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Story Structures

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

Okay, so far we’ve covered what a story is, why they work, what stories you should tell, and how to find them. Now’s the part of the course where we’re going to move into HOW to craft these stories. And I’ll start by answering this question: what is it that makes a great story, a great story? And if you were to ask any storytelling expert that question, they’ll almost always include these three things in their answer: a hero we care about, a villain we’re afraid of, and an epic battle between them.

Now, I’ll admit that sounds a bit Hollywood. So, let’s turn that into a more familiar language. The hero we care about just becomes a relatable main character. That means your audience can either imagine themselves in the same position or working with that person—in other words, a customer, a supplier, a boss, a subordinate, or even a competitor. When in doubt, choose the main character who’s similar to your audience.

Alright, the villain we’re afraid of just becomes a relevant challenge. That means a problem—or an opportunity—your audience is likely to run into themselves. So, it doesn’t even have to be a person, just a challenging situation they need to deal with, like a new sales goal to grow by 30%, or a mountain they’re trying to climb, or the photocopy machine they finally get their revenge on!

Okay, the epic battle just becomes an honest struggle. The audience needs to see the hero struggle with something, or it just won’t be interesting and they won’t care.

Now, since this is a business story and not just a story for entertainment, we have to add a fourth item to the list. And that is that the audience learns a worthy lesson from it. Otherwise, you’ve wasted your time and theirs.

So, if your stories have these four elements, you’re off to a great start. You have the makings of a great story. But, there are a number of things you’ll need to do to turn that concept into a great story. And we’re going to start with the story’s structure. Because all stories have a structure. Or, I should say, all good stories have a structure. Bad stories are often rambling, a run-on, mess.

So, it turns out there are lots of options for story structure you might consider. Some of them will work for these kinds of business stories, and some of them will not. Let me quickly review the ones that won’t, so you can avoid them. Here’s one: “Tell‘em what you’re going to tell them. Tell‘em. Tell‘em what you told them.” That’s the advice most of us were taught in grade school for how to give a speech or presentation. Introduction. Body. Conclusion. But a story isn’t the same as an entire speech or presentation. So that grade-school advice isn’t very helpful.

Here’s another one you might be tempted to use, but probably shouldn’t—the same structure you use when you write a memo. You typically lead with the recommendation, followed by your key conclusions, and lastly, you get into some of the analysis and data that support those conclusions and recommendations. And if you’re writing a memo, you absolutely should write it that way. Journalists use a similar structure when they’re writing a newspaper article. And, that’s all well and good for writing newspaper articles and standard memos. But for a story, it doesn’t work. I mean, can you imagine if the opening scene in a murder mystery gave away the conclusion about who the killer was? It would just ruin the story.

Ok, one more that you might have heard about that I’d recommend avoiding—The Hero’s Journey Story structure. Now, that one was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces. And it’s very popular in Hollywood movies and novels. But it’s based on a complicated 17-step plot structure. So, if you’re going to write your first screenplay or a 250-page novel, knock yourself out with the hero’s journey. But, if you want to craft 2 or 3-minute stories to tell at work, it’s way too much work.

Here’s the plot structure I recommend: context, challenge, conflict, resolution. That’s it. That’s the whole plot structure. Now, in addition to that, you’ll want to have a way to attract your audience to pay attention to your story (I call that the Hook), and a couple of parts after the story is over to make sure they learn the right Lesson and follow your Recommended Action. But, the main story happens in just those middle four parts: context, challenge, conflict, and resolution.

Now, after teaching this for several years, I’ve found that instead of trying to remember and understand the detail behind those rather academic-sounding parts of a story, it’s easier for most people to remember and understand the eight questions your story needs to answer and the order in which they should be answered. So, that’s how I’m going to teach them in this course. And here are those eight questions:

The first question you have to answer for your audience is, “Why should I bother listening to your story?” Because if you don’t answer that question in the first 10 or 15 seconds, your audience might not listen. They might mentally, physically, or emotionally walk away from your story.

Okay, once you’ve answered that question, you’ve earned the right to answer the next questions:

  1. Where and when did it take place?
  2. Who’s the main character and what did they want?
  3. What was the problem or opportunity they ran into?
  4. What did they do about it?
  5. How did it turn out in the end?
  6. And that should sound like the natural flow of a story… because it is the natural flow of a story.
  7. What did you learn from the story?
  8. And what do you think I should do now? I, the person you’re talking to. That’s your opportunity to make a recommendation.

And the order you answer those questions matters. Like I said earlier, unlike in a business memo, the resolution and recommendation go at the end, not at the beginning.

Or, consider question 2: where and when. It turns out, it bothers people if they don’t hear that at the beginning of a story. In fact, it can bother them so much they stop listening to your story until they get the answer because it’s the thing that lets people know they’re listening to a true story or a fictional story. I mean, imagine you’re listening to someone tell a fantastic story, but they failed to answer the question about where and when it happened. Depending on how incredible the story is, you might actually start wondering if it was true. In fact, the more unbelievable it gets, people will sometimes interrupt you and ask question 2—“Oh, come on… Is this true? Where was this? When did this happen?” Right? Don’t let that happen to your story. Answering these questions in this order is the safest route to take. I’ll share some creative ideas later for how to stray from this format. But let’s start here.

Okay, so here’s what your story should sound like if it’s in the right order. Imagine you’re answering someone’s question by telling them a story. You might respond: “You know, I think the best example of that I’ve seen was back in <some time> at <some place>. There was <this person> and she was trying to <do something.> But then one day <something happened>. So she <did this> and then the bad guy <did that>, and so she <did this>. Well, eventually <it turns out like this>. Now, what I learned from that was <this>. And that’s why I think what you should do is <that>.”

That’s how a story should flow. They should answer the eight questions in the proper order. Doing that helps make sure you don’t leave out anything important, and that the story makes sense, while also making sure you’re not including too much information which tends to make stories long and boring.

Alright. In the next lesson, we’ll dive into detail on the first phase of the story structure—the Hook.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith