Sometimes, life throws us the same opportunity to tell a story however we want to tell it. It might be an essay for a job application, a speech to your old class, or a new acquaintance asking about a childhood experience. But we’re not a character in a movie, so we never have those stories locked and loaded and often butcher them as a result.
How can we change that?
Steven Pressfield laid out a framework in "Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t". He calls it the universal principles of storytelling:
1) Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.
2) Every story must be about something. It must have a theme.
3) Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
4) Every story must have a hero.
5) Every story must have a villain.
6) Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.
7) Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.
8) Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.
Here's the cornerstone elements of Pressfield's formula in a template you can copy:
Act 1 - Hook:
Act 2 - Build:
All is Lost:
Act 3 - Payoff:
But how do you use it?
How to Not Forget the Books
There’s a How I Met Your Mother episode in which Ted starts his own architecture firm, Mosbius Designs. One afternoon, Robin walks into Ted lost in thought, who responds to her prompt with the following:
“What if I don’t think of the books?”
“There’s this famous architecture story about an architect who designed this library. It was perfect. But every year, the whole thing would sink a couple inches into the ground. Eventually, the building was condemned.
He forgot to account for the weight of the books.
This company, it’s just me. What if I don’t think of the books?”
Like the library in Ted’s example, any story that doesn’t rest on the foundational pillars of Steve’s framework is bound to crumble. And even though accounting for the principles of storytelling doesn’t guarantee it’ll be well received, a story built this way always ‘works.’
Case in point, here’s what the screenwriters might’ve put into the template for Ted’s five-sentence story:
Ted's Library Story
Theme: The flawed nature of human short-term thinking.
Concept: A project is never just about building what you set out to build.
Hero: The architect.
Villain: His narrow, short-term perspective.
Act 1 - Hook: An architect designs a beautiful library but forgets to account for the statics of the building once it's in use.
Inciting Incident: The plans pass all stages without the mistake being noticed.
Act 2 - Build: A year after the grand opening, problems begin to show up in the basement, which keep getting worse every year.
Escalation: Year after year, repairmen and investigators return to figure out the problem.
All is Lost: Eventually, a report shows the building is sinking into the ground.
Breakthrough: The architect realizes the sinking is caused by the weight of the books.
Act 3 - Payoff: The building is condemned and the architect is right back to where he started.
Climax: An official tells the architect the building will be shut down. This leads to the architect sitting over his original plan at night, all by himself, having a drink and facing the pain of his short-term thinking.
It might have collapsed into a few lines, but since this kind of thought went into it, intuitively the story still makes perfect sense. It feels right. And while there are no hard rules here, this is what I think about for each element:
Theme: The underlying topic of it all. The bigger the theme, the more powerful the story. Love, time, identity — every human has to deal with these.
Concept: Look at the topic from a new angle, one that few people would ever consider on their own.
Hero: Who rides the rollercoaster of hook, build, and payoff? This needn’t be a person.
Villain: Who puts the hero on that rollercoaster and tries to throw him or her off during the ride? This can also be a mistake or the state of the hero’s mind.
Act 1 - Hook: The overarching sequence of events that pulls the reader or listener into the story.
Inciting Incident: The event that officially kicks off the story. It usually involves the hero and the villain, and the climax will bring them right back to it.
Act 2 - Build: The overarching sequence of events that escalates the hero’s trauma, known to them or not, until they’re forced to do something.
Escalation: The villain’s main act of the show.
All is Lost: The hero’s lowest point.
Breakthrough: The moment of insight that forces the hero on the only possible path: to fight the villain. This could be a brilliant idea or a sobering realization. It doesn’t indicate the hero will win.
Act 3 - Payoff: The overarching sequence of events that resolves all the conflicts built up to this point by forcing the hero and villain to face one another.
Climax: The hero and the villain clash. Whatever the outcome, it must close all the boxes that have been opened up to this point.
Whether you sit down with this template before you even begin a story, think of it as you’re telling it, or use it to review one you’ve already shared, it will allow you to condense the story into one coherent web of reason and emotion that connects right with your audience’s soul.