The ‘Arc’ of Telling a Great Story
Below are the five beats (or sections) through which a story usually moves. Asking yourself these five questions will remind you of the five beats. In parentheses, I’ve included a typical fairy tale transition line:
Set The Scene. (Once upon a time…)
Where were you in life when this began? What should we know about you in those days that helps explain the choices you made?
What Got the Ball Rolling? (Until one day…)
What incident made taking action necessary? What set the wheels into motion?
What Was At Stake? (But just when things seemed to be going well…)
What hope or fear drove you? What did you stand to gain or lose? What was your emotional connection to what you were experiencing? How did things escalate in intensity or complication?
How I Turned the Corner. (Then, at the last minute…)
What finally changed this situation, for better or for worse? What was the point of no return that made the chips land where they did? Did you have an epiphany or find something in yourself that you didn’t realize was there before?
How did the Pieces Land? (They lived happily ever after.)
Is there anything the audience should know in wrapping up? What’s your take-away from the story?
Below is a beat-by-beat description of these five sections. Bear in mind that all principles are flexible. Nothing is written in stone. This is just meant to spark the imagination.
Beat 1: The Set-Up
A good opening line grabs the audience’s attention, stimulates their imagination, and makes them curious to hear more. An opening line can plunge the audience into dramatic action (“I flung open the door and I ran.”) or serve as an impressive statement that they’ll want you to elaborate on or a mysterious statement that will make them curious as to why you’ve come to this conclusion (“Never ever pray to Mars, the god of war.”) or a striking introduction to a key player in the plot and their “deal” (“My mother can’t get around. She weighs 350 pounds.”).
Other than an attention-getting hook, the set-up is likely to establish the “Who,” the “What,” and the “Where.”
The “Where” is the vibe of the time and the place in which the story is set. (“Every night that summer, we wondered if there’d be another cross burning or another black church destroyed or another murder.”)
The “What” is the protagonist’s “deal.” Somewhere in the beginning of a story, it’s helpful to describe the protagonist’s situation in life against the backdrop of the events described. In personal stories, the hero is usually the person telling the story, or the person telling it and one other character if the story is about a close relationship.
A character’s “deal” is the emotional or behavioral tendency that will affect how he handles the events. For example, suppose a storyteller says, “So here I was at a Russian shot-drinking contest. Two weeks earlier, my AA sponsor said to me, ‘If you take just one sip, you might not be able to stop. You could die.’” Now the audience knows that the protagonist has a tortured history with alcohol and that tortured past is his “deal.” It will play a role in how the character adapts to specific situations.
But a character’s deal might not be something as serious as an addiction. It might be a spiritual or psychological need. Audiences respond favorably when they feel a deeply motivating drive in the protagonist. Imagine a storyteller saying, “When I was in my mother’s womb, I didn’t just kick occasionally, I ran in place. Even before I was here in the world, I had to run.” It would make sense then that when this storyteller gets to the second beat, something happens that causes him to run the race to end all races.
Beat 2: Inciting Incident
In the beginning of a story, typically within the first two or three minutes, something happens to the protagonist that causes her to set forth on a journey toward a specific goal. For example, Cinderella’s father dies and she becomes enslaved in an awful step-family. Now she wants to start her own family. Dorothy is transported to another world. Now she wants to get back home. Luke Skywalker’s family is murdered. Now he wants to end the Empire’s injustices.
Because of this incident, the protagonist feels compelled to take action and create a change. Naturally, the change the hero desires will present challenges, maybe even a conflict.
Once the protagonist has a goal, you may explore events and conversations that didn’t actually happen in real life, but that happened in the hero’s daydreams. The more you show the audience how much the hero is craving change, the more you show how the hero feels that something precious will be lost if she fails to achieve that change.
Also, once the protagonist has a goal, you have at least one story question. A story question is a nagging uncertainty that befuddles the audience until the story is concluded. Will she or won’t she? How will she fix this? The more nuanced the story, the less likely there is a simple, clear cut “yes” or “no” answer.
Beat 3: Raising Stakes
This part is also called “Rising Action” or “Heightening.” If the hero is proactive, it’s where the hero takes one leap toward his goal and then is surprised by how awful or confusing or fortunate things turned out. Someone or something, such as a diabolical person or an antagonistic voice in the protagonist’s head keeps complicating things. Typically, the protagonist gets creative by coming up with a new idea for overcoming an obstacle standing between him and his goal and again is surprised by how even more awful or confusing or fortunate things turned out. Then… one more leap, and so on.
If the hero is passive, or mellow, she may become the victim of circumstances. You’ve probably been in situations where all you wanted to do was to lay back and chill, but things kept happening that made kicking back impossible.
This works best if the “stakes” really are raised. Raising the stakes means making what is to be gained or lost an even bigger deal. For example, if your goal was to save your prized stamp collection from a burning building, so you took a leap of faith and burst into a room full of flames to find the stamps but then heard a baby crying upstairs where the fire is heading — well, now there’s much more to be gained or lost in your rescue effort. The stakes have been raised.
The single most common problem with stories that flub are low stakes. If the audience doesn’t feel that something devastating will happen to the protagonist if he doesn’t get what he wants, they won’t be on the edge of their seats earnestly waiting to see what happens. Stories where what could be lost is life itself (and what could be gained is eternal life) are quite compelling for audiences because the stakes are so high. A story told on The Moth podcast once concerned a few people on a life raft with dozens of sharks circling underneath them.
Sometimes, from an outsider’s point of view, the stakes aren’t high, but from the protagonist’s point of view, they are. For example, for someone with an abject fear of clowns, just attending a children’s birthday party might be enough to put them over the edge. In the exterior world of the story, the hero is watching a clown perform. But in the interior world of the story, the hero is secretly having a meltdown.
If you feel your story has flatlined and needs a jolt, it may be because you’re not sharing enough of what was going on inside you when it happened and what is going on inside you now as you look back on the experience. Storytelling often entails “mining” those depths of your thoughts and feelings.
Beat 4: Main Event
The simplest way to describe “The Main Event” is that it is what the story is about if you had to summarize it in one brief sentence. The most dramatic, active and pivotal event in the story happens here.
“The Main Event” is sometimes called the “Emotional Turning Point” or “The Climactic Action.” This is when the hero summons up the fortitude to overcome some adversity and achieve her goal or realizes that she doesn’t have what it takes and fails to achieve her goal or realizes that she was foolish to be going after this goal in the first place. This is where story questions (How will she pull it off? Why were all those mysterious things happening to her? etc.) are finally answered. This is where the hero experiences something significant that makes her realize that life will never be quite the same as before.
All three descriptions for this plot point have one thing in come: something happens. In the exterior story it is likely to be a fight, a rescue, a leap. In the interior story, it is likely to be a discovery, a delusion, a breakdown.
Although “The Main Event” is the fourth beat in this structure, when storytellers alter the structure a bit — by taking things out of chronological order or by returning to the scene of the crime a few times — “The Main Event” might be a bit scattered in the actual telling. A preview of it might come at the beginning of the story, while a smidgen of it might come at the very end.
Beat 5: Resolution
This tends to be the shortest beat of the five. Sometimes it’s just a passing remark (the most famous is “And they lived happily ever after.”). Sometimes it’s a little joke about how life doesn’t wrap up as neatly as we expect it to (“So I’ll never get married again. Unless of course, she’s rich.”). Sometimes there’s a “moral” to the story. Sometimes the resolution includes the narrator’s feelings about these past events now that she is older and wiser. And sometimes it’s just one last thing that happened that neatly ends the action (“And I finally had that cigarette. It was the best I’ve ever had.”).