The simplest storytelling framework you can use everywhere

The spine of a red book displaying the words "The Story"

I have a storytelling board on Pinterest, and am always looking through story related pins and infographics. I’ve found a lot of pins that give you 21 rules for this, or 10 essential elements of that, and so much of it is so complex that I can’t remember them, let alone apply them. So I wanted to write something down that was simple, and that you could use everywhere. Even in the first paragraph of this post.

The three act structure of stories

The three act structure is one of the most common frameworks for writing stories. It’s the one that you heard about in elementary school when the teacher says that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. And while this is true, I don’t think that particular formulation is helpful. It lends itself into simply dividing a group of sentences into thirds, and that doesn’t make it a story. I prefer to think of it as every story having an Introduction, Escalation and a Resolution. It’s communicative, and simple enough that I can use it everywhere, and hopefully you can too.

I’ll explain each of the stages, and with a tip of the hat to Marvel Editor Jim Shooter’s $1.98 Storytelling Lecture (bookmark that and read it later). I’m going to use this nursery rhyme.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider and sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away.

I’m also going to make an assumption. I’m going to assume that there’s a conflict or a tension within whatever you’re trying to communicate. You may need to some work to identify or define the conflict, and maybe I’ll talk about how to do that later. But for now, I’m assuming you have. In which case your story starts with…

Introduction: What’s the status quo?

What was your world like before the conflict showed up? The trick with this section is to avoid over explanation. Tell us only what we need to know to understand the conflict you will hit us with.

In the nursery rhyme, all we get is “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey.” They don’t tell us what time of day it was, where this tuffet was. We just know that there’s a little girl sitting and eating, and get just enough context to imply the stability that’s about to be disrupted.

Bonus points

  • Despite this being the first part of your story, it’s often worthwhile to write it last, or at least to review it after you’ve written everything.
  • If you can insert an element of your conflict here, you’ll grab your audience’s attention quickly. For example “After my mom died, I dedicated my life to finding a cure for the cancer that took her life,”

Escalation: Raising the stakes

In most stories, this would be where the conflict begins. This is “Along came a spider and sat down beside her…” This is where the tension rises, and the story deepens.

I used the word tension, as opposed to conflict, purposefully, because here I want you to think about your audience reaction, not just the facts of the story. It’s in this phase that you want your audience to lean forward, to know that there’s something that needs to be resolved. This is where you pull back the bowstring of their mind, knowing that it can’t stay there forever.

That something may be a conflict. It’s possible that someone or something is standing in the way of the goal you outlined in the Introduction. That something could also be a disruption of the peaceful status quo, the spider that sits beside your little girl. That something, could also be the reason why the conflict you introduced in step one is actually really important, or really tricky.

Whatever it is, what you’re answering here is less “what happened” and more “why should we care.”

Resolution: How will this all end

This part is simple. If you’ve done your job, the audience understands the conflict, and care about how what happens next. Your job is to tell them. The tricky part is making sure you are giving them the right answers to the questions you’ve raised.

Our nursery rhyme would be disappointing if it ended “and Miss Muffet finished eating and went off to school.” We want to know what happened with the spider, and so the author tells us “and [the spider] frightened Miss Muffet away.”

Often, you may be telling the story to convince your audience to take action. Then you need to make sure the action you’re asking them to take addresses the tension in the story. This might require you to write the story backwards. That’s okay. It will be worth the effort.

Example: Breaking down the first paragraph

One misconception is that storytelling means “dramatic” or “artistic”. But we can use storytelling in the most mundane ways. Take the first paragraph of this article, it was far from dramatic or artistic, but I was able to use this story structure to organize it into something that, if you got this far, kept your interest. Here’s how it broke down

Introduction: I have a storytelling board on Pinterest, and am always looking through story related pins and infographics.

Escalation: I’ve found a lot of pins that give you 21 rules for this, or 10 essential elements of that, and so much of it is so complex that I can’t remember them, let alone apply them.

Resolution: So I wanted to write something down that was simple, and that you could use everywhere.

