Learning from Popular Television: 5 Key Story Structure Elements

Jenny Coppola


Evolutionary biologists believe humans started telling stories around two million years ago — around the same time we developed the ability to speak. And since we didn’t start writing until 3200 B.C., speaking was our main form of communication. In turn, storytelling was the best way to teach others how to navigate our ruthless, prehistoric world.

To put it simply, storytelling is an evolutionary trait. Our brain craves stories because they were crucial for our survival. Interestingly enough, natural selection also shaped the act of storytelling.

Even though Netflix, Hulu, and our local movie theaters are chock-full of stories, only one story structure survived the evolutionary pruning process. That’s right — most of today’s stories follow a structure that’s been honed over millions of years. And Hollywood was the first industry to monetize our need for them.

Fundamental Hollywood story elements

From The Fault In Our Stars to Inception, all the best stories follow the same structure. Although the order of events may vary, each story includes all of the following elements:

  • Exposition: The world or situation the hero lives in, their status quo.
  • Inciting incident: A major event that disrupts their status quo, creates a pressing problem in the hero’s life, and compels them to solve it to return back to their normal life.
  • Progressive complications: Obstacles that hinder the hero’s chances of getting what they want, escalating the story’s conflict.
  • Turning point: A revelation that helps the hero realize what’s required to succeed.
  • Crisis: A tough decision that will either set the hero on the path of success or failure. They will never return to their regular life again.
  • Climax: Gutsy move necessary to succeed, often revealing the hero’s true character and changing their worldview forever.
  • Resolution: Indications of how much the hero has changed.

It’s easy to see how each of these elements plays out in a major motion picture like The Avengers, but it’s also possible to include some of these components in your next video series.

5 story structure takeaways from popular TV

If you want to master the craft of narrative-driven content, you must first master your understanding of story structure. Below are five ways you can ensure that the binge-worthy content you create captivates viewers, as well as examples from shows you’ve probably already binge-watched!

1. Set a clear goal for the hero to achieve

An inciting incident makes or break a story. In one of the funniest episodes of The Office called "Christmas Party," Michael spends $400 to get Ryan an iPod for Secret Santa. But when it’s his turn to receive a gift, Phyllis disappoints him with a pair of homemade oven mitts. This forces Michael to react absurdly in order to get a better gift — turning Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap. Now, the office can take turns stealing each other’s presents or picking a new gift from the tree, kicking off the episode’s entire storyline and promising us that we’ll witness Michael pull out all the stops to get a gift he actually wants.

When crafting an episode for your branded show, make sure to introduce a pressing problem into the hero’s world that sets a clear goal for them to achieve. After you do that, they’ll be faced with two options: Find a solution or ignore the problem entirely. This choice will spark your episode’s entire storyline and reveal to your audience what they’re about to get into.

Image courtesy of The Office.

2. Block the hero’s path to success as much as possible

The more obstacles that block your hero from achieving their goal, the more challenging their life is. And the more challenging your hero’s life is, the more satisfying it is when they conquer these obstacles and finally achieve their goal.

However, your hero can’t face the same type or magnitude of conflict each time an obstacle crops up. This will make your story drag on and feel repetitive. Instead, you must continually escalate your story’s conflict to keep your audience invested.

For example, in the series premiere of the drama Sorry For Your Loss, Leah, a recent widow, faces the biggest obstacle of all — her grief. As she struggles to put her life back together, she blows up on her sister, grief group leader, and late husband’s brother in the process. While it’s clear that isolating herself from loved ones won’t really help Leah move on, she can’t really ever go back to how things were. Ultimately, she finds some comfort in writing, which is truly what sets her on the path to recovery.

A good way to figure out if you’re escalating your story’s conflict enough is determining whether or not your hero can go back to their regular life after they’ve faced an obstacle. In other words, if they can’t go back to the way things were without suffering any trauma or displeasure, then you’ve escalated your story’s conflict enough.

Image courtesy of Sorry For Your Loss.

3. Escalate tension as you approach the climax

The turning point in your story shifts the narrative from one particular emotion to an entirely different one. Usually, it’s a positive transition from your hero failing so much that they feel like giving up, to your hero uncovering a new nugget of information that makes them realize there’s actually a path toward success.

In the critique show called The Profit, Marcus Lemonis tries to turn a fly fishing store called SmithFly into a profitable business. During the episode’s turning point, it seems like Ethan, the owner, is a changed man. He used to be extremely defensive and deflect any criticism directed toward his products, but now he’s actually receptive to the feedback given by a distributor.

However, we quickly see him fall from grace and go back to his old ways during a big pitch. This adds a lot of tension to the climax — while you’re watching it, you can’t help but sit on the edge of your seat and pray that Ethan doesn’t mess things up. When he seals the deal, though, you feel like jumping for joy. If Ethan never showed signs of resistance, which added tension to the story during the turning point, the climax’s payoff would be less satisfying.

Image courtesy of The Profit.

When crafting your story structure, consider escalating the tension at the end of your turning point to heighten your story’s conflict to a memorable level. Since your turning point leads to the crisis (which sparks the climax) intensifying the end of your turning point can ramp up your climax’s conflict, suspense, and payoff.

4. End with a twist

Your climax serves as the moment of truth — this is when your audience learns whether your hero actually has the guts to do what they need to do and has experienced a change in their worldview. It’s a rational and inevitable result of your inciting incident. But whether or not your hero achieves their goal during the climax, it must happen in a surprising way. Otherwise, your story will seem too predictable.

For instance, in the season premiere of the documentary Tom vs. Time, sports analysts keep berating Tom Brady with criticisms of his age. However, his mentality, training, and diet convince you that all that stuff is just noise. Tom Brady seems ageless (albeit in a somewhat robotic, creepy way). When you shockingly find out he lost the home opener, however, you can’t help but think his age is catching up to him. This adds drama to the overall narrative and compels you to watch the next episode.

Image courtesy of Tom vs. Time.

When crafting narrative-driven binge-worthy content, especially documentaries, twist endings are the best way to shock your audience and, in turn, retain their attention. Humans are wired to predict things, so if you can shatter their forecast of your show’s plot, they’ll pay more attention to your show and engage more deeply with it.

5. Highlight how much your hero has changed

During Anthony Bourdain’s review of Montana’s culture and food in his show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, the late, great Bourdain identifies as a liberal and never considers himself a hunter. But after spending an entire day with a hunter who is surprisingly also a conservationist, he realizes that you can strike a balance between the two. In fact, it dawns on him that hunting and conservation actually rely on each other. Bourdain ends the evening by marveling at the stars scattered across the big Montana sky and reflecting on his newfound insight of hunting and conservation being intertwined.

The point of your resolution is to complete the story and teach your audience a life lesson. So instead of summarizing what happened during the climax, rip a page out of Anthony Bourdain’s storytelling playbook and spotlight how much your hero’s worldview has changed since the beginning of your story.

Image courtesy of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Following Hollywood’s example

Even though each of these shows belongs to completely different styles and genres, they all follow the same or similar structure. Because the structure of a story is like scaffolding to a house, without it, your story will crumble. So the next time you set out to script a long-form video or series, make sure you incorporate these Hollywood story elements so you can keep your story moving along nicely.

Jenny Coppola


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