Creating a 5 Part Story Structure


Storytelling: Using Story to Influence and Connect


Lesson Info

Creating a 5 Part Story Structure

So we've talked about the emotional side of that structure, right? So now let's talk about the structure side. In our equation, story has structure. There's actually something that we can follow in the nature of story. I'm gonna show you a five part structure, but know that there's also a three part structure, and you'll see what that is. We can get all the way up to a 20 part structure if you want to really start breaking down what happens between those two things. Let me give you an example of a story, and then we're gonna break that down to show its structure. So you see the way that a brand is brought into solving a problem for someone. But ultimately, the emotion that's within that is authentic and real. Yes, it has some emotion that's been inserted, but for the most part, for people who have gone through similar experiences, it's pulling emotion that already exists out. But there is a structure that played out in the context of that, a structure that may not be obvious to us up f...

ront, but we can begin to see how it would break down. And that structure's gonna matter as we move into the work that we do. So I'm gonna give you a five part story structure so that we can understand what we just witnessed with that, and really what we witness with every great story that we tell. And then we're gonna talk about how we bring that back into the world with which we work. The first of the five part story structure is exposition. Exposition is basically scene setting. It's world building. We as humans have a very wide context for when things happen. Has this happened historically? Is it in the future? Is it in the current? Where in the world is this occurring? Is this fantasy? Is this reality? I need to understand all of those areas so I can start to put together this world in my head of what is and isn't real. Because from a fantasy standpoint, we'll start inserting things if we don't understand where this is occurring or where this is happening. You begin to see some, for instance, movies that will push beyond that. If you ever saw the movie Her, it's a movie that takes place in the near future. Like, the characters are all wearing normal clothes that are just a little bit different. There's no flying cars and Martians and all that. It all kind of comes down to just a little bit forward, and we have to understand that so we can understand the context that exists. Most stories that fail fail because exposition wasn't created. The audience is confused from the outset. They don't understand where or when or what the relationship is between the characters. They don't understand the context that exists within here. When we as humans don't understand context, we fill in naturally. That's the most human piece to us. If we're missing pieces, we start assuming certain things to be true. And if we've assumed something wrong, then the rest of our story plays out in a wrong context. So exposition becomes incredibly important. Our second step is an inciting incident. Every story has something that happens. Story is about action. Story is about happenings. Story can't take place in a world in which nothing happens. It's a very boring story if it's like, here's this car, it sits here, and never moves. That's an incredibly boring story. We need action to happen. Every great story has an inciting incident. Because we as humans, we live in a world with which, if there wasn't impetus, if we weren't pushed to do something, if change wasn't forced upon us, we would rarely ever change. Few of us seek out change. In most cases it's forced upon us regardless of what our greatest desires are. It's rare for us to have the push or the drive to go get something without something else happening. Often times you might dream of a better life. I wish I was here, I wish I was doing this. What's keeping you from doing it? Responsibilities, the current status quo, all these things that are keeping you in that place. If any of those changed, you might be more apt to go after the thing that you want, even though you know in your mind it's the thing that you want more than anything. What keeps you from doing it? Some inciting incident, in most cases, pushed that story forward. It creates the desire for something. We see a hole and we know that something has to be filled with it. Third, there is rising action in the context of every story. Once a desire is set, once we understand that there's a goal in place, that there's something that someone is going after, then there is going to be opposing forces. There are things that are going to keep that person, that thing from achieving it. In our example of you wanting a better life, there are things that are keeping you from doing so. As you pursue it, it's not going to be easy. It's not gonna be like, yup, I left my old life and now I have this new thing the next day. That's not what's gonna happen. There's gonna be all this action that rises to the surface that's gonna be opposing your desire to achieve that thing. If it's of worth, that thing is gonna be hard to achieve. And rising action gives us that. Any great story has that rising action that happens between the revelation of what it is that's the goal of this, what it is that somebody wants, to whether or not they get it. That's the next piece that we're gonna see, is the idea of climax. Does this goal that's been set, is it achieved? Did they get it? Do I get it? Do I get to see them get it? Is getting it implied? Is not getting it implied? If they don't get it, what does that mean? The climax is that moment that happens. And then, fifthly, fifthly, as if that's a word, resolution. There is always consequence to a climax. There's always the consequence of either getting it or not getting it. Sometimes the consequence is what you think it should be. You wanted that new life and you got it and everything's awesome. But sometimes you get that new life and you hate it. I wasn't what you thought, now the consequence exists for that climax. And there are different ways for us to communicate this. Hollywood oftentimes will allow the happy ending, because that's what we as humans want. We want the happy ending, there's something to it. But if you've gone to enough movies, you appreciate when Hollywood doesn't give you the happy ending. There's something unique that happens when there's a different resolution to that climax. If you ever saw the movie, oh, what was the movie with Benedict Cumberbatch, I'm now losing it, about Turing and the computer? What's the name of the movie, it's killing me now. I forgot what the name of the movie is. Yeah, Imitation Game, thank you. Imitation Game, if you ever saw Imitation Game, I won't give it away, but if you ever saw Imitation Game, we're led to believe that there is a certain, there's a certain climax coming, partly because this is a historical event so we know there's a climax coming. But we know what's gonna happen when they get there. So what happens is they get to the climax earlier than what we're expecting. Most movies, most stories take place over the course of three acts, three sections with which things happen. And they usually follow our five point story structure that exists there. We find out that the climax, which usually happens at the end of the third act, actually happens at the end of the second. You're about an