YOU HAVE CANCER. You go through treatment, get very sick and then, slowly but surely, you get better. The most advanced medical technology available saved your life – but then you drop dead at a backyard party because no one knew basic first aid.
This narrative sleight of hand is what I call a 'twist of fate.' Of the four steps along the 'brand storytelling hero’s journey', the twist of fate is what gives a story its power and often its lasting memory.
Step Three – Twist of Fate
Just as our brains are wired for narrative and common patterns, so too are they designed to react to sudden change or events outside our perceived norms, increasing our engagement in the overall story.
The twist of fate is similar to a plot twist. But while many plot twists are fairly predictable – when boy meets girl you can expect he’ll soon lose the girl – the twist of fate is more powerful and surprising. You only have a fraction of the time as a brand storyteller to get your point across as you have in a movie, so the turns you make need to be sharper and edgier, or take the audience in an entirely new direction.
As in the cancer example above, St. John Ambulance employed the twist of fate with gut-wrenching effectiveness. “Helpless” pulls you in with a story of cancer survival set to music – and then the soundtrack abruptly cuts as the cancer survivor chokes to death and we are told via an on-screen graphic, “First aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths per year. The same number of people that die from cancer.”
Axe took a similar approach in 'Make Love, Not War,' a film to launch its Axe Peace body spray campaign during the 2014 Super Bowl. The spot is bleak and fatalistic – until 'pushing the button' results in a fireworks celebration instead of nuclear war, or the soldier whom you thought was going to shoot a civilian suddenly drops his gun and wraps her in an embrace.
For GE, the twist of fate wasn’t manufactured for dramatic effect. 'Fire with Fire,' a short film in its Focus Forward series, tells the story of a young leukemia patient who was given an experimental HIV injection in a last-ditch attempt to save her life. Her miraculous, unexpected recovery was a welcome twist of fate, but so was the other 'twist' – that the cure for this girl just might represent a cure for all cancer patients.
The twist of fate comes near the end of the story but it’s not the final chapter. There is one more step along the brand storytelling hero’s kourney – one that not only transforms the characters in the narrative, but when done well, also transforms us.
Gary Goldhammer is Hill+Knowlton Strategies' US digital strategist.