19th June 2015

The Arc of a Story

I was presenting at a senior HR conference this week in Sydney, and my subject was ‘Mastering Presentations’.  Dang, talk about raising the stakes – 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 Executive Presence and Authentic Storytelling programs, so I think I got by.  In fact, I got some great feedback on one particular piece I did on stories; that is, understanding the arc of a story and how you might compose your stories to follow this arc.

Most stories, movies and tales of adventure follow a distinctively similar arc or narrative.  O ften and in simple terms, the story is about a hero’s journey in three acts — 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’:

Introduction – 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.

Conflict Emerges – 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.

Rising Action – 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, and the Prince must find her.

Crisis Point – 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 that the Prince has. Can she be freed in time?  How can she break out and be found by the Prince?

Climax – 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, she does, and the Prince discovers she’s the mysterious woman he fell in love with at his ball.

Falling Action – 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.

Resolution – The final step is resolution, the pieces fit together, and the arc of the story is completed.  The End, and the credits roll.

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 11 year old son has to write essays and stories at school, and 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!

Our business is running an Authentic Storytelling Program in Sydney on August. 5th. Take a day out of work and come along to gain some skills that can support you in the boardroom, as well as at dinner parties. You can read the prospectus and register here.

Glen Petersen

CEO, Generator Talent Group


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