The Three Acts of a Story
One the biggest problems that businesses run into when they try to do business storytelling is that they mistake stories for storytelling. However, if we understand story from the right perspective, we have everything we need to turn anything we have to say into something that feels like a story even if it isn’t one.
The traditional story structure has three acts: a setup, a middle section or build that introduces conflict, and a resolution or payoff or conclusion. The key is to pay attention to how each act begins and ends. The setup is about understanding what a character wants and what’s in the way of it, which means we need to start by understanding their Goal and end the section understanding that there’s a Problem in the way of it. In the middle section, we need to understand how the Problem brings the character to a point of no return: a new understanding (or Idea) of the world that they cannot unsee or unhear. That section ends with the big Change your character or customer needs to make. Our final act needs to start with the Change and show how the character puts it into Action to achieve their Goal.
It’s no coincidence that these acts align closely with the pieces of the Red Thread. If you can use these pieces to bring your audience on an emotional journey, you’re well on your way to effective business storytelling.
- Matthew Luhn TEDxUCSB talk, “Creating a Feeling”
- Set up a one-on-one consultation with Tamsen, or your own Red Thread Weekend
– Have you heard a lot about storytelling lately, particularly in business? Have you been wondering, “How the heck do I do that if I’m not a natural born storyteller?” Well I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com, and that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread.
I once had the opportunity to see Matthew Luhn of Pixar dissect the first ten minutes of the movie Up. He showed how Pixar took us to happy places and sad places all over the course of 10 minutes, and we were hooked. In fact, a lot of us think it’s the only movie that made us cry in the first 10 minutes. How did they do that, and why does that matter when it comes to business storytelling? Well, it matters because one of the biggest problems that I’ve seen with businesses trying to do business storytelling is that they mistake stories for storytelling.
Now stories in and of themselves are really helpful. They help people understand more concretely what you’re talking about, but not all of us have or can find great stories all the time. So what really is a story? Well, a story, as Matthew Luhn showed us, is emotional ups and downs over the course of a transformation, over the course of time or a character’s position or attitude or behavior. But it’s how do we move somebody or something from one point to another while taking the audience on an emotional journey as well?
If we understand it from that perspective then we actually have all the keys we need to turn anything that we have to say into something that feels like a story, even if it isn’t one. So how do we do that? Well let’s back up and look at what story structure really is.
This is nothing new. It’s been around since the time of Aristotle, but by and large, everyone tends to agree that stories have three main parts. They have an introduction, they have a main big part where the things happen, and then there’s a conclusion. You’ll hear all sorts of different words for this. Setup, build, payoff. You’ll hear setup, conflict, resolution. You’ll hear all sorts of different things, but really it’s those three areas.
A first part where we describe and see the world as it is to our character, or from a business standpoint, our audience, clients or customers. A second section of the story or the message where we’re talking about what’s getting in the way of that and what are the complications and reaching a point where nothing else can be different, all in the means of trying to accomplish some final goal. And then the third part where everything gets tied up. Where the guy gets the girl, the cops get the crook, or the customers get what they want.
If we think about each of these big acts as having start and endpoints, something that begins the introduction, or begins the setup, and then ends it, then we can start to get the clues of how we can turn any business message into something that feels like a story. Because the whole setup is about understanding what the character wants and what’s in the way of it. Which means we need to start by understanding that goal and we need to end that section understanding that there is a problem in the way of it. This should be starting to sound a little familiar to you.
In that middle section where there’s a conflict, well, we need to be able to understand how that problem brings the character to a point of no return. Some new understanding of the world that they cannot unsee or unhear. That’s kind of like an idea, wouldn’t you say? And that section ends with the big change that that character, or your customer, needs to make. Which means our final section, the final act of our three-act structure, needs to start with that change, show how the character puts it into action, all so that it resolves by showing that goal achieved.
Now I know you’ve figured this out already, but here’s how it all comes together. If we can find the Goal, the Problem, the Idea, the Change, and the Actions and how they all rolled back to the Goal we looked for in the first place, we have all the pieces to build a message that feels like a story. And yes, those are in fact the pieces of the Red Thread. So now you know the secret. It is a quick, easy shortcut to business storytelling. If you find those concepts and you put them in that order, you can take any message and have it be a masterful story.
That’s this week’s episode of Find the Red Thread. If you want help finding your own red thread, come contact me on my website and let’s talk about either a Red Thread Intensive where I can help you one on one with your organization or with just you, or a Red Thread weekend where we can get together with a small group and find our Red Threads together. See you next week.