hour in, and you're like, wait, they got what they wanted. Something doesn't feel right, this movie can't be 60 minutes. But what you find is the resolution to that movie, that what happened when they achieved their goal, wasn't what they thought. They were so focused on the goal that they never thought about the ramifications of achieving it. And there was this huge resolution that comes from it, and frankly, it's a huge part of the movie, this idea that happens after they achieve that climax. In this particular instance, we see a five part story structure play out. Let's apply to a couple of things that we've already seen today. So let's take a look at that first movie that we watched, that first short film called Reach. Our exposition, we see immediately what this scene is being set up as. We see that it's a workbench, we see a computer, we see a certain degree of loneliness. Color and music help us to set that sort of solitude that exists within this scene. We see that it is full of inanimate objects. Nothing here is alive. And we know that going in. So from an exposition standpoint, we understand what this scene is. We immediately recognize all the components to it, so now the context is set for us. So then the story starts to play out. There's an inciting incident. The inciting incident in this particular story is when he's plugged in. 'Cause if he's never plugged in, nothing ever happens. The scene stays in the exact same state it is. But once he's plugged in, he's given life. And once he's given life, we now enter a world which we now understand, from a human standpoint. There's life that exists here. That's our inciting incident. We also find out, during this inciting incident, what it is that he wants. 'Cause remember, he's plugged in and he's just happy to be plugged in, he's throwing screws up in the air, until he sees something he desires. Now he has to see something he desires, 'cause if he doesn't, the story is over at that stage, it's just life. And we have no real connection to it as humans. But as soon as he sees something he desires, but he can't have, we as humans go, oh, now I'm invested, now I wanna see how this plays out. That's our rising action. We see what he wants and we see his desire and the things that he does to try to achieve it. He tries to pull the computer with him. He tries to do all that, it's all of our rising action. We think that this is a story about freedom. As soon as we see what he wants, we know it's a story about companionship, and that's much more personal to us. And now we want him to achieve his goal. We want him to get there. Secretly, deep down, we want him to get there. But the story wouldn't have been that interesting if he did. Even though that's what we want, you see the power of story, how unique it is, right? So that's our rising action. Our climax, we understand what it is, the primary thing that's keeping him from getting what he wants, and what we want him to have is that cord, the cable. The very thing that gave him life, the very thing that allowed him to be is now keeping him from achieving that. So the climax is he breaks free from that. He breaks free from that bond that's keeping him from getting what we want. And we're like, yes! But the irony being that the very thing that's keeping him from getting what he wants is the very thing that's keeping him alive. And so as he, the consequence, the resolution to that, as he starts to go towards that window and get what he wants, he no longer has power. That's what makes this sad, is that we now see he didn't get what we wanted him to have. Without it, we're not moved that much. But with him not getting it, the resolution being sad, we're now moved more as humans. That's the power that story has. But we can also see this play out, this played out in the context of a narrative, right? A narrative that some of us get the opportunities to do, but many of us don't. We don't get to tell three minute short films. We don't get that much budget, we don't get that much time, we don't work on products that allow us to do so. We deal with more marketing related things. So let's take a look at the example that we showed just a second ago with the Principal ad. In the Principal ad, exposition. We're seeing a character, a bit frazzled, clearly studious, it's important for him to go through this, right? He's engaged in an activity that's difficult, and we all relate to that activity being difficult. And he meets someone. And that changes his world, doesn't it? We understand that the time period in which this takes place, there are indicators as to what time period this takes place. His clothes, the nature of what he's wearing, where he's sitting, what he's doing, the cars outside. These all give us an indication that this is meant to be present time. It's not necessarily meant to be historical or in the future. The time is frankly much more relevant to you and I in this instance, because the brand is much more in the present moment. So we see that all in that opening scene. We understand what's happening. They didn't have to give us a V.O, they didn't have to put words on the screen, we know what's happening. He's met somebody, right? And that's our inciting incident. Our inciting incident is he meets somebody, and something happens that changes his clear plan that we saw for him. And we know that there are implications to that. There are implications to what this inciting incident is. If she doesn't get pregnant, he goes to school and everything's fine. He goes on with his life. But because she gets pregnant, they make very difficult decisions, decisions that we know he struggles with. But he makes those decisions because he loves her, and because it's the right thing to do, and because he wants that family as well. So he makes those decisions and he gives up on a part of something that was clearly a dream to him, to do something else. There are ramifications to those actions. We begin to see him as he's growing. And he's beginning to change. If you've ever seen the movie Mr. Holland's Opus or read the book Mr. Holland's Opus, we see a very similar story playing out. Somebody who thought they had a plan for their life, and that plan was awesome, and then something changed in that plan, and what they found was, they found joy and happiness in the change of the plan as well. And we begin to see that as his family life changes and she's watching him, and she's seeing that he's basically dedicated his life to this family and doing what he has to do in order for this family to take place. And we see that kind of rising action that's happening. What we don't see at this point is what it is that he wants. We haven't identified that he has a goal in mind yet. We do start to get bits and pieces that she does, that she has something that she thinks can happen, and she wants to give to him in the same way that he gave to her. And so they make this plan, and the plan is through the context of this brand who's allowed them to plan for him to get what he started off with those many years ago. After his son is already grown, after he's already given that, we see that climax. And that climax is that he gets a degree as well, the thing that he wanted when he started off. Now, what could have allowed him to do that? What could possibly have given him the capacity to be able to do that? Principal. Somebody that helped them plan to be able to accomplish that goal that we all want to accomplish. That