How to Tell Stories for a Worldwide Audience

How to Tell Stories for a Worldwide Audience
Photo by Eugenio Mazzone / Unsplash

How do you tell stories for a worldwide audience? There's no one-size-fits-all solution in a modern, globalized world where storytelling is laden with intertextuality and memetic devices. You need to learn the universal themes and values while honing your craft by studying plot devices and how people speak. But who the hell am I to give advice? Well, the more you fail, the more you learn. In other words, I know a shit ton. Am I being boastful or self-deprecating by saying that? I don't know, but within seven sentences, I've already managed to come across as a western narrator.

I got straight to the point, didn't provide much context, and drew attention to the narrator rather than remaining discreet. That's western AF. I'm sure many of you can point to hundreds of examples where western narrators don't get straight to the point, provide plenty of context before the plot develops, and remain omnipresent third-person narrators without opinions about the characters. That's because we've reached a point in our literary history where storytelling techniques have merged and blended, but that's not to say there aren't cultural variations to be aware of.

Before we explore how culture affects how you tell a story, let's look at why western storytelling dominates. The Beemgee article introduces this topic perfectly: "Take a look at your bookshelf. Chances are there are European and North American authors there. Perhaps you have some Central or South American writers too. And maybe some Indian or Pakistani novels. And perhaps some Russians." Now, I'm not sure why they used the word "perhaps" because any serious writer and reader should definitely have a shelf-full of Russian literature—my favourite being Nikolai Gogol.

To know just how crucial Russian literature is and how it's influenced storytelling, you should read George Saunders's A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. But the point is that "all of these authors wrote or write in the tradition of European storytelling, via colonial or cultural influence. Modern African authors writing novels, for example, have adopted this written prose text form although African storytelling traditions are primarily oral." The Beemgee article goes on to say that what most of us know, at least in the western world, about how to tell stories is influenced by Aristotle's Poetics and protagonist/antagonist duality, which arose along with Christianity.

For those who haven't read Aristotle's Poetics, here's a quick summary of an already relatively short book. Aristotle lays out six elements of tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. The story must be universal in significance, have a determinate structure, and maintain a unity of theme and purpose. The protagonists must also learn something from their suffering — which we now might refer to as a character arc. A plot must have a beginning, middle, and end — many people credit this to how screenwriters approach a three-act structure. Act one: exposition, inciting action, turning point into act two. Act two: rising action, midpoint, the turning point into act three (often a "dark night of the soul") 3. Act three: pre-climax, climax, denouement.

Aristotle's poetics and three-act structure also influenced "The Hero's Journey," which is one of the first things a person learns in a creative writing class and is still applied to most Hollywood blockbuster movies. It's also applied to many shitty movies, but that's because shitty and blockbusters are synonymous in many cases. Here's the formulaic structure:

The Ordinary World - Their regular life.

The Call to Adventure.

The Refusal of the Call. After this, we usually have the inciting incident. The event brings the hero out of their ordinary world.

Meeting with the Mentor.

Crossing the Threshold. Here, they learn something and get into further trouble.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies.

Approach to the Innermost Cave. This is when the main characters need to confront their flaws and challenges.

The Supreme Ordeal. The climax.

The return back.

If you look at the 5 highest-grossing films of all time, you can easily apply a three-act structure and find the protagonist/antagonist duality.







Avengers: Endgame








Star Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens




Avengers: Infinity War


The point of this article isn't to show you the hero's journey in blockbusters, but if you're unconvinced about how formulaic Hollywood movies are, you can find the breakdowns here: The hero's journey in Avatar, Avengers: Endgame, Titanic, and Stars Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens.

