12th September 2018
The Arc of a Story
Storytelling is the activity of telling or writing stories. Storytelling happens more often than you realise, and in more places than you’d expect. It could also be referred to as ‘the art of making people listen (with interest!) to what you have to say’. A little while ago, I was presenting at a Senior HR conference Sydney, and my subject was ‘Mastering Presentations’. Dang, talk about raising the stakes. I was giving a presentation… on presentation techniques… and in doing so, being critiqued by the audience in real time!
Fortunately, I’ve learnt a lot from the great performance coaches we use in our Accelerating Leadership Presence Program. In fact, I got some great feedback on one particular piece I did on stories. It was about understanding the arc of a story and how you might compose your stories to follow this arc.
The Story Arc
Most stories, movies and tales of adventure follow a distinctively similar arc or narrative. Often and in simple terms, the story is about a hero’s journey in three acts. These are, the protagonist’s call to action, navigating the barriers to the goal, and the resolution. The ancient Greek poet Homer took 900 pages to do this with Odysseus in ‘The Odyssey’.Though, the pattern was repeated several times as Odysseus battled various challenges over ten years in getting back home to Ithaca.
To better craft stories it’s handy to understand seven distinct phases of the story arc. A good way to get this is to think about a story you might know, the fairy tale ‘Cinderella’:
This is normally an every-day situation, nothing out of the ordinary. Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes, under the yoke of a cruel step-mother and her nasty (and apparently ugly) sisters.
The next phase is that something happens; an event, a trigger that sparks the story. The fairy godmother appears, and becomes a way for Cinderella to change her circumstances.
The next phase is where the story heats up, the stakes start to rise, tension and conflict build. Cinderella (with the fairy godmother’s help) gets to the Prince’s ball, dances with him, but loses her slipper just before midnight. The Prince must find her.
This is close to the peak of tension, the conflict looks unresolvable, or the choices the hero has to make look difficult. Cinderella gets locked up while her ugly sisters are trying on the slipper. Can she be freed in time? How can she break out and be found by the Prince? Will one of the ugly sisters successfully deceive the prince? Yikes!
This is the peak of action. Does the Prince leave without meeting Cinderella? Will she get her chance to try the slipper on? Will it happen? Yes, of course! The Prince then discovers she’s the mysterious woman he fell in love with at the ball.
The story winds down, often it’s a reversal of the beginning. Cinderella marries the Prince, the nasty sisters and the stepmother get what they deserve (Phew).
The final step is resolution, the pieces fit together, and the arc of the story is completed. The End, and the credits roll.
Use this skill at work…or at the pub.
This seven step arc is a great thing to keep in mind. If you’re writing a story, giving a presentation or recounting an anecdote at the pub with friends, bear in mind that the best, engaging and most captivating stories will follow this arc in some way.
Footnote: My kids often have to write essays and stories at school, and one came home recently with an outline for writing narratives that looked remarkable like the seven phases of the story arc. How great is it to learn this stuff early on in one’s life? Being a great storyteller might just become an essential leadership skill!
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Categories: Developing Talent