Tag Archives: Story Structure

Pecha Kucha — A Story About Story



A bunch of us were out to dinner and the conversation turned to movies, and eventually to story structure. I asked someone to pick their favorite movie and we went through all the story beats. At that point, my friend Lana said,

“You should do a Pecha Kucha!”

No, it’s not a dance or whatever else you might be thinking — it’s about telling stories…

Pecha Kucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images. Originally developed in Tokyo in response to architects administering “death by PowerPoint,” this succinct presentation format evolved in to informal gatherings all over the world covering a wide range of topics.

Much like screenwriting, it’s a distilled storytelling format. I spent lots of time with Lana’s help crafting this 6.6 minute presentation.

Story is Everywhere!

One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as I study story and mythic structure is that, as human beings, it seems how we assimilate story is actually part of our makeup and coded into our DNA.  So, it only makes sense that story structure is not limited to books and movies, but is actually part of our everyday lives and can be seen all around us in just about everything — from how a friend tells us an interesting story, to static magazine ads, to TV commercials.

The late-great Blake Snyder (who wrote the marvelous Save the Cat! screenwriting books) got an email from a reader about how he was able to use all of Blake’s 15 story beats in a :30 second TV commercial.  While there’s much more opportunity to tell stories in Branding ads (think Geico), Direct Response ads (price-based, get-the-phone-to-ring types) don’t typically get to tell stories quite as engaging.

As an example, here’s a TV commercial my company recently created for Four Seasons — one of Chicago’s oldest and well-respected heating and air conditioning companies:

Even in a simple, direct-response ad like this one, we can still find elements of story structure:

Opening Image/Set-Up:
The Thermostat.   The statement of the problem is that your hard-earned cash is being sucked into it.  The Set-Up also typically shows the world as it is before the necessary hero’s journey and contains what Blake and other authors describe as “Stasis=Death” — if things stay the same, the Hero will perish.  Here, if things stay the same, the homeowner’s money will perish… so they must take a journey!

What gets the story going?  Well, here comes the Four Seasons Truck!  This “vehicle” element is also a sign of the “Break Into Act 2” where, in story, the hero typically changes location to begin the journey.

Fun and Games:
This is sometimes described as the “promise of the premise.”  As I’m sure we’re all used to, that promise in a direct-response ad is usually “What are you selling?” and “How much money can I save?”  This section also moves us along the logical path toward resolution with the mention of Interest-Free financing.

Final Image:
The Thermostat again, but this time the cash is going the other way…  Yay!  Oftentimes in story, the hero returns home with a new perspective after taking the journey to solve the problem.  This leads us on to the peaceful title card and jingle, which could be the denouement: “the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work.”

Some of the branding-type concepts we’re currently developing with Four Seasons will allow us to use even more structural elements to tell a fuller, more entertaining story in just :30 seconds.

Are there any commercials you think are outstanding?  If so, please drop me a note so I can check them out and see what kind structural elements are used to tell the story.

Tip: Story Structure as an Idea Tool

When a new story idea strikes, instead of only considering it as an entire script, see what happens when it’s plugged into different sections of story structure.

Maybe what I initially assume is the whole story is actually just…

  • what happens up to the first act break.
  • what happens from the beginning of Act 2 up to raising the stakes at the midpoint.
  • what happens leading up to the Inciting Incident.
  • what happens in Act 3.
  • … and so on.

I’ve found the ideas lurking under other ideas often lead me down new and interesting paths.  If I’m too busy basking in the glow of a wonderful new idea, those hidden gems could be lost forever.

Tip: Edit in Reverse

When editing for spelling, grammar and punctuation, start at the end and work backward.

My good friend Terry from my Writers Group introduced me to this one.  It allows me to focus much less on the story and more on those pesky errors that like to hide in plain sight when reading through from the beginning.