ends up being our resolution. Our resolution is, and we see it there, right? That life can take unexpected turns so we can help you plan for even the things that are unexpected. So there is a certain level of planning that happens with this. We even see it in the context of our brands, playing out. Now we may say to ourselves, all right, well that was a 60 second spot. I haven't got a 60 second spot, I've got banner ads, I've got a print ad, I've got these individual smaller things that I can't tell the context of an entire story, I can only tell something smaller. How do we start taking what in essence is a narrative structure and bringing it down to a marketing, advertising or design level structure? The way that this lays out is a very simple structure which I call a two world structure. There is a two world structure that exists within here from a marketing standpoint. There is the world that is, for them, the world that could be, for them. And then there's your product or service, in between. There's the world that is. We saw it in the Principal spot. The world that is is that life took an unexpected turn. This is the truth. This is the world that is. So are you resigned that your dreams will never be realized? No, let me show you the world that could be if my product or service is inserted between these two things. We see it happen with a variety of brands. Apple has, for the most part, made their living off of showing you the world that could be. So they can show you, this is what you could have, the way you could feel, the things that you could engage with and have experiences for. And this is the world that is. And then right in between are these two things. There's a great Apple spot, if you remember, from Christmases ago, where you got the teenager who's always on his phone, and everyone's like, will you stop being, looking at your phone and look up at this great Christmas stuff that's happening? We're out here throwing snowballs and we're having dinner and you just got your face in the phone, like we naturally assume teenagers do, right? As parents, we're like, this is exactly the experience that we normally have. But what we find out at the end of it was that he didn't have his face in his phone, he was recording it all. And then he puts together this movie using his phone and shows it to them on Christmas day, and you're like, you captured all these moments. They'd showed you the world that is, the world that we know. They showed you the world that could be if he was holding an iPhone and not some other phone, right? And you're able to place that right in between there. From a marketing standpoint we can do this in any number of ways. You can do it with three frames of a banner ad. Three headlines in a row. Just tell them the world that is, here's the world that could be, and here's the bridge between them. It breaks down to a very very small structure. If you don't even have that time, then you have to know who your audience is. And if you know who your audience is, you can make assumptions about if they understand the world that could be, or if they understand the world that is. And you don't even have to tell them those parts. You just have to get them to think of it for themselves, and then insert your product or service in between those two pieces. Now the beauty of this, in a narrative structure, is that our five part story structure actually lays right over the top of this. In most stories that we tell, your five part story structure plays out this way. Exposition is the world that is. Our inciting incident happens right here. The introduction of our product or service, that's where we see the rising action happen. The use of that or the experience with that. We see that there is this intersection of the product or service, the thing that we're marketing, and the world that could be, and there's our interplay right in between there. That's our climax. And then our resolution is that they've achieved that world that could be. So our five part story structure plays right over the top of that two world structure. So we can either tell very complex stories, as we've seen in some of the examples, or we can tell very simple stories in between those. Understanding who our audience is will tell us what it is that we have. Sometimes our budgets tell us the types of stories that we can tell. So we understand if we can tell them in words, if we can tell them in pictures, we could use a variety of mediums in order to do so. But that gives us that emotion plus structure, and that's what allows us to build stories that are worth sharing. Any questions about structure? The structure of story as we've laid it out. We have a question over here while the audience is thinking. Kaja would like to know, and this is a bit of a work flow question, do you map out the changing emotions that the audience goes through during a story? Yeah, we do it right up front. My process is typically audience-driven. So I'll start with who the audience is, what their behaviors are. And then we ask the why questions. Why do those behaviors exist that way? You can do it one of two ways. You can do it ethnographically, where you're asking people whether that's the people that are engaged in the behavior or the people who witness that behavior, oftentimes your clients, as to why they believe that behavior is the way that it is. I would rather get research that tells me why those behaviors exist. The more research I get, the clearer the picture is as to why behaviors exist in certain ways, and I can start finding patterns in their behaviors to get to the why of somebody, of why somebody acts in that way. So I'll do it way upfront, as to identify what emotions exist within it. There's another way that you can force it, if you wanted to force it the other direction. It's a little bit more top down, but sometimes you simply don't have the information to come bottom up. And that top down is to take those six primary emotions and to insert my brand into each one of those. How does my brand serve love? how does my brand serve fear? How does my brand alleviate fear? And in each case being able to answer those questions with emotional responses as to how that brand or service does that. It's a process with which a lot of us, I even hesitate to share it because a lot of us will go, oh I'm gonna do that. It's a top down approach. You're making assumptions about someone's behavior. It's assumptions that are much better off being driven from the bottom up, of understanding why those behaviors exist to begin with. Whether it's research driven, whether it's ethnographically driven. Whatever it is, being able to start with the people and find out what their behaviors are and then see how my brand fits. But sometimes you simply don't have access to it or time, and so you could use those six primary emotions, or frankly any of the 24. If you wanted to go through a pretty deep exercise to go through the 24 secondary emotions, as to how that product or service inserts itself into that emotion, you certainly can. It's a little dangerous. Because we have a tendency to make people, this is why they would love my product. No, that's not why they would love your product. You're not looking at their behavior, you're forcing it, that's manipulation. That's why it's better to go, this is what they love, and that's how my product serves this. This is what they fear, and this is how my product alleviates that.

