Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron is an excellent book. I’ve written about it before,(Check out my first post on how to write a story for your appeal letter here) but today I want to ask you to think about another concept on how to write stories for your appeal letter
Today I’d like to introduce you to the concept of the parallel story.
What does this mean?
For example, let’s take one of my favorite books, Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett. The story is on the surface a loose retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story.
The Cast of Characters:
Juliet: There’s a girl named Juliet who is so beautiful that people swoon when they see her walking down the street. She is also, frankly, dim. She turns from a kitchen assistant into a fashion star.
Trev: There’s a boy who loves her named Trev, who turns from a candlemaker into a football star. Juliet’s family is at war with Trev’s family, just like in Romeo and Juliet.
Glenda: Glenda is the head cook in the night kitchen at Unseen University. She is a genius among cooks, and she’s also somewhat homely and fat. She is looked up to as a leader in her community of working class people, takes food to old ladies who are bedridden, and sees it as her duty to look out for people. She dreams of romance but because she works all the time and considers herself too homely, she never tries to chase her dreams.
Nutt: is a candle maker at the university, who happens to be a different species than everyone else. He speaks 12 languages, has studied poetry and philosophy, and can make all sorts of unique things. He has read hundreds of books and is constantly worried about not measuring up, not having enough worth as a person. He ends up training the football team and learning about how he wants to be in the world.
Underneath the main story of Juliet and Trev is a second, parallel story about Glenda and Nutt, and this is by far the more interesting story.
Glenda and Nutt are unlikely main characters, yet that is what they are. Their romance talk consists of “very interesting facts about ships” while Trev and Juliet talk about fashion.
The two stories are parallel stories that serve to highlight each other. They play with our assumptions that this is Trev and Juliet’s story, that what we want to hear about is the attractive people, that what we want to hear is what they’re saying and thinking, when the far more interesting thoughts and deeds are done by the people with a social conscience, who may not be as attractive but who work hard to help others succeed.
One of the reasons this story resonates with me so much is that most of the people who are drawn to nonprofit work will never be on the cover of People magazine, yet their lives are far more admirable than the people whose faces we see in the supermarket checkout line every day.
But what does this have to do with your nonprofit appeal letter?
Can you write two stories in an appeal letter? Yes you can, if one story is highlighting the other story.
How could you do this?
If you’re an animal shelter, it could be:
I’d like to introduce you to Muffin.
Here’s Muffin’s story: Muffin lives in Beaverton, Oregon. He is born in a breeder’s house, and is sold to a man who says he has five dogs. This man, Rob, actually has fifteen dogs, four cats and three ferrets. He is an animal hoarder. Rob thinks he has a special connection with animals. He is single, unemployed and wants to have as many animals around him as possible. Animal hoarding is a psychological condition that is very hard to cure. Rob tries to hide his animal hoarding by confining the animals to the house. Muffin roams all over his house, break out of the yard, and runs all over the neighborhood. When animal control people are called, they find Muffin has been savaged by other dogs that live in Rob’s house, he has a festering wound on his side, his fur is matted and because Rob does not clean up after his animals, he stinks of animal feces. He is returned to Rob’s house but quickly breaks out again, loses his collar, and is taken to the pound. No one comes to claim him, no one comes to adopt him, and this beautiful puppy, so full of life, is euthanized, because after his time with Rob and all of the other animals, he is constantly afraid, always barking, and considered “unadoptable”. It’s so sad to look into his eyes, and know that there was not a home in time for Muffin. He had so much love to give, and now he’s gone forever.
Now meet Sammy.
Sammy’s story: Sammy is a mutt, a combination of German shepherd and beagle. He is found wandering in the desert in Northern California, and is posted through the night drop box at our shelter. He is skinny and and dirty and covered in fleas. A young man walks through our shelter and sees Sammy leaning against the wall of his cage, just looking so downhearted. He perks up when he sees the young man, named Steve, and Steve takes him home, where there are no other pets, and gives him a flea treatment, lots of attention and love, and takes him on a nice long walk every day. Steve’s health improves, and Sammy’s health improves too. He’s a loveable dog, he hardly ever barks, he has the most adoring liquid eyes, and everyone who meets him remarks on how happy he looks.
Sammy’s story could have ended quite differently if we were not there to help. Sammy could have ended up like Muffin. This is why your support is so urgent today. There are so many Muffins out there, just begging for love. Help us find more homes for dogs like Muffin and Sammy. Please, give generously today.
This is an example of how you can use parallel stories to make your point in your nonprofit appeal letter.
You could make the same kind of story for an environmental cause, for a domestic violence cause, or for a number of other causes. The main idea is to show what happens if your nonprofit is NOT there. And show the joy that results when someone DOES give to your nonprofit, the happy endings that can result. You may wish to save Sammy’s story for your thank you letter. You may wish to just include Muffin’s story with your direct mail appeal letter.
Whichever you choose to do, keep track of how each appeal version does, and let me know how it did! I’m always looking to learn more on what makes an appeal letter that makes people REALLY want to give.
PS. If you are a responsible person looking to adopt a pet, and you like the picture of the golden retriever above, I took the picture from Golden Bond, a nonprofit that places golden retrievers here in Oregon. The dog’s real name is Rex, and his real story is quite different, but he still needs a loving home. Click here to learn more about Rex.