Welcome to the final Part in our Storytelling Trilogy!
If you missed Part 1, it’s all about the ‘big picture’ of storytelling. Here’s the link to read it:
Part 1 – The Big Picture of Stories
If you missed Part 2, all about Audience and Character, here’s the link:
Part 2 – Audience and Character
If you’re new here, this trilogy of articles on storytelling is for Visionaries. The dictionary defines a Visionary as a person who ‘thinks about or plans the future with imagination or wisdom”.
I define a Visionary as anyone whose ideas can educate and entertain others, and ultimately change the why society thinks. A Visionary can be an artist, entertainer, educator, entrepreneur, author, speaker, or coach. The list goes on.
One of the most important skills that all Visionaries need to master is the art of Storytelling.
When you listen to a Visionary sharing a great story, the storytelling feels natural and easy. But don’t be fooled by that impression. I assure you that before they were able to use stories to effortlessly connect with their Audience they had to master everything I am covering in this Storytelling Trilogy of articles.
Stories come in all lengths, so they can be used in almost any situation. One of the shortest types of story is a joke. This has a simple setup and punch line.
Medium length stories can be an article, news clip or Youtube video. Longer stories manifest in movies, novels, plays and the ramblings of my Aunt Gertrude.
So what makes up a story? What are the building blocks that you can use to construct a story?
If you didn’t read Part 1 of this ‘Storytelling Trilogy’ then why not read it now? It’ll go over the ‘big ideas’ of stories and relate to how a story is like a roller coaster.
If you did read it, here is the infographic from that so you can refresh your memory.
Remember that the track of a roller coaster is like the concept, or premise of a story. We talked about this in the first Article. The track can be broken down into sections. Each section is called a ‘Story Beat’, and all the ‘beats’ linked together are called the ‘plot’. Here’s another way to think of it. A recipe is made up of different ingredients. A plot is made up of different beats.
A beat is a specific story event that your Protagonist experiences in your story. These experiences of your Protagonist are what make up the Plot. In other words, the plot is the series of events that the Protagonist experiences. A great storyteller will construct a plot that is full of exciting situations and suspense. However, most storytellers will use cliché situations, explosions and boobs to mask a lack of a solid plot. Michael Bay and Zack Synder, I’m looking at you.
Great plots only contain the essential info they need.
That’s why boring stories can usually be saved with good editing. This is because the boring and cliché parts are edited out. Only the good stuff remains, which propels the plot forward.
Now that you know what a plot is, let’s go back and explain the building blocks, or sections of track, that make up the plot. You probably need to hear this a few times, so I’ll repeat it. The large building blocks of a plot are called ‘story beats’.
‘Story Beats’ are the essential ‘plot elements’ that you want to hit.
You can’t tell a story where nothing happens.
It’s like a heartbeat. Each beat keeps the story alive.
Great stories consistently hit the same beats in the same order in order to fully engage (and satisfy) the Audience. That means that once you understand plot and story beats, you’ll see them repeating over and over in various stories.
For example, every story has a beginning. Every story has an ending. These are two examples of Story Beats.
There are 11 Story Beats that great stories seem to always have. These are spread out over the course of a plot. But 11 things to remember is pretty hard!
That’s why I call these 11 Beats the ’S.T.O.R.Y.T.E.L.L.E.R. Beats’. I hope you can easily remember the word Storyteller so you can more easily remember them.
A little later in this article we’ll cover exactly what those 11 Beats are. For now let’s focus on the biggest part of story structure…the 3 Acts.
By the way, if you want notes from these articles, plus bonus Video training (all completely FREE) then click the red ‘Download These Now’ button below to get instant access now!
The 3 Acts
Fortunately, the Greeks (the inventors of modern story structure) figured this out for us. They figured that all stories have three major structural elements. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Act 1’? There are three acts that make up every story, and most people know these (but they don’t know the smaller building blocks of the 11 beats that flesh out the three Acts).
The infographic above shows you where the 3 Acts fall upon our Story roller coaster example.
