How the John Lewis Christmas Advert is a Perfect Story

Ok, so no story can be perfect perfect, but this advert is a fantastic example of wonderful storytelling. There’s a lot us writers can learn from it about crafting stories. It has all the right ingredients to make it a stunner, and pulls them together with style and elegance, and for something that is just a minute and a half long, it is surprisingly moving.

For those of you who haven’t seen it already (but mainly because it’s just so brilliant and I could watch it a million times) here is the advert in question …

I’ll give you a moment to dry your eyes.

Ok, ready?

Let’s get going then. The magic ingredients that make this advert such a lovely story.

Mystery

A little intrigue, a bit of confusion. Moments of surprise. Otherwise known as plot. Why has Snowman left Snowwoman? Where is he going? So many questions.

The beauty is, the advert doesn’t reveal the answer until the final third (more on three part structures later), so we’re hooked from the get-go. We want to know exactly what Snowman is crossing rivers and enduring snowball attacks for. The answer, when we get it, is the sweetest. Which brings us on to -

Character

All great stories have at least one character readers can empathise with. Someone readers can root for (or against, though villain-led stories are trickier to pull off well). Someone we’re intruiged by. Someone who we feel like we can connect to, whose motives we understand. Someone who we can emotionally invest in.

Snowman is a classic hero. Determined, likeable (who can’t be failed to be moved by that scene where he is under attack from Snowballs thrown by cold-hearted teenagers), and a bit of an every-man. His motive is simple – to make Snowwoman happy – and the arduous journey he endures and his grim determination gives us a huge amount of satisfaction when we see Snowwoman all cosy in the morning with her new Christmas accessories, and Snowman delighted to have been the one to put the smile on her face.

Emotional investment

See above really. This is all down to character.

Setting

All stories take place in a tangible environment that the reader has to be able to imagine and come to know. Often, as in this advert, the setting reflects the story and what the characters are going through. Thus poor Snowman faces blizzards and busy motorways and a back alley where he gets pelted by snowballs. Then, when he returns from his quest, the sun rises on a beautiful day outside a lovely family home where he and Snowwoman are ‘living’. This arc strengthens the story and physically represents the -

Three-Part Structure

Beginning. Middle. End. This is such an intuitive formula that all stories have it. I find YA and children’s literature tend to have simpler three-part structures than adult novels, as in their beginning, middles and ends are more defined for the reader. I like this though. It means YA writers can’t faff around or drift off on tangents – the story is always progressing, moving clearly towards a conclusion that every event builds towards. It’s satisfying and comfortable. Of course, that means it’s great fun to read a book where the typical three-part structure is subverted in some way (think of David Mitchell’s brilliant Cloud Atlas), but it is always still there, hidden under the surface.

In the John Lewis ad, Snowman starts off the story at home, leaves when he has a purpose important and strong enough to motivate him to, and journeys through the second act to return home for the third, where we get our resolution. A lovely circular example of the three-part structure.

Style

Also known as voice. Some people like to differentiate them, but I don’t think it matters too much, so I’ll use them interchangeably.  Style is a tricky one to pin-point, but I like to think of it as the way a story is delivered to its audience, or, very simply, how it is told.

Have a think about your favourite books and I’m sure you’ll be able to recall how they were written as clearly as what they were about. You’ll remember the feel of the words, not just what they said. My favourite narrative voice is Death in Markus Zusak’s utterly brilliant The Book Thief (and if you haven’t read it now why not, go buy it immediately). That book has such a unique narrrative voice, and although his second book is rather different, Zusak’s style of writing is still distinctive in both.

That Special Something Something

The undefinable quality that marks a fantastic story. As soon as the John Lewis advert begins, you’re drawn into it. You sit up a little straighter in your seat, stop what you’re doing to watch. I am ridiculously impatient – even when I brush my teeth I have to be doing something else, like reading a book or playing a game on my phone – and usually I ignore all adverts.

But not this one.

It’s the magic that happens when all other factors come together in an effortless union. I don’t think this is something you can work on consciously when writing (do let me know if you think I’m wrong), but if you can get all the other ingredients right, it should fall into place itself. This is something that’ll happen with good editing. My lovely agent Nicola pointed out the key aspects of my story for me (it’s silly but sometimes as an author you’re so close to work you just can’t see it as clearly yourself) and so when I edited my first draft, I made sure I was allowing those parts of the story to sing.

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