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The structure of a good story

Figure 11.1: The essential ingredients of a compelling story

Any good story must have heroes and villains and insurmountable odds if it is to be entertaining. But it must also follow a basic structure (see Figure 11.1).

1. The lifeblood of any story is a great desire, an overwhelming need, a challenge or significant problem. A keen desire or need drives our behaviours and motivations. Your hero must have a goal. In the case of my train story, the desire was all about wanting desperately to get home early. This is a pretty banal, if perfectly understandable, goal. In business stories you will usually seek to bring to life much bigger goals and aspirations. In the story about ‘Steve’, the safety director, the challenge for me was being brought in to deal with an ineffectual but passionate leader.

2. A protagonist to care about. In my train story this was me, tired at the end of a long week, keen to get home to my loving wife. Could you see me with my feet up sipping at a cold glass of Chardonnay? It could just as well be a young man struggling to pay his way through university, a scientist devoting her life to finding a cure for the disease that killed her father, or a mad inventor obsessed with the idea of making a wind-up engine to power generators in areas without electricity. In the case of the story about ‘Steve’, it was him – someone powerfully motivated by a tragic past.

3. The status quo – about to be interrupted. Every movie or TV show you see will involve people going about their normal lives when, suddenly, fate intervenes to disrupt the status quo. What happens next is all about change. Whether people respond well to the change or fail to meet the challenges it throws up becomes the point of the story. In my case it was the death on the line that was about to cause interminable delays. In the case of the business story, it could be about the arrival of an innovative competitor or a disruptive technology that changes everything. In the case of Steve, the interruption to the status quo was me arriving to give him a good listening to.

4. A conflict to resolve, followed by trials and tribulations. Will s/he succeed or will s/he fail? Every memorable story is made by the severity of the obstacles or the insurmountable odds our hero has to overcome. In the case of my railway story, this was me rushing about the station, bashing my arm, forgetting my raincoat, using technology to find my way, but staying resolute in my determination to find the train that would get me home. Going back to the scientist seeking a cure for the disease that killed her father, it could be about her struggle to find funding, and several blind alleys with research that turns up nothing new. For Steve, it was his struggle to deal with his haunted past, which turned him into an aggressive boss.

5. A turning point leading to a resolution. This was me arriving on the final train to find the businesswoman I’d befriended in the seat opposite me, with us both dissolving into laughter at the irony. For the scientist, however, it could be the discovery of the compound that leads to a new medicine that can now save millions of lives. For Steve, it was the realization he could channel his anger and past into a story that could help him achieve his goals.

6. Reflection. Help the audience to understand what they are supposed to get from the story, but don’t be blatant. In my railway story, this was about me and my serene lady friend realizing we had both experienced very different journeys to get to exactly the same point. Whose journey had been the more pleasant? In the case of our scientist, it would be that perseverance and a tireless belief in a cure led to ultimate success. For Steve, it was that even the most personal of experiences could be turned into a story that could change the culture of a whole business.

See? Every story you ever read or hear will have this basic structure.

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