The Structure of a Story

“Human beings master the basics of storytelling as young children and retain this capability throughout their lives.” — Stephen Denning

“Human beings master the basics of storytelling as young children and retain this capability throughout their lives.” — Stephen Denning

When psychologist T. A. Harley researched the academic literature on the structure of stories, he concluded, “There is no agreement on story structure: virtually every story grammatician has proposed a different grammar.”

OK, but that doesn’t really help me craft better stories. And there is no shortage of advice on telling stories.

Kurt Vonnegut chimes in with 8 tips on how to write a good short story and talks about the shapes of stories. Tyler Cowen warns of the dangers of telling stories. Nancy Duarte, offers how to tell stories through presentations.

I wanted to step back a bit from this advice.

I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m not writing Hollywood screenplays in my spare time. I’m not trying to keep people’s attention for hours.

What I need is a simple structure that conveys a message. I need to remember the basics.

But we already know what makes a good story. We just need to remember our childhood.

In To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink explains the “Pixar Pitch.” Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios of all time. Six of their films—Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3—have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. While it’s hard to point to one thing in particular they do that makes them successful, a good place to start is the story itself. Emma Coates, a former story artist at Pixar who brought us 22 Rules Pixar Uses To Create Appealing Stories, argues that every film shares the same common narrative, which is constructed with six sequential sentences:

Once upon a time ____________________. Every day, ___________________. One day, ___________________. Because of that, __________________. Until finally ___________________________________.

There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, Paul Smith gives them a different name. He calls them context, action, result.

Smith argues that context is the part most of us miss, which is why a lot of our stories are confusing and boring.

The context provides all the necessary background for the story to make sense. If done right, it also grabs the audience’s attention, convinces the audience that your story is relevant, and generates interest and excitement to listen to the rest of the story. How well your context accomplishes all this is determined by how well it addresses four questions. Where and when does the story take place? Who is the main character? What does he or she want? And who or what is getting in the way?

Exploring the four elements of context—where and when, who is the main character, what the character wants, who or what is getting in the way—Smith writes:

1. Where and when? The fundamental meaning of context is the setting— the where and when of a story. Clearly stating where and when the story takes place tells the audience if the story is fact or fiction. … It’s okay to tell a fictional story as long as your audience knows that’s what it’s getting. The danger of not properly starting your stories this way is that the audience might think the story is factual, only to be disappointed to find out it was fiction. Then the audience feels betrayed. As the storyteller, you’ve now lost all credibility.

2. Who is the main character? This is the subject of your story, the hero, or at least the person from whose perspective the story is told— the protagonist. Even the most inexperienced storytellers generally include a main character in their story. So the point here is not to remind you to include a main character, but to tell you what kind of main character to choose. The most important criterion is this: The hero of your story needs to be someone your audience can identify with. They need to be able to see themselves in the hero’s situation and achieve the same result: “Hey, that could be me!” If the main character of your story is Superman, that might make for an entertaining story, but it won’t make for a good leadership story. … your subject doesn’t have to be a real person.

3. What does the character want? What is the hero trying to achieve? What is the character’s passion or objective? Is he trying to save the world? Is she trying to beat the competition? Win the sale? Or just not get fired.

4. Who or what is getting in the way? This is the obstacle, the villain, or the enemy in the story. It could be a person, like your high school nemesis, or the boss who passed you over for a promotion. Or the villain could be an organization, like one of your competitors or the other department you’re playing in the company softball tournament. It could be a thing, like the mountain your hero is trying to climb, or the copy machine that he finally gets his revenge on. … The villain is a commonly excluded component in business stories. The result is a boring, useless story. It’s typified by the tales of the office braggart or the self-reported results in your subordinate’s performance review. You’ve heard them. Stories where everything that happens is great! (“ After I came to this department five years ago, our sales started to skyrocket! All of our new brand launches exceeded the objective. And our profits have doubled!”) Similar to Superman stories, stories without a villain won’t help anyone. Their heroes didn’t overcome any adversity. They didn’t confront any challenge. They didn’t learn anything valuable. In short, they got lucky. Telling a story about how you got lucky is no way to provide guidance and leadership, since it can’t be replicated. If there’s no villain in your story, you don’t have a story.

In addition, your audience simply won’t like your story if it doesn’t have a villain. As corporate training and development expert Richard Pascoe observes, “An audience hates insincerity. And few things are more insincere than continued and unchallenged success; life is not like that.”

So there you have the key components of the context. In addition to telling where and when, you have the subject, the treasure, and the obstacle— STO.

Action

This is where you tell what happened to your main character. Most importantly, it’s where the hero does battle with the villain. Conflicts arise. Problems surface. The hero mounts an attempt at a solution, but fails at first. There are always temporary setbacks on the hero’s journey. These ups and downs along the way provide the excitement in the story. But more importantly for a leadership story, they’re also where the lessons are learned. Unlike the Hollywood scriptwriter’s story structure, the action doesn’t need to be so prescriptive for a good business story. It’s great if you have a catalyst, first turning point, climax, and final confrontation, but not necessary.

Result

The result is the final stage of the story where you accomplish three main things. In addition to telling how the story ends, this is where you explain the right lesson the audience should have learned, and link back to why you told the story in the first place. Result, of course, means how the story ends. It explains the fate of the main characters. Does the hero live or die? Did the villain get what he deserved?

That’s the basic structure of a compelling story.

It all hangs on the central Context, Action, Result (CAR) structure. It starts with the Subject, Treasure, and Obstacle, and concludes with the Right lesson and link back to whY it’s being told.

A common mistake of inexperienced story tellers is to start with the action. Why? Because this is the part of the story we remember most easily. It’s the exciting part. We’re so eager to get to the point that we don’t properly set the context.

Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire is a good addition to 4 Must-Read Books on Storytelling.