How to Tell a Story: Storytelling Formulas

Two people can tell the exact same story, but one says it in a manner that is gripping and enticing, while the other says it in such a way that you start yawning with boredom because it’s such a tedious drag.

The reason for this lies in the way the story is told; the first will no doubt be well-structured, with a clearly-outlined plot full of sequential events, and inhabited by distinctly-drawn characters and a main character—the hero or protagonist—with whom readers instantly relate. There are high points of drama, tension, suspense, and a believable resolution.

The second version probably lacks these qualities; the plot may be the same, but the dramatic high points are not emphasized and are lackluster, so there’s no suspense. Maybe the hero isn’t drawn vividly enough to allow readers to relate to them, so they don’t become engaged with the action or root for the hero to succeed.

You can see this storytelling difference in books and movies—or any other storytelling medium.

So, is there a formula we can use to make a story engaging?

Every romantic Hollywood movie almost always follows the same formula; boy meets girl, they fall in love, overcome a misunderstanding or some challenging event where they get separated, then they magically come together in the end, and everyone lives happily ever after.

We can safely say that there is an underlying structure at work in constructing a compelling story.

But can storytelling itself be broken down into a formula? It most certainly can, and I’m going to discuss several storytelling formulas with you now.

Formula #1: The three-act structure

Over the many years that the cinema has been around, scriptwriters have popularized a format called the three-act structure. It’s based on the simple notion that every story needs a beginning (or introduction), a middle, and an end.

The three-act structure is made up of three individual parts that fit together to make a satisfying whole:

  • Act one: set-up, inciting incident, first plot point
  • Act two: confrontation
  • Act three: resolution

Let’s look at the three-act structure in more detail:

The First Act:

The set-up

The set-up is where the author introduces the main characters inhabiting their story, the world they live in, their important relationships, their dreams and ambitions, and everyday life. This allows the reader to get to know the situation and the characters before the story begins.

The inciting incident

This is brought together by an inciting incident, a specific turn of events that serves to kick off the plot like a line of dominos falling neatly one after the other to a conclusion. The inciting incident is the trigger that sets the story in motion. It is the first plot point in your story, and often involves the main character, the hero or protagonist, being faced with a challenging situation or decision.

For example, in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, the inciting incident is an invitation to a ball, where newly-arrived rich and eligible bachelor Charles Bingley shows interest in the eldest of the five Bennet daughters, which eventually brings her sister Elizabeth into contact with Mr. Darcy, after which much excitement and romance famously ensues.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, the inciting incident is the decision of Scout Finch’s father, Atticus, to defend Tom Robinson, one of the town’s black residents, from the false accusation of raping a white woman, which violently divides the community.

In Agatha Christie’s Whodunnits, the inciting incident is the character’s untimely death that inevitably turns out to be a murder.

You can see the idea—the inciting incident will become your story’s first plot point in the story; it’s the trigger that sets in motion the series of events that make up the story.

The first plot point

The first plot point is a prelude to act two. It should set up what happens next in the sequence of events. It’s at this stage that something dramatic happens that changes everything for the protagonist.

You can see why it’s crucial to get act one right; it sets the scene for the rest of the story. It’s got to be tight and captivating for the reader to want to keep on reading and find out what happens.

Act two: Confrontation

Act two provides much of the meat of the story. It’s where the protagonist must deal with the problems and challenges that have arisen as a result of the inciting incident that occurred in the first act. Misunderstandings occur and things frustrate the protagonist from moving towards their goal. The challenges encountered stretch the protagonist’s abilities to the limit, forcing them to develop their moral, emotional, and physical strengths to achieve their objectives. At the end of the act, they should have evolved into a bigger, better person by building their character and learning new skills, which most of us can relate to. If the story is told well at this stage, readers will be rooting for the protagonist to succeed. But there is still a final challenge to face and overcome in act three.

Act Three: Resolution

Act three is where all the protagonist’s problems are finally resolved through the success of their actions, and the end of the story is in sight. Act three contains three vital elements: the pre-climax, the build-up to the protagonist’s final and most personally challenging task, which ramps up the dramatic tension; the climax itself, for example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the climax is the two children committing suicide. The climax is when the story reaches the highest possible level of tension and should have the readers on the edge of their seats.

The final element is the denouement, which is a French word meaning to untie—it’s where everything is unraveled, and all issues are resolved so that the protagonists can get on with their lives. For instance, the denouement of Romeo and Juliet comes when the warring parents of the two young protagonists see their children’s dead bodies and, realizing that they themselves are responsible for the double tragedy, decide to end their feud.

Now let’s look at another popular story formula:

Formula #2: Before-After-Bridge

The before-after-bridge structure is especially useful for non-fiction writers and advertising copywriters, as it provides a clear formula for approaching your subject by inviting readers to make a “before and after” comparison that convinces them to act, i.e., to buy your book. The formula is to show the “original state,” then the “better state,” and finally show how to attain the “better state” by presenting a vision of how it improves life (in advertising copywriting this stage is also called the “representation of function” and helps to sell products).

