Story Arcs

The raw ingredients of storytelling, meaning, detail, drama, are often assembled into the traditional story arc structure:

  1. Situation
  2. Conflict
  3. Climax
  4. Resolution

Storytelling is the mastery of expectation, silence, surprise. – Ze Frank

2 Levels of Meaning

When we tell stories, there are often 2 levels of meaning:

  1. Explicit meaning
  2. Deeper meaning

These act in parallel. The deeper meaning is often a universal theme.


What are 2 details you can bring in to evoke space and place? Focus on sensory perception.


Different story structures produce different results.

Kurt Vonnegut has fun with story arc shapes in this lecture:

Call To Action Arc

This is the story structure behind every TED talk:

  • Act I: What is
  • Act II: What could be.
  • Act III: The call to action.


A short and dramatic story arc:

  1. Platform: the foundation/resting point.
  2. Tilt: then this happened.
  3. Resolution: bring things to a new resting point.


  1. Today we do…
  2. Now we do…
  3. To avoid a terrible future…


  1. Today we do…
  2. Now we do…
  3. To build a glorious future, we will do…

Lead with a Conclusion

Try leading with the conclusion. This can work for the right story, especially if the situation is crazy or unexpected. The tension is “how could things have possibly gotten here?”.

This can also work from the midpoint of a story. Start with the climax, but before the resolution. This is called “In Media Res”.

Record Scratch: Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.

The story opens with dramatic action, rather than setting up characters first.

  • Use a situation with a strong hook that immediately begs questions.
  • Use a situation that is strange, but has recognizable waypoints, so the listener can begin triangulating where they are.

Lost and Found

“Lost and Found” is a story arc found everywhere from fairy tales to commercials. Losing or finding love, an important object, a person personifies the whole dramatic arc. Some variations:

  • Lost/found (“…I realized the ring had fallen out of my pocket!”)
  • Found/lost (“I had love, but I lost it”)
  • Success/failure (There Will be Blood)
  • Failure/success (Field of Dreams)

Once There Was A…

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5 Doors

What if you share the same knowledge with everyone else, but have come to radically different conclusions? How do you effectively share your perspective? Try the 5 doors arc:

  1. Context, credibility
  2. Things are changing, clear implications
    • “We all know this is happening”
    • Put a number to a shared understanding.
    • Most that can be absorbed without deep context.
  3. Your POV: “here’s what I believe it means”
    • Walk through 5 doors: 5 points, each familiar, but challenging an orthodoxy.
  4. The opportunity is now
    • All this is now possible, but not inevitable.
    • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, boom.
    • Not just can, but should (why)
  5. How

The Hero’s Journey / Monomyth

Variations on The Hero’s Journey turn up in myth:

  1. Known
    1. Thinks he’s ordinary
    2. Call to adventure
    3. Supernatural aid
    4. Threshold guardian(s)
  2. Unknown
    1. Threshold (beginning of transformation)
    2. Helper/mentor
    3. Challenges and temptations
    4. Helper (maybe)
    5. Abyss - revelation - death & rebirth
    6. Transformation
    7. Atonement
  3. Return to known

The Reveal

If you’ve seen The Prestige, you know a magician’s act has this arc:

  1. The pledge
  2. The turn
  3. The prestige

This model is a good model for The Reveal: a dramatic climax hinged on bringing new information to light. Steve Jobs leaned on The Reveal so heavily, that “one more thing” has become a catchphrase.

Zoom In/Zoom Out

Smaller story arcs can be composed into larger ones, or woven together.

Try this: zoom into a small story arc about one or two people. Then zoom out to a larger related story arc. Then zoom back in.

This works well when a massive change is happening in the world. We need to see the mass movement, but the meaning has to be grounded at human scale.

Visual Arcs

For visual storytelling, see panel-to-panel transitions.

  • Updated
    Oct 17, 2016