Image Description

Storytelling for Leaders: Challenge, Conflict, and Resolution

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

Now that your audience knows where and when the story takes place and who the main character is, it’s time to get that character into an interesting situation and see what happens to them. So, let’s talk about the next three parts of a story: challenge, conflict, and resolution.

We’ll start with the challenge, which answers question 4, “What was the problem or opportunity the main character ran into?” It’s often called the “complication” or the “catalyst” in a story because it’s that moment that a monkey wrench gets thrown into the hero’s original plans and sets off the entire series of events in the story. In other words, this is where the hero meets the villain.

And it’s usually a pretty short part of the story, just a few sentences. In the Jury Table story, the Challenge was when the students were assigned to figure out how to improve the jury deliberation process.

If you removed the Challenge, nothing of interest would happen in the rest of the story. If they weren’t assigned that project, there wouldn’t be any story at all, would there? That’s how you know you’ve identified the real Challenge. If you leave it out, nothing interesting would happen in the rest of the story.

Okay, next let’s talk about the conflict, this is the heart and the soul of storytelling. This is where you answer question 5: what did the main character do about the problem or the opportunity they ran into? So, the Conflict is where the hero actually does battle with the villain. Which means there needs to be a real struggle. It can’t be too easy. If you find yourself introducing your hero and the challenge, and then saying something like, “and, long story short, we won the contract” you’ve just ruined the story, because you skipped the struggle. The audience needs to see the main character struggle. If they don’t, there’s no story.

Here’s an example, so you can see what I mean. Imagine I told you a story about a project I was working on this weekend. I was putting in some new cabinets in the kitchen. And I realized at one point that if I couldn’t find my 0.75-inch socket wrench, there’d be no way I could finish the project on time. Which means I’d either be late to work on Monday or disappoint my wife with a disaster in the kitchen. And neither of those were good. So, I reached into my toolbelt, grabbed my 0.75 in socket wrench, and finished the job. The end.

Did you like my story? Of course not! It’s a lousy story. But why? It answers all eight questions. So, what’s wrong with it? And the answer is that it was just too easy. There was no struggle. Now, if I’d reached into my toolbelt and it was missing, or the dog ate it, now there might be some struggle. But without the struggle, it’s just not interesting.

Let your audience see your main character struggle. If there was a most important part of a story—this would be it. And, as a result, it’s also typically the longest part of the story. In fact, it’s not uncommon for 50-60% of the words of a story to be answering this one question: what did the main character do about the problem? This is not the place to get short with your story.

Okay, last, the resolution. The Resolution is where you answer question 6: how did everything turn out in the end? So, this is where you wrap up all the loose ends: did the hero win or lose? Did the plan work? Did the villain get caught or did he get away? For example, the Resolution in the Jury Table story is that the judge put in rectangular tables instead of round ones, and the students were sorely disappointed they hadn’t realized his objective upfront.

Now, in my experience, most business people don’t have nearly as much trouble knowing which loose-ends to tie up, as knowing which ones to leave united. In other words, they need help knowing when to stop talking and just let the story be over.

And my best advice for that is this: you can end the story when your audience knows how to feel about what happened in the story. Not when they know what to think about what happened. We’ll talk about that in the next two questions about the lesson and the recommended action. But you can stop telling the story when the audience knows how to emotionally process what happened in the story.

Okay, next up, we’re going to talk about the lesson in the story and how to make sure your listener walks away with the right one.

Image Description
Written by

Paul Andrew Smith