The other influence on many western stories is the bible. As stated in Beemgee's article, "Would there be a Sauron without Satan? A Darth without the Devil? A Voldemort without Lucifer?" All the top five-grossing movies have this protagonist/antagonist duality, even Titanic. The iceberg and captain's nonchalance (possibly drunkenness) could be enough antagonism in literature, but in a Hollywood Blockbuster, we need to clearcut bad guy— Caledon "Cal" Hockley, the arrogant twat that framed Jack. But he, like Thanos and Darth, have some morality and history that gives reasons for their evil actions.

Even though Hollywood blockbusters are cases of universal success, they're not the best examples of storytelling because millions of dollars are invested into these "Theme Parks," as Martin Scorsese refers to them — well, he's only referring to Avenger movies because if he said something negative about Starwars and the all-powerful George Lucas, there would be geek riots everywhere.

Many of these movies reach universal success because they're filled with celebrities (and some real actors like Benedict Cumberbatch), state-of-the-art SFX, and an advertising budget that could uplift entire communities. If an opening night brings in millions of dollars, it doesn't indicate brilliant storytelling but successful advertising. And yes, part of advertising is storytelling, but let's be honest, there's no craft in showing off Scarlett Johansson's ass and Chris Hemsworth's arms.

One might argue that these American movies receive more success because of the mere-exposure effect — people are attracted to things merely because they are familiar with them. But again, that comes down to advertising, and even though a three-act structure is universal, so are slice-of-life pics. Initially, I wanted to say European audiences enjoy the slow-burn genre and slice-of-life pics more than American audiences, but upon further reflection and research, I realized that isn't true. Many of the greatest slow-burn movies and slice-of-life pics are popular among American audiences and made by Americans. But again, American movies pop up more often (even in these genres) because more money gets invested into them. That's why, when examining what attracts a worldwide audience, we have to look at literature because it's easier to find stats that aren't influenced by Hollywood's marketing and because it provides greater insight into the history of storytelling. We also need to examine oral storytelling since it's the only form that has existed in all cultures.

First off, why the hell don't we know much about Chinese literature? China is one of the most powerful and influential nations on earth, but the west knows little about the dense network of references, allusions and intertextuality typical of the great Chinese novels. The Beemgee article states two reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon: Chinese classical novels make Harry Potter books look like pamphlets. Even the shortest on the list by far (The Scholars) weighs in at about 600 pages in English translation. For the others, somewhere between 1000 and 2000 pages is the norm. However, there are other story elements at play here.

Chinese literature has a different structure that Westerners might find off-putting. "Sometimes, instead of striving to wrap everything up in a hurry, the last act opens a whole new story arc (a phenomenon we first became aware of when we saw the classic Kung Fu movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin). Nor is it essential that heroes survive until the end of the story – in Plum in the Golden Vase, the protagonist Ximen Qing dies in chapter 79 of 100, and none of the main characters of Three Kingdoms make it to the final chapter 120." (Beemgee, 2022). I'm not sure if Chinese literature influenced our current golden age of television, where main characters get killed way before the story ends (think Game of Thrones before it went to shit), but most writing professors and editors I've dealt with would tell you to rewrite the entire last act if it opened a whole new story arc. Is that because the audience and readers wouldn't put up with it? Or is it because most professors teach similar tactics and most editors follow the "rules" that sell? I can't know for sure, but there's nothing on a neuroscience level that proves we wouldn't be attracted to a new storyline.

It's true that culture wires our brains and that most research is conducted in WEIRD countries, but there's no evidence that the following isn't a universal phenomenon. "Neuroscientists state that creating stories is an attempt by our brain to create meaning and satisfy our need for it. The principle of cause and effect searches for and finds context and aims to make meaning, make the inapprehensible understandable and explain the unexplainable. Driven by this principle, our brain tries to make sense of what it experiences and reduce complexity by using patterns to minimize inconsistencies. Storytelling is also a school of empathy because it creates an understanding of thought and behaviour patterns of others and enables real connections. (Bätje-Mbaye, 2021). We can still have cause and effect, make meaning, and increase empathy without following the structures that arose from Aristotle's poetics.

Another phenomenon that might dissuade a western editor from publishing work but doesn't necessarily turn off the audience is how Chinese writers go from scene to scene. "It seems Chinese narrative does not like cuts or breaks. Our skilled classical Chinese authors seem to have considered it naff or cheap to end a scene and have it be followed by a blank line and then the next scene starting with different characters in a different location. Instead, they manoeuvre the action in such a way that character X performs the action of a scene, then moves on and happens to bump into character Y (often at an inn), and then the narration follows character Y as he or she performs the action of the next scene, leaving X to go his way (though he may well turn up again later)." (Beemgee, 2022). The only western literature they mention in the Beemgee article is that of JR by William Gaddis. But he didn't use chapters.

Chinese writers also have a different way of organizing chapters and using cliffhangers. Four of the seven novels in the Beemgee list have precisely 100 chapters, and they are all almost of equal length and all end with a specific cliffhanger. In fact, the more I learn about Chinese literature, the more parallels I see with western serialized television than with western book series. And similar to many fantastical serialized books and scripts, the narrator stands apart from the characters and does not draw attention to themself.

Some of those in pretentious literary circle-jerks still don't consider fantasy writing true literature, but that's changing. In the east, the boundary between the material and spiritual worlds is less clear-cut than in the west. In stories, ghosts may appear, or protagonists might visit the underworld. There are immortals, gods and goddesses, and heroes with special powers or weapons. (Beemgee, 2022). We could make a similar observation about Latin American works and magical realism. The worldwide success of books like 100 Years of Solitude shows us that integrating the spirit world into every day is something all cultures are drawn to, even if there are variations in how it's executed. Many fantastical elements act as metaphors that help us to make sense of emotionally difficult subjects like death and loss.

Another way that we have changed over the years, and which is similar to Chinese literature, is antagonism. Well, actually, we didn't change. We went full circle. "In western stories over two thousand years old, be they Roman or Greek, you don't really find goodies fighting out and out villains. Rather, characters make errors of judgment or stand for values that conflict with those of other characters. Ancient heroes make mistakes which may lead them to tragedy or are simply not nice guys – Odysseus is morally dubious, and Achilles is permanently in a huff. Even someone as otherwise positively connoted as Heracles murdered his wife and children. So in western storytelling, the "baddy" didn't really get traction until Christianity spread." (Beemgee, 2022). In Chinese novels, moral and ethical behaviour is also important to themes and usually without overt good or evil in the story.

So, what types of themes are universal? While materialism and consumption, identity and isolation, monotony and desensitization are prevalent themes in American literature such as American psycho (Mauriello, 2022), these themes aren't universal. The seven most universal themes in traditional storytelling: Fate, Ambition, Sacrifice, Transformation, Love, Vengeance, and Resurrection. (Baetje-Mbaye, 2022). However, Baetje-Mbaye mentions these themes concerning branding. For those who haven't touched a book since Instagram took up your bathroom reading time, keep in mind that "branding" is storytelling. Shit, maybe that's the real way to reach a wider audience. Instead of titling my piece "How to Write Stories for a Worldwide Audience," I should have titled it "How your brand can bring in more money worldwide!" However, catchy titles and themes are meaningless without an understanding of human values.

In the world of Instagram and branding, people around the world value money, sexy bods, beautiful beaches, and cats. Whereas that might create successful "branding," it won't create successful storytelling. Choice theory teaches that we are driven by four psychological needs embedded in our genes: the need to belong, the need for power, freedom, and fun. Prof. Manfred Max-Neef, professor of economics and recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize, found that all humans share nine fundamental needs, independently of gender, status, age, culture or religion. Marshall Rosenberg tried to cluster them and put order in the complex list of human needs. S.H. Schwartz investigated whether there are universal values and developed ten types. The details of each of these approaches are listed in the table below (Baetje-Mbaye, 2021).

