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Story Structure/Plot Device

Adapted from ideas of comedian Jeff Simmermon

Here’s what a story arc in a three act structure looks like when I’m talking about it:

It’s basically a graph, where the intensity of action in the story (Y-AXIS) rises and falls as we move through time (X-AXIS).

Billy Wilder once said, more or less: “in every story, you meet a man, and by the end of Act 1 you have him climb a tree. By the end of Act 2 you set the tree on fire. And in Act 3 you get him out of the tree.”

story arc diagram
Here’s what that looks like on our story arc:

That little circle marked 1A is the “inciting incident”: the thing that makes the man start climbing the tree. The circle labelled 2A is where the tree catches on fire.

This is all nice and metaphorical, but here’s what it really means for you.

Whatever story you want to tell, whatever incident from your life happens that you want to repeat — the inciting incident is where the story really gets rolling and there’s no turning back.

Use this to get your story focused on the most important character, YOU.

  • You”: the audience meets a person, and that person is you. Who are you? What is your everyday life like?
  • Need”: for purposes of this story, what do you need? If it’s just a sandwich, why do you want THAT particular sandwich? Why are you so hungry, in a developed world that struggles with obesity? Why did you skip lunch? Why did you skip breakfast? Who made you hate yourself so much that you’ve been denying yourself delicious, convenient sandwiches?
  • Go”: what makes you go get that sandwich? What do you do to go get it?
  • Get”: how do you end up getting that sandwich? Is it as good as you thought it would be? (In a good story, the lusted-after sandwich is always a little dry and disappointing.)
  • Return”: Have you broken your diet forever? Will you ever lust for a sandwich again? What will you say to the cruel monster that told you you looked fat enough to ruin sandwiches forever?

It’s a simple structure, but the permutations are endless.*

Look at the questions, ask yourself how you can create momentum and excitement in a tight approach to your tale. Remember to keep the stakes high, and to make your character (YOU) go through a change of some kind by the end of the story. How are you different as a result of what happens in the story?


Who are you when the story starts? Details, context. Describe yourself and your situation/reality in a way that makes sense for the story you are about to tell.


What do you need? What are you looking for? What is drawing you into the future moment where the events of the story are going to take place? What is your motivation? Your QUEST?


Where do you go or what do you do or what happens to make the action for the story get rolling. Does not have to be a geographical place that you GO to. Can be a psychological space, a relational position, or a personal adventure. Also could of course be a journey. But the journey could also be an actual, physical, trip.


And what do you get as a result of this action, adventure, journey? What’s the upshot, the result, the reward or the punishment? What is the result of all the “going”?


This is where the story settles down into its ending. The resolution, The conclusion. Could be as short as one sentence, could be longer. Where do you end up? Where does the YOU land?

    *I simplified my idea of story structure from this piece by Dan Harmon, the creator/showrunner of ‘Community.’ (endless circle of teachers yay!) (note from boo)

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