And, because I wanted to keep you interested in the rest of the post I threw in this last sentence

Escalation (part 2): Even in the first paragraph of this post.

Riffs and Variations

Hat tip to Liberating Structures for the idea.

  • The Knowledge Gap story (good for teaching)
    • Introduction: Here’s an area that you don’t know about.
    • Escalation: Here’s why this area is even stranger than you think or why it’s actually really important that you understand this.
    • Resolution: Here are the actual facts about this.
  • The Discovery story (good for explaining research)
    • Introduction: Here’s what we were hoping to find out
    • Escalation: Here’s what makes this difficult to find or Here’s where our initial research was pointing us away from the answer
    • Resolution: Here’s the discovery that led us to the real answer.
  • The Call to Action
    • Everything is the same as above except that the Resolution is in the future tense, and makes the audience the star.

Featured Image Credit: Siqueira Filho

Do something badly

Crumpled Paper

When it comes down to it, I’m mostly okay with failure. Sometimes I do my best, and things don’t work out, and there isn’t anything that I can do about it. I’m less okay with being bad at something. Being bad at something will often keep me from participating. I’m cool with the idea that I may not win, I just really don’t want to suck. I’d guess that this isn’t unique to me. You probably feel the same way, right?

This is a problem. Because ninety percent of the time being good at something comes after a long period of being bad at it.

There’s a series of videos from Ira Glass of This American Life talking about storytelling, and in part 3 of 4 (posted below) he talks about this specific problem.

I’ll give away a bit of the punch line of the video and say that Glass’ advice is to do a lot of work and it will be a lot of bad work (he plays an example of his).

So, this year, how about you join me in doing something badly (like blogging, for example), or art, or music, or activism. Let’s do a lot of it, and eventually it will turn into something good.

Photo Credit: Mateusz Atroszko

Storytelling for good: An example from the Red Cross

I came upon a good example of nonprofit storytelling that I thought I would share with my readers as they think of how they use storytelling in the upcoming year. Check out the story from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Photo of two South Sudanese woman and a man, each talking on a cell phone for 3 minutes.We live in the most connected of times. It has never been easier to communicate with a loved one; by text, email, … What, if instead of mass communication, you could just phone one person, for two minutes, and nothing else. It’s almost impossible to imagine. Who would you call? What would you say?

In South Sudan, for many people, that is their reality…

Source: Three minutes to call the person you love — Pushed to the Limits — Medium

Here are some things I noticed that you may use in your next storytelling venture, whether you are in ministry, the nonprofit world, or an activist in some other arena.

  • Less can be more, if you edit well – In each of the stories, the author walks the tightrope of giving the reader enough to get the emotional heart of the story, but leaving enough gaps so that the reader’s mind is engaged in filling them in, resulting in a more compelling narrative.
  • Individuals (in their individuality) matters – We sometimes have a tendency to abstract away the specifics of this person, or this interaction. The texture and the details make it stick better
  • There is no call to action, and that’s ok – Some of your stories will end in a call to take action, to donate, to make a life change, but not all of them will. The truth is also that before someone makes the step to take action, they need to emotionally resonate with your cause, believe that your approach can make a difference, believe that they can help, and feel like they need to help now. Take some time to build your case, to build trust and connection before you make the ask.

There may be other things in this story that you can take from it (and if you do, I’d be happy to hear them in the comments) but I hope you’ll consider these three points the next time you have to tell a story for good.

Aimee Mullins, fake legs, and loving your weirdness

What was shocking to me about that was that I had moved past mere acceptance of my difference. I was having fun with my difference. Thank God I’m not normal! I get to be extraordinary!

via A Work In Progress | The Moth.

I heard this story on the radio (shout out to MPR!) and thought it was 12 minutes worth sharing. Take some time to listen to it.

There are two things that strike me about this story. The first is that Aimee Mullins discovers something that a lot of us never figure out, the difference between being just OK with who you are, and really loving who you are, and the weirdness that makes you, you.

The second is how in this short story, we get a glimpse of how this act of loving who you are can change the world for someone else.

I hope you enjoy it and I would be curious to hear what you think.