Knowing universal themes, need, and values only go so far in reaching a global audience because the degree to which we reflect them in our societies differs. For example, what freedom and participation mean to those brought up in a collectivistic vs individualistic society differ greatly. Someone from an individualistic society might feel free when able to practice their autonomy. In contrast, a person from a collectivistic society might feel free when able to join a community or group. People from a collectivistic society are more likely to discuss matters with the group and focus on context rather than make decisions on their own to achieve the outcome as efficiently as possible. When it comes to storytelling, we must ask ourselves: Do they get to the point? Do they linger over details? How important is context vs. outcomes?"

I've asked myself these questions when reading some of the most successful books in the world. When we determine the success of books, it's a bit more difficult than movies because finding the box office results is much easier than finding out how many people have read the bible, for instance. However, some of the most popular books in the world are The Bible, The Quran, The Lord Of The Rings, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Da Vince Code, The Alchemist, Don Quixote, and Twilight. I doubt you'll find a pattern if you try to find structural and plot commonalities and ask yourself if they get the point, linger over details, and how important context vs. outcomes are. Well, I didn't, so if you did, please hit up the comment section.

What all these books have in common are the themes I mentioned earlier. They all address three or more of the universal themes laid out by S.H. Schwartz. It seems that people can enjoy structures they aren't used to as long as the story addresses what makes us feel human. But that isn't to say a writer can create a success story just by addressing a universal theme. There is still craft involved. And yes, that includes Twilight, but Meyer's skill is creating an empty female protagonist young women can project themselves into while enjoying soft vampire porn. If you want to avoid using that tactic, you'll need to be aware of how to tell a story.

You can waste tens of thousands of dollars on film school, take creative writing classes in university, or watch every video by Diana Callahan @Quotidianwriter for free. I’ve done all three. Vancouver Film School (VFS) had the lowest quality of education, and it was the most expensive. The University of British Columbia (UBC) had a high standard expected of its students and professors (no regrets there). Still, Diana Callahan taught me everything I learned in those institutions and more in under a month. Of course, you’ll need to find people to workshop your writing with, but you don’t need to go into debt for that. Film school marketing will say they’ll put you in contact with industry professionals, but that’s rarely the case. You’ll be networking just as much as those who didn’t go. But let’s get back to craft.

The main thing to understand is that your readers and audiences are smart. You want to show the reader who the characters are through their actions and dialogue, not tell the reader who they are with adjectives. Instead of thinking of structure as a formula, think of structure as a set of reveals. Readers and audiences want to guess and think for themselves, not be told all the information. Even though successful blockbuster movies are loaded with on-the-nose, unrealistic dialogue, successful books, podcasts, and indie movies are full of subtext that forces the reader and audience to get to know the characters the same way they would get to know a person in real life. The amount of advice is endless, but the point here is that no matter which culture you’re writing for, people don’t want to be treated like idiots.

It’s also important to be aware of some of the most common plot devices that are present in all cultures, so you think of ways to use them that aren’t cliche and expected. Here are some of the most common storytelling devices people have discovered over the years:

Big Dumb Object: A mysterious object with immense power and unknown origin.

Cliffhanger: That thing that causes you to binge-watch episodes until your eyes bleed or read until you wake up at four in the morning on your couch.

Chekhov's gun: Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle where every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. For example, if you mention that the character wears glasses, they might lose them later and miss an important clue.

Deathtrap: Usually a sadistic and slow way of killing a character that makes us cringe (unless you're a sadist) but also gives us hope they will escape (again unless you're a sadist).

Deus ex machina is a plot device where something out of nowhere solves an unsolvable problem. It can make shitty stories even shittier. For instance, in Superman II, when Clark gives up his powers, which he will never be able to get back. Until the green crystal suddenly starts glowing just when he needs it the most. Or, it can make brilliant stories even more hilarious. For example, when the lads are chased by the cave monster in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and escape because the animator suffers a heart attack.

