OWN?!

Story structure is a powerful thing, the end scene, the final mood, needs to satisfy. 

And in the Christmas Advert War, if you get that one wrong and you have handed your opponents a golden ticket. Aldi made this spoof in response to the John Lewis advert. 

Again - let's break it down:
1. The moon is our ordinary world - most will immediately get the reference to the John Lewis advert.
2. The man discusses telescopes so we anticipate what's coming.
3. SMACK in the middle, he gets up and looks in the telescope.
4. He sees something! ( We see his excited eye)
5. The climax - a woman descends in a balloon chair
6. The final mood is joyous, the old man is  tapping his legs up and down in excitement as his lady love descends.

Bingo. It's funny, with a nod to Aldi's previous adverts, but the final scene completely captures what everyone wants to see at Christmas - a happy ending! Though on a side note, I do find it slightly irritating that Aldi, and the like, routinely rip off other companies' intellectual property which they can then make and sell cheaper having had no investment costs themselves....but hey, it's Christmas so I'll let that slide.

In the interest of fairness though - here's 2014's John Lewis advert that does have a satisfactory ending, it totally won last year's war for me.

This ticks EVERY box:
1. The set up of ordinary life is a boy and his penguin Monty being a super happy team together in everything.
2. Monty sees  a couple on screen and is curious
3. Bam! The midpoint, Monty realises he needs a life partner!
4. Monty sees couples everywhere and the boy gets it and resolves to fix it.
5. Christmas morning! The boy has asked for a partner for Monty.
6. What a perfect pay off - we see that the penguin is a toy that lives in the boy's imagination , they are ALL happy, including mum who'll be spending all her cash at John Lewis.

The story is set against a rising musical treat that reaches a crescendo at the end - I cry every time!

So back to this year, who wins this year's advert battle?

 For me, it has to be Sainsbury - what a genius idea to bring back  Mog!!! Judith Kerr works her story telling magic.

1. The normal world is full of snow, everyone is dreaming happy pre-Christmas dreams.
2. Except Mog! Mog is having a pre-Christmas nightmare!
(a bit of set up follows here, the dialling of 999, plus IT GETS WORSE
3. The midpoint... the clock sparks an electrical fire and  IT GETS WORSE
4. There will be no Christmas and it really is AS BAD AS IT CAN BE
5. Then the neighbours rally round.
6. A Happy Christmas is had by all.

It's  warm, complex, funny - homely. The message is sound - when all is lost, look after your friends and everyone will benefit.  Also, it has Judith Kerr in the actual advert - what's not to love?

You can look at most stories and see these elements and, if you're a big reader, you have probably, subconsciously, absorbed the.  But if you're struggling with a plot problem, why not go back to the rules and see if you can work out why. I did exactly that in a plotting workshop at the SCBWI conference with Candy Gourlay - she flagged up the mid-point and I realised it was missing in my story - by sketching it in,  my words began to flow again.

Structure matters - get it right and your reader will have confidence in you're ability to take them on your narrative journey. You'll be a silent Sherpa guide steering them to the top of your story mountain and in your final scene, you'll leave them full of emotional satisfaction - though , with any luck, you'll have surprised them along the way.

We can't add music for our emotional trickery in books,  but you can weave in emotional highs and lows that mimic it. Our stories live through the power of our words, and the strength of the scaffolding we hang them on.

Kathryn Evans also blogs on My Life Under Paper and you can follow her mood swings on twitter: @mrsbung   


  1. I'm surprised John Lewis could get it so wrong. I've heard many people comment (well, you make three) on the unsatisfactory ending. The structural elements you describe are so fundamental to our psychology. For anyone who can't get to a workshop I recommend asking Santa for 'The Writer's Journey'.

    1. James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure is also excellent.

  2. Fantastic stuff. You've explained why the John Lewis commercial didn't work for me ... It unsettled me but I couldn't explain why.

    1. I found it bizarre - not as odd as the Bloomingdales ad though...CREEPY

  3. Yep completely agree re John Lewis Ad. The ending sends out an appalling message that expensive presents are what's important - well they are to John Lewis i suppose.
    Yet another instance where responding to some constructive independent feedback would have made all the difference.
    Great post Kathy - thanks!

  4. Love this post - thanks. I'm very instinctive in writing and in life so struggle to break down story and see what I (or other people) am (are) doing. This is great!

    1. Candy did a great workshop on structure at the SCBWI conference - it really inspired me!

  5. John Lewis' advert looked beautiful but was essentially vapid - all show and no depth.It tries too hard I think that Mog's Christmas has it all. For me it is the best ever xmas ad; funny, clever and ultimately unsoppily uplifting. LOVE this post, Kathy!

  6. I did like the John Lewis advert in some senses but the lonely ending was so wrong for the purpose of it.

  7. I agree completely about the John Lewis advert. If I'd written it, the little girl would have alerted her family to the old man's plight and they would have worked together to construct a spaceship, fly to the moon, and rescue the poor chap.
    But I do like the Aldi advert and laugh every time I see it. There's nothing wrong with parody.
    Merry Christmas everyone!

  8. Thank you. Really helpful to spell out plot progression / structure. I saw John Lewis ad as a metaphor. So man on the moon is her dead grandfather and parents indulge her grief and buy her the telescope so she still feels connected to him. Really poignant. Have a lovely Christmas.

  9. Wow - yes Kate! I hadn't thought of that!


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