Think of the three acts as the Beginning, Middle and End of your story. This is also known as the Setup, Build Up, and Payoff. In business stories, these three acts are sometimes referred to as the Challenge, Struggle and Resolution.
Keep in mind that some stories, like short jokes, don’t have an Act 2. They often just have a setup and payoff, also called a punch line.
Now let’s dive deeper into the function of each act.
Act 1 is the setup. This sets up the basic info the Audience needs in order to follow along with the story.
This includes such important information, also known as exposition (which is similar to the word explain), as:
- Who is the main character?
- What is their personality flaw?
- What is the main issue that they need to overcome?
- What is the conflict that stops them?
- Where does the story take place?
- What are the rules of the world?
- What does ‘being stuck’ look like?
- What are the stakes (what happens if the character fails)?
Act 2 is the buildup to the story. This is where the Protagonist attempts to solve their problem, but each attempt seems to make things worse. If you’ve heard of Murphy’s Law (not named after me) you’ll know how this comes into play in Act 2. We want your character to face conflict and hardship. That means Act 2 needs to beat them up and test their motivation and determination.
A great Act 2 shows the Protagonist trying increasingly more complex solutions to solve their problem. That means the actions the Protagonist takes needs to start with the laziest action first and then gradually climax with the most intense and demanding action. For example, a character who is trying to shoo a fly away would first attempt to smack the fly with the back of their hand before fumigating their house.
Of course you can’t have escalating conflict for your Protagonist without an Antagonist, or Villain, making life worse for them. There is a great quote (I think Walt Disney said it):
“A picture is only as good as the villain.”
That means if you don’t have conflict, or your Villain is a wuss, then you’ve got a very boring story!
Act 3 is the ending. It’s where the story ‘pays off’. That means all story elements that the Storyteller has ‘setup’ earlier in the story get paid off here. It is also known as the climax because the action and conflict build to a crescendo. It is also known as the resolution, because the story resolves itself and answers all the questions the Audience had about how things will turn out for the Protagonist.
Basically, in Act 3 the Protagonist makes one final attempt, involving a lot of effort, in order to solve their crushing problem.
Once they succeed (or fail if it’s a tragedy) the story wraps up in the resolution.
Remember in Video 1 how we talked about every story having a moral? The moral is often revealed in Act 3 through the Protagonist’s final actions and the lessons they learned from taking those actions. This is where Luke in Star Wars, learns to believe in himself by using the force. In Indiana Jones, this is where Indy learns to have faith in God by respecting the artifacts he spent his life plundering. This is where Tony Stark learns that he should protect others, instead of manufacturing weapons. The Audience gets to see the Protagonist learn something about life and themselves. In a good story the Audience learns the same lesson as the Protagonist.
Also in Act 3, the Audience gets to see a snapshot of where the Protagonist ends up. What I mean by that is that in Act 1 the Protagonist has a big problem. Life pretty much sucks for them. They’re not happy. They’re either single, jobless or just a mess. Or they can be on top of the world but have some flaw that keeps them from where they want to be. But after they solve their problem and arrive in Act 3, their life looks different. They have gone from single, jobless and a mess to married, billionaire and put together.
The best example of this Act 1 to Act 3 character change is in marketing ads for weight loss. You’ve probably seen the ‘before’ image of the fat loser hunched over sad and defeated in some dark living room in the Mid-West. Then the ‘after’ picture is the same guy, now with a six-pack, as he climbs onto his private yacht with three supermodels and a huge smile on his face. You visually, instantly know the journey he went on.
A great story starts the Protagonist in an extreme ‘before’ lifestyle so there is a dramatic change when they arrive in the ‘after’ portion of the story that happens in Act 3.
Following me so far? Let’s recap… there are three ‘acts’ that make up every story. These three acts are the key ‘building blocks’ of a story’s structure. These are three Acts are then made up of 11 ‘Story Beats’.
We’ll go over the Story Beats here in a minute. But first, I want to make sure you are clear on what needs to happen within the three acts.
