April 25, 2016

The ‘Rags to Riches’ Plot

In summer 2012 I was desperate for cash. I had recently left full time employment and the bills were mounting up.

My first venture as a self-employed person was selling SMS text messaging services to local businesses. One morning I walked in to a hair salon in a town close to where I lived, and by chance spoke to the salon owner. I asked if I could talk to him about SMS text messaging.

“No, my accountant deals with all of my taxes, thank you,” he responded.

“No no, not taxes. Text messaging“, I said, “like on your phone.”

The salon owner paused for a moment. “Well”, he said, “I don’t think I need that. But can you get to the top of Google?”

I week later I was back, armed with my work-issued laptop I still had control of from my old employer. We perched on a bench in the hair salon. Three yards away a customer was having her hair blow dried.

The salon owner had brought along his business associate for the ‘meeting’, who hovered nervously around the edge of the bench. I quickly demonstrated the website I had mocked up in WordPress.

“That’s very nice,” said the salon owner. “So how much is it going to cost?”

I let out a slow breath. “Well, it’s going to be about seven hours. So £300.”

“£300!” exclaimed the owner. “No no no. That’s far too much. I’ve had quotes in the past for £100.”

I shuffled on the bench for a moment. I glanced from the owner, to his suddenly serious-looking associate. Sod it, what the hell.

“Fine, I’ll do it!”

A week or so later the tagline on my website ‘Rob Drummond, SMS text messaging expert’ had been replaced by ‘Rob Drummond, web designer.’ A friend who worked locally as a photographer suggested I email some of the local networking groups. I found a group that met nearby at 7AM on Thursday mornings.

A few hours later Richard from the networking group emailed me back. ‘We’re very sorry Rob, but we already have a web designer in the group. We’d be very happy to meet you though in another capacity.’

‘Not a problem!’ I thought. Mentally I scratched out ‘Rob Drummond, web designer’, and pencilled in ‘Rob Drummond, Google AdWords expert’.

Six months later the AdWords client roster was clocking up nicely. Money issues had faded. I even managed to successfully run my own ads bidding on the phrase match term “google adwords”.

I think in all honesty I relaxed. In my mind I had ‘made it’, whatever that means. Then out of the blue I would take the following call.

“We’re very sorry Rob, but these leads… well, we just haven’t created any sales. We’re going to have to end the arrangement.”

At about the same time Google decided they were no longer happy with me bidding £1.50 per click on “google adwords”. The lead flow dried up, and the phone stopped ringing.

Today’s story archetype is the ‘rags to riches’ plot. The best known ‘rags to riches’ story is possibly Aladdin (either the original or Disney versions). Rags to riches is really about growing up. It’s a relatively simple plot with three stages:

1. Young / poor / broke person starts out

2. Young / poor / broke person has some success, and becomes less young / poor / broke. The story seems to have a happy ending, however the plot is far from over. Blinded by success, our hero has everything savagely whisked away, most commonly by a dark character or ‘baddie’.

3. Our hero overcomes whatever weakness caused him or her to fail first time round, and succeeds at the second attempt. The dark character (if present) is removed or slain.

It is worth noting actually that the dark character represents the flaw in our hero’s psyche that caused the failure first time around. The Sultan in Aladdin represents the greed in Aladdin’s character which he must overcome to truly claim the princess.

The ‘rags to riches’ plot is versatile in business use because it depicts a move from failure to success. Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all rags to riches stories in and of themselves. We revere entrepreneurs who have hustled hard and pulled themselves up by their bootlaces.

The part that most business writers miss is the failure cycle in the middle, or the first false ending. Most business attempts at the rags to riches plot just flow linearly from failure to success, crafted in arrogant ‘aren’t we wonderful’ type prose.

The failure cycle in the middle is essential because it depicts reality. We know that abounding success is rarely linear, and we quietly despise people who achieve success without fighting for it.

The failure cycle also gives the story depth, because our hero can only achieve the ultimate happy ending once he or she has overcome whatever shortcoming caused the failure. This character growth is what gives the story its moral.

I ended my story today at the end of the second phase; at the false ending when things suddenly fall apart. I’ve hinted at my own weakness at what caused this (‘I relaxed’).

I think in a regular autoresponder series I would split the ‘rags to riches’ plot across two emails. The first emails would take you as far as things falling apart. The second email would contain the growth or learning outcome and ultimate happy ending. I think there is an opportunity here to leave your readers hanging in between emails.

The rags to riches plot is always enhanced by the presence of a dark character. In business use this could be an overbearing parent, manager, or anyone who by their actions hindered your progress. In my story today there was no dark character.

Perhaps I will rewrite it and include an ‘overbearing wife’!

(Please don’t tell her that).

I think for novice writers the rags to riches plot is an easy one to get to grips with. You must remember however to include a false ending.

Previous Posts In This Series

Creating stories that last: Introduction
Plot 1: Overcoming the monster
Plot 2: Comedy
Plot 3: Tragedy

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.