Here’s a little story for you to show you what I mean:

Original state

Personal computers didn’t exist when I first started out writing down my stories for others to read. I was too young to have a typewriter, which was expensive and quite basic in comparison to a PC. All I had was a pen and a notebook. It always took me a long time to get the stories right, which meant I had lots of crossings out, blots, and jottings in the margins, so the pages always looked a mess. I couldn’t show them to other people or send them to a publisher, which was what I dreamed of doing. More than anything, I wanted to be a published author and make a living writing books, but copying out the stories, even in my neatest handwriting, was not good enough.

Show better state

Then, in the 1980s, the first PCs came into the market. They promised to transport me to a world of writing where I could let my imagination run free and, however many mistakes, changes, and improvements I chose to make to the stories, there would always be a perfect copy in the end that would satisfy any publisher. I would save so much time, But PCs were expensive, and I didn’t have the money. However, I was determined to have one, whatever the cost, and set about finding out how I could afford one. I researched loans, secured one, and finally found a PC supplier that accepted monthly payment installments.

Attain better state

As soon as I got my hands on the money and purchased that first PC, my life changed forever, and I have never looked back. Now, I can start my stories onscreen any way I chose—sometimes with just a few inspirational words or phrases, something that gets me thinking. I can jot character details or plot notes, then fill them in or erase them and write new ones. I can create whole story outlines and fill in the details as I go along. Best of all, I can spell-check my stories, so that I avoid all the silly errors that can ruin a manuscript and make it look unprofessional. I have now been a professional writer for many years, with many successful books under my belt. And every time I sit down at my keyboard, I still think about how lucky I am to own such a wonderful machine.

By using the before-and-after-bridge structure, I constructed this story in just a few minutes, and you can do the same.

Formula #3: The Monomyth, or The Hero’s journey

This is one of the most enduring and popular storytelling formulas in fiction, one that goes back to the classical writers and which many of you will recognize. Homer’s Illiad is the perfect example of this formula at its most successful. More modern interpretations of this formula are found in Luke Skywalker’s physical and emotional journey throughout the Star War’s films or Bilbo Baggins’ epic quest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In a nutshell, the hero leaves their ordinary world and travels into unknown territory, where they face several challenges; they learn, evolve, become a leader, and eventually return home in triumph.

You can see the similarity of elements with the three-act formula covered earlier, but this has additional stages.

One important thing to note about the hero is that they don’t usually start out as what we typically think a hero should be. Quite often, they’re reluctant to undertake the challenge or go on an adventure—think of Harry Potter or Katniss Everdene in The Hunger Games. Something happens to spur them on.

It was Joseph Campbell who originally popularized the Hero Myth, which initially had an astonishing seventeen stages. In the 1990s, David Campbell and Phil Cousineau condensed it to a more manageable eight stages, while Christopher Vogler’s version of twelve stages, refined in his book The Writer’s Journey, is perhaps the most popular.

Outlined below are Vogler’s twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey:

Ordinary world

The, often reluctant hero is introduced to readers, who learn something about the hero’s world before the journey commences.

Call to adventure

The hero is confronted with a challenge, which is usually inescapable, and provides a big hint that life for our protagonist is about to change dramatically.

Refusal of the call

The hero initially refuses the call to adventure: they’re either too scared or simply ignorant about how important the challenge is.

Meeting with the mentor

The hero finally decides or is forced to choose, to face the challenge, and to go on the adventure. However, events highlight their inexperience and lack of wisdom.

As a wisecrack said, “When the student is ready, the mentor will appear.” And that’s the case here, for this is the stage where the hero meets their mentor: think Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories, and Mr. Miyage in the film Karate Kid.

Crossing the first threshold

Helped by their mentor, the hero finally embarks on the adventure.

Tests, allies, and enemies

During this stage, the hero encounters people who will either help, hinder, or drag them away from their mission. Somehow, the hero has to handle them and get on with the adventure.

Approach to the inmost cave

This is where the hero has to dig deep into themselves and their innermost beliefs, and where they finally decide whether or not they are up to the challenge.

The ordeal

The protagonist faces the biggest test so far—this is usually the stage where the “child” grows into an “adult”— if they survive the ordeal.

Reward

After battling through the previous stages, the hero finally sees the reward for all the effort and sacrifices they’ve made come within their grasp.

The road back

The hero now attempts to return to their ordinary world but finds they must first deal with the ramifications of stealing the reward.

The resurrection

This is the final test for the hero. It involves the protagonist going through near-death experiences that forever change their outlook on life. This is the dramatic climax of the story and, therefore, is the most suspenseful and exciting.

Return with the elixir

Finally, the hero succeeds in overcoming the final challenge, wins, and gets to go home. Now, however, they are a different person, more mature and battle-hardened than when they started out. And then, of course, they get to live happily ever after.

Conclusion

Simply by looking at these three popular storytelling formulas in detail, you can see how using a specific structure to underpin your story is likely to make the reader’s journey more gripping, fun, and enticing. Although there are many more storytelling formulas, those discussed here are the most popular because they’ve been proven successful time and time again. My advice is to experiment with them, tell your story using different structures, and see which one works best for you.

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