Class Description

We are all storytellers. Few of us are storybuilders, capable of not only understanding the structure of story but able to use it to connect to the people that consume it. Story has a form, one that Stefan Mumaw, the Director of Creative Strategy at the well-known story shop Hint, is going to break down for you. He’ll lay out the structure of story and use real-world examples to show how each story component is used to build an emotional bridge. Bring a few tissues, story has a knack for producing both tears of laughter and empathy and Stefan will use both to show just how powerful story can be.

In this class you’ll learn:

  • How to create emotion
  • Story structure
  • Character development. Associating characters of a brand with characters
  • Rational and emotional purchase drivers

Stefan reminds us that target audiences are made up of individuals, and for the message to be effectively received, it needs to be couched in a story that speaks to what motivates people, thus awakening a response.



GREAT CLASS!! Loved the content. Engaging speaker and wonderful examples shared. Took a lot from this class that I will bring back to my daily creative work!


Stefan was an amazing speaker... He provided great detail in explaining the structure of a story, and his example/videos really drove home the points he was making... He had wonderful real-world professional experiences to share.


Stefan's a truly compelling speaker. I listened to the free online version of the course a couple of times (with some breaks when I had to leave). It's a good commentary on storytelling principles and what makes a good story. His examples come from big brand packaged goods (such as beer), which are sold more on emotion. They're a good way to see story structure and his video examples are entertaining and spot on.