By Ivan Meakins
A bustling city full of dreams. A downtown prostitute who’s suddenly thrust into a world where she rubs shoulders with the gentrified society of LA. How does she survive?
If you haven’t already caught on, this is the plot of the 1990 classic Pretty Woman. Recently, after a re-watch, I found myself thinking what is it about this story that makes it so compelling to its audience?
Why do we find ourselves rooting for the ordinary Jane or Joe, who finds themselves in an extraordinary world, different from what they’re used to?
After some research, I finally landed on one simple yet powerful ancient technique – one that I like to call the fish out of water.
A fish out of water
Many classics like The Odyssey, old Hollywood blockbusters, and even some contemporary movies do one thing very well. They catapult heroes to strange new worlds and explore how their character deals with the curve balls they face.
In The Odyssey, we see Odysseus, an ordinary man, navigating an extraordinary, treacherous world of witches, monsters, and narcotic flowers. In a contemporary movie like Avatar, we see Jake Sully, a gruff marine, who’s forced into the lush alien world of Pandora where he has to befriend the indigenous population to extract the planet’s precious natural resources.
While these are two very different genres from very different periods, a common thread unites them. The characters are thrown into a situation they’ve never experienced before, and they have to learn, adapt, and grow in order to overcome any challenges.
This is the fish out of water technique, and it’s a tried-and-tested storytelling method that has been used for thousands of years to captivate audiences.
But what makes this technique so compelling, and – perhaps more importantly – how can we leverage it in our own content to tell better stories and forge stronger relationships with our audience?
Why it works so well
As humans, we’re all creatures of habit in the sense that we love the familiar. But what happens when you’re plucked out of your comfort zone and plopped into an unfamiliar situation? It’s simple: alarm bells go off, and your survival instincts kick in.
To help you understand how this plays into storytelling, I’ll share a lesson I picked up from Angus Fletcher’s book Wonderworks.
According to Angus, “an object can stick out in two different ways”. First, it can be a familiar thing that sticks out in a strange environment (as we can see in Avatar). The object could also be a strange thing that sticks out in a familiar environment, as we see in E.T., where an alien crash lands in California.
When something appears out of place, it creates a form of conflict – our brain kicks into action and drives our attention towards the object to assess whether it’s genuinely a threat. And that’s where the real magic lies. We become captivated, following the plot until the very end.
The important thing to note here is that it doesn’t have to be a complex, multi-dimensional plot in order to hold people’s attention. When you leverage the “fish out of water” technique correctly, you can really make your audience pause and take notice, even with a simple plot.
How to leverage this storytelling technique
Let’s try an easy exercise. Picture your ideal customer or reader. What’s the world that they know (i.e. their comfort zone)?
Now, picture throwing them a curve ball or putting them into a completely opposite environment. How would they react to that situation? What kind of learning process would they go through to get out the other side? And more importantly, what can your audience learn from the character about their own journey?
If you play this right, even the most uninteresting concepts can lead to some truly epic content.
Turning mundane concepts into epic content
Here’s an example. Let’s say you run an accountancy firm, and you’re looking to create compelling content (a Facebook ad, a blog, podcast, or even a book). We all know that numbers aren’t very exciting to the average Joe (guilty). So, how do you transform a relatively boring concept into a captivating story that your audience can relate to?
It all begins with placing yourself in the reader’s shoes. Let’s think about your ideal client for a second. It’s likely that they’re a creative entrepreneur who spends their time innovating, networking, and probably dodging anything remotely numbers-related.
Now, imagine that their trusted accountant suddenly packs up and leaves, perhaps for personal reasons. Mr. Creative is immediately thrust into the world of numbers, tax codes, and spreadsheets – something they have no knowledge about.
What would they do in that frustrating situation? How would they react? And as the story develops, who’s the one guide that can help them get out of the mess?
You can help them grapple with the numbers, wade through the jargon, and slowly, they begin to gain insights and get incredible results. All of a sudden, the world of numbers – once the lead character’s kryptonite – starts to make more sense, and they become much better entrepreneurs.
And they only have you to thank for that!
The bottom line
In the example above, we took a fish completely out of water (the world it knows) and watched as it learned to walk on land. A story like this can become a huge tool in your content toolkit, helping you bring your ideal clients closer to you.
The beauty of this technique is that your audience can see themselves reflected in the story you’re telling. Your character’s experience – their growth and their story – can inspire others who are wrestling with similar struggles, which is highly important.
Because when it comes to crafting content, you’re not just passing on information. You’re lighting a beacon – showing your audience that it’s okay to step into unfamiliar territory, and that’s how you win them over.