There is a class of entertainment that is underrated, in spite of its external success: stories about telling stories. Hit shows like How I Met Your Mother, Suits, or Gilmore Girls and blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven, the Bourne movies, and Fight Club all thrive on their characters’ abilities to launch into enchanting monologues at a second’s notice.
Whoever asks Barney Stinson about his playbook, platinum rule, or Valentine’s Day can expect a full-fledged fake history lesson. Despite what the gang might say, they love it. Because who tells stories like that?
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?
The Universal Principles of Storytelling
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.
Since reading the book, I have run nearly all my articles through this framework. This has led to some of my biggest hits so far. I’ve gathered the cornerstone elements into 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.
For example, when I wrote Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World, I watched and read a ton about The Gambler. Then, I filled in the template before I started writing.
Why Losers Will One Day Rule The World
Theme: Learning to accept our insignificance so that we can start.
Concept: If you don’t know what you want, starting with something arbitrary will ironically help you get there.
Hero: The reader who says “screw it, I’m already a loser, I might as well go for broke.”
Villain: The voice in your head that wants us to settle for mediocrity.
Act 1 - Hook: If you’re not a genius, should you really just give up?
Inciting Incident: Gregor Mendel found out that genetics favor certain traits over others. As a result, life is naturally unfair.
Act 2 - Build: Some people win the genetic lottery twice, while others lose twice. That's depressing, but there is a stabilizing element that somehow makes life fair again for all.
Escalation: Examples of genetic lottery winners and losers.
All is Lost: In face of mediocrity and a sea of mediocre options, some people choose nihilism. That’s a bad solution.
Breakthrough: Both the genius and the generalist have to gamble to make it. No one really wins the lottery.
Act 3 - Payoff: If you have to gamble anyway, choose an arbitrary goal, so you can at least start going somewhere.
Climax: We all have to gamble, so we’re all losers in a way. Only when we accept our loser status can we be free.
For others, like You Don’t Need An Identity To Have A Life, I started writing with a blank slate. All I had was the theme. Then, I used the template to fill in gaps as I went, move around sections, and drop in ideas. I didn’t have a concept until the very end, and I didn’t use some ideas at all.
You Don’t Need An Identity To Have A Life
Theme: Identity is dangerous. You’re stronger without it.
Hero: Jason Bourne.
Villain: The voice in your head that says, “I am this way and I always will be.”
Act 1 - Hook: Howard Hughes wasted his entire life playing a genius inventor’s son when that role was never really his to play. And we all do that. Playing roles that we were never cast for.
Inciting Incident: Jason Bourne finds out his name, but he has no idea who the person behind that name is.
Act 2 - Build: Every day, we’re building more towards assembling a self and hardening our identity, only to ultimately find out we might not like what we’ve created.
Escalation: Bourne finds out he’s a killer.
All is Lost: Quote from Denial of Death. Wasting your life in service of building a conceptual self that may not last, nor be perceived in any way as what you set out to make it.
Breakthrough: We're like actors on a stage (Counterclockwise Study). Our identity is like the weather (Jim Carrey).
Act 3 - Payoff: Bourne’s fluid identity is his strength. Justin Timberlake’s too (muted). More examples? Frank Abagnale! How far he got! Ending: Bourne says “not really.”
Climax: Bourne abandons his former identity the second he finds out what it was, choosing his fluid self over any sort of crystallized version in an instant, in spite of having worked so hard to find out who this former self was.
I’m far from an expert in using this template and I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything there is to know about telling stories. But at least now I don’t forget the books.
Everything Is a Story
We might not be film characters, but if you think about it, our opportunities to tell stories are not rare. They’re omnipresent. We tell stories all the time. In fact, we do little else. A phone call is a story. A sales pitch is a story. Dinner with friends is a story. And so is this post.
When Harvey Specter, Rory Gilmore, and Tyler Durden raise their voices, we listen. Not because they know how to talk, but because they know how to lead. That’s what storytelling really is. Human communication 101. We’ll never run as smoothly as characters on a script, but if we fail at the basics, if we forget to account for the books, we miss out on a whole lot more than the corner office. We miss out on making change.
And isn’t that all we’re here to do?