Flashbacks: Not the ones you get from taking acid, but when something in the story triggers a past event. And if nothing triggers the flashback, that's probably shitty writing.

Foreshadowing: Giving hints and clues for what's going to come. I doubt anyone needs an example here.

In Medias Res (in the midst of things): When a story opens when the character is already in the midst of the action. Homer's narrative poem The Iliad, Breaking Bad episodes, Forrest Gump, and so on.

Quibble: Specifically, it occurs when the plot device is based on an agreement. The Quibble is also a trick, a stratagem that a character can use to escape a particular situation. Game of Thrones is full of these.

Red Herring: Anything you use to misdirect the reader. For example, when you thought Sirius Black was the bad guy, but it turns out he was framed, and you grow to love him almost as much as Harry did.

Ticking Clock: A time limit or deadline. Cinderella is a classic example.

I urge you all to think about these plot devices when reading, listening or watching stories from other cultures. Are there variations in how these are used? Are they more common in some cultures than in others? I don't have the answers to these questions. But what I do know is that we have used them long before anyone coined these terms.

Even though we have no way of knowing with absolute certainty that tales like Big Foot, Camelot and the legend of King Arthur, El Dorado, Wind Eagle and The Fountain of Youth used these plot devices when they were first told orally, it's safe to assume that they were implemented because why else would they have been written down that way? The stories from the storyteller who wasn't instinctively aware of Chekhov's gun, for example, probably wouldn't have been passed down because everyone would have fallen asleep or gotten confused by the time they'd finished the story — I'm sure you've all experienced this. Of course, there is cultural variability in how much context we're prone to provide. Some Latin and collectivistic cultures are prone to providing more context before getting to the point. Still, no matter what culture you're from, providing details that have nothing to do with the story isn't gonna get you successful results. The same goes for misusing flashbacks and digressions, not providing any foreshadowing, forgetting to provide a ticking clock if it was relevant, and other story devices.

You can find these plot devices on podcasts as well. One of the most successful podcasts, This American Life, keeps the reader engaged by creating narrative tensions with anecdotes, self-reflection, and the occasional twist. You'll find examples of in-media res, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and more. However, the most successful podcast in the world, The Joe Rogan Experience, doesn't worry about plot devices. There might be a storyteller on the podcast who utilizes them when speaking, but the podcast itself isn't structured that way. We simply listen to two or three people talk for up to four hours. And when we look at the most successful non-English podcasts, they're usually language-learning podcasts or related to the news. When analyzing podcasts that focus on telling stories, we can use this article, but since many podcasts focus on conversations and interviews, we have to go down a whole new rabbit hole and study cultural variations by using ethnomethodoligical analysis together with sociolingusitic, logicio-philosphic, and structural-functional approaches (of which I only have a rudimentary understanding).

When it comes to storytelling, we don't need the same academic techniques we use for studying conversations. True, the best dialogue sounds authentic to how people speak, but that doesn't mean it is authentic to how people talk. Transcribe a real conversation and then read a script or stage play by dialogue masters like Richard Linklater (Boyhood and the 'Before' Trilogy) and Martin Mcdonagh (The Pillowman and 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). You'll see just how different they are. The best dialogue writers understand that we misspeak, use redundancies, speak over one another, talk past one another, go on tangents, and so on, but instead of copying the way we talk verbatim, the best writers achieve verisimilitude through their knowledge of how people speak while progressing a story and creating characters. Stories aren't reality; they're a reflection of our reality. And storytellers who have mastered their craft, no matter their culture, understand that.

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Are the principles of storytelling really universal across cultures? Beemgee. (2022, January 7). Retrieved December 13, 2022, from

Baetje-Mbaye, M. (2021, May 18). Universal and culture-specific aspects of storytelling. Brand2Global. Retrieved December 13, 2022, from

Mauriello, Mark. "American Psycho Themes." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 13 Mar 2017. Web. 12 Dec 2022.