6 Ways to Write Sticky Stories

Great stories stay with us long after the last page. They jump into the world, weasel into conversation and – the very best of them – sweep across culture, age and time. 

Great stories are sticky. 

In 2004, social scientists Chip and Dan Heath wrote Make It Stick, where they laid out the 6 elements of stickiness. 

They wanted to answer the question, “What makes an idea or message stick?” 

The 6 Elements of Sticky Stories

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete 
  • Credible 
  • Emotional
  • Story

True to the author’s trademark simplicity, those clever authors acronymed the elements into SUCCES. 

Let’s take these elements one at a time, applying them to story.

1. Simple

 Not simple as in dumbed down, but as in compressed meaning. Streamlined like a proverb. 

Make It Stick sums it up with an equation: core + compact  = sticky 

In other words, the core message must be both concise AND compelling.What is the core of your story? 
Application to Story: The idea, concept, premise and throughline of a story must be articulated in a short sentence or – at most- a brief series of meaningful sentences. Compress the story down to it’s most basic (most compelling) elements. 

See my post on bestsellers premises: 30 Ways to Rock Your Premise

2. Unexpected

  Sticky ideas, messages and stories surprise us. They take unpredictable turns and dramatize events in fresh, new ways.

Bestselling stories are paragons of unpredictability. 

  • Who will live or die? 
  • What will happen next? 
  • Will the protagonist reach his or her goal?

The book used a term “postdictable”. Everything in your story should surprise but be predictable after the fact. 

Application to Story: Every character and every scene should be both consistently logical and unexpected. Plant clues early and pay them off later in the story. Bonus points for unexpected payoffs! 

3. Concrete

This is where the writing maxim “show, don’t tell” comes in. As the book says, “Write with the concreteness of a fable.”

Vivid, concrete details reel readers in the same way that tangible conflicts keep them glued to the page. 

Application to story: Abstract ideas are cool, concrete ideas are compelling. 

4. Credible

Trust is sticky. 

Messages from trustable people or sources stick in our mind and motivate us to act.

Credible sources can be experts, celebrities, experienced person and testable samples. 

Application to Story: If you are Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele or Robert Jordan, first OMG OMG OMG, and second, you ARE the trustable source. If you are not not a bestselling author, you can build credibility through research and realism. Everything in your story should seem real – characters, details, settings, actions, dialogue – in the world you’ve created.

5.  Emotional 

Emotional messages are memorable. They stick. 

Stories are inherently emotional experiences, labeled by the feelings they produce in readers — horror, romance, suspense. 

Infuse messages with emotion by using associations, appealing to self-interest and identity. 

How to increase emotion in your story?

  • Focus on individuals not groups. Or both, but give more story space to individuals. 
  • Show how characters feel about the events in the story. Nothing matters until it matters to a character. 
  • Leverage the power of associations. Choose names (Victor, Jack), characters (kids, animals, clergy), settings (playground, graveyard, church) and conflicts (dates, murder, sacrifice) that instantly trigger emotions in readers because they trigger a lifetime of experiences.
  • Give each character a unique identity and goal (self-interest) that exposes and explores different aspects of the story idea/concept/theme. 
  • Dig deep into the theme of the story to excavate raw moments of emotional vulnerability. 

Application: The book described The Mother Teresa principle: If I look at the one, I will act. Write about the “one”. 

6.  Story 

A story is stickier than a lecture. Our human brains are hardwired to respond to stories. 

Sticky stories evolve from the DNA of the other five elements: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible and Emotional. 

Think of sticky stories: parables, fables, fairytales, urban legends and bestselling book series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Wheel of Time and so many more. 

Application to Story: First, understand what a story is and isn’t. Unless you have a very good reason, use an expected story structure (i.e. boy meets girl, man with a problem, etc). 

As you write your next short story, novel or screenplay keep the in mind the 6 sticky elements of SUCCES. 

Christopher is trying to get unstuck from a good book so he can get other things done. Get exclusive writing tips, updates and other freebies here


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in books, reading, screenwriting, writer, Writing

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