wired for story

Wired for Story

When we write appeal letters, we don’t think, “How do I write a story?”

We usually just think “How can I get this over with so I can get on to the next thing I need to do?”

And I know where you’re at. But you’ve got to stop and think a minute. People usually dread getting appeal letters. They want to trash them. But every once in awhile, someone opens one. And then you’ve got a chance. You might get them to read past the first paragraph. And possibly, do more than glance at the picture.

Imagine if people looked forward to getting your appeal letter. Imagine if they were excited to get your grant proposal!

How could you make them excited? By sharing a story that touched their heart so deeply, that fascinated them enough to make them read it all the way to the end, to get them to share it with their friends, to get them to take your remit envelope and put a check in it. They’ll start opening your communications. Your e-newsletters. Your postcards. Even your annual report, because you can tell a story, and they love stories.

People really are wired for story. We remember things more easily in the context of story. Proof? Check out this graph from a study done by Waggoner Edstrom.








But our culture has gotten out of the habit of telling stories. It’s a skill that you need to have in your fundraising toolbox. It will make people give to your cause, even if they didn’t know who you were before they started reading.

Here are some tips from Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron.

Adding external problems to add drama is a myth.

The reality is that adding external problems ONLY adds drama if there’s something the protagonist must confront to overcome her issue.

How can you apply this to an appeal letter? If you’re writing a domestic violence appeal letter, then you need to make people understand how afraid this woman is to leave her abuser. How this abuse is what she has known for years. How scary the world is out there, since she has no job, the abuser has the car, and there’s the children to think of. How impossible this situation seems.

Do you know what your protagonist wants?

Do you know why your protagonist wants what she wants?

Do you know what your protagonist’s external goal is?

Do you know what your protagonist’s internal goal is?

Does your protagonist goal force her to face a specific long-standing problem or fear?

There’s the external problem in your appeal letter of how this woman is going to eat, feed her children, and find shelter. That’s something your domestic violence shelter can solve.

But there’s the internal problem, which is not so easily solved, about the pattern of abuse, about PTSD from living with an abusive person for so long, about internalized oppression and constructs that make a woman think that perhaps she deserves to be abused, that she doesn’t deserve happiness. Or perhaps she’s addicted to the drama in the relationship, and if she doesn’t have extreme highs and lows, she feels like something is wrong. Maybe she’s even lying to herself, as well as to others, about how she really feels. How can your letter address what she’s feeling inside?

All story is emotion based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light-but by making the darkness conscious.” -CG Jung, Alchemical studies, Vol 13, Princeton NJ. 1983, 273

In your appeal letter, in your story, remember. Everything is either a set-up or a pay-off or the road in between.

Because your appeal letter has to be shorter than a book, you can’t have any unnecessary words. EVERYTHING you put in that story has to be there for a reason. This is a lot like short-story writing, but with the added bonus of, “oh yeah, if you don’t write a good enough short story, your nonprofit might have to cut some staff”

If you introduce a character, that person has to make an appearance again. If you mention her car, we might be wondering, “Oh yeah, what is she gonna do about her car?”

Is the force of opposition personified, present, and active?

If this is a story about a woman escaping from domestic violence, then your force of opposition should be personified as her abuser. Their presence should be felt in each thing that makes the woman afraid.

This next tip may seem counter-intuitive.

Make sure your villain has a good side.

Why would you do that? Because there’s a reason she stays. It’s not like the person is all bad. There are no absolutes. Maybe sometimes this person sings their child to sleep. Maybe sometimes, once in awhile, they are kind and take everyone out for ice cream. This doesn’t negate the bad they have done, but you can understand why she stays. Because she is hoping that things will get better. She’s hoping they’ll have more good times than bad times. Even if we know, as readers, that this abusive environment is not going to go away. She needs to face internal and external barriers before she can leave. So we’re waiting to see what that trigger is going to be. We have to keep reading. We have to know, “What is the bad thing that’s going to go beyond the pale, that’s going to push her over the edge, to leave?”

Do allow your protagonist to have secrets, but not to keep them.

Your appeal letter might have the phrase, “Fiona has a secret” after talking about her mysterious bruises, a black eye, or a limp when she comes to school.

Here’s another counter-intuitive tip.

Encourage your characters to lie. Don’t let your characters admit anything they’re not forced to, even to themselves.

When this woman comes to shelter, she may lie about how many times her abuser has hit her, she may lie about using drugs or alcohol. This is normal. People under stress, looking for shelter, will lie to get what they want, so they can survive another day.  Again, there are no absolutes. There is no sheriff in a white hat, or bad guy in a black hat, like the old westerns. Just because she lies doesn’t make her a bad person. Just because her abuser takes them out for ice cream doesn’t negate the abuse either. Often, in abuse, we have to do what we can to survive. Lying to herself and to others may feel like the only option she has. She’s so used to running from her feelings to stay safe.

Let your character start out risking a dollar but end up betting the farm.

Maybe this person decides they’ll try calling your hotline just once, but then they call back again and again until they are ready to leave? What if one call ends in them running out the door, only to come back, sometimes 3, 4, or 5 times, until they can leave for good? Can you follow them, psychologically, through that shift?

What if the person you’re writing about, in your domestic violence appeal letter, tries to make the situation better, but in the end just makes it worse? Your reader is going to squirm right along with your protagonist. They are going to be hurting.

Remember, a story is about something that is changing, due to conflict. How can you take your reader from the beginning to the ending, helping them see the change taking place inside through the actions outside?

Does this give you some ideas for your appeal letter? What’s another kind of nonprofit that this could work for? What other cause area should we try this formula on?