You must have a Protagonist, or main character, that has a big problem they can’t run from. You must have conflict so the Protagonist has to struggle. You must have emotion so the Audience gets involved and invested in your Protagonist. Your Protagonist must find a solution to their problem that leads to a reward of some kind. Remember that in Act 1 they are struggling and stuck, and by the end of Act 3 they’ve solved their problem and are rewarded. This reward could be the private yacht, six pack abs and three supermodels. But it could also be believing in themselves, finding faith in others or accepting love.
Above all else, the logic of the three Acts should be simple. You get no points for overwhelming your audience!
As Spielberg says about the lack of knowledge of three Act Structure:
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
In Act 1 a question is raised that the Audience wants to know the answer to. ‘Will the Protagonist succeed and get what they want?’
Then during the remainder of the story smaller questions can be asked and answered to further engage the Audience’s curiosity. This is often called ‘open loops’ or ‘cliff hangers’.
In Act 2 the Protagonist (and the Audience) try to figure the riddle out:
- Will Luke defeat Darth Vader?
- Will Indy find the Lost Ark before the Nazis take over the world?
- Will the Ghostbusters be able to save New York City from the plague of nasty ghosts?
Finally, in Act 3 the riddle is answered. In most stories the Protagonist succeeds by learning something and adopting to change. In tragedies the Protagonist fails. This is because they didn’t learn and ultimately couldn’t solve their problem.
Now that you are clear on the three Acts, let’s jam onto what exactly the 11 Story Beats are.
In the Infographic above you can see the 11 Beats. Just as you learned in Part 1 of this ‘Storytelling Trilogy’, a story is like a roller coaster. For that reason we’ll stick with the roller coaster analogy.
Each lift, dip and twist of a roller coaster matches the emotional twists and turns an Audience goes through when they experience an engaging and entertaining story.
Ready to dive in on what happens in each Beat?
To make this as easy as possible for you to follow, let’s break the beats up into each Act.
Keep in mind that these 11 beats happen over the course of the three Acts. In other words, each Act doesn’t have all 11 Story Beats. Act 1 has Four Beats, Act 2 has Four Beats and Act 3 has three. That’s 4 + 4 + 3 = 11 Story Beats within one story.
Let’s begin with the beats that happen in Act 1. Because Act 1 is all about the setup, I call these the ‘Setup Beats’.
ACT 1 BEATS
The beats in Act 1 are meant to set up the story. They give the Audience the information they need in order to follow along with the rest of the story.
A joke, the simplest type of story, combines all these beats into a sentence or two. The example I used in Video 1 about the chicken crossing the road tells you all the info you need in this one sentence:
‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’
It tells you:
- Who the main character, which we’ll call the Protagonist, is (the Chicken)
- Where the story takes place (the road)
- And what the character wants (to cross the road, though we’re not clear exactly why the damn chicken wants to get across the road, but we’ll figure that riddle out in the punch line of this awful joke).
As you hear about the Act 1 Beats, just keep in mind that they’re all there to set up the story so the Audience can follow along.
ACT 2 BEATS
Beats 1 through 4 all happen in Act 1. That means they all happen in the beginning of your story in order to setup the necessary information (also called exposition) for the Audience.
Next let’s talk about the beats that happen in Act 2. These beats all happen in the middle of the story. The middle beats represent the part of your story where the Protagonist is actively trying to solve their problem. They can’t get out of their unfair situation so they’re forced to deal with it.
A great story makes solving this unfair situation extremely difficult. The Protagonist should be forced to learn new skills, make new friends who can help them and deal with the emotional setbacks that come with attempting to solve the big problem.
Whether you’re telling a story for a movie, or for a business presentation, the Act 2 of your story should layer on the conflict for your suffering Protagonist. Remember my law! If you, as a storyteller, can inflict as much conflict and suffering on your Protagonist (always asking ‘what is the worst thing that might happen at this point in the story) your Audience will be paying attention!