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Keys to Brilliant Nonprofit Storytelling Part 4: Story Structure

Story Structure

Welcome to the fourth and final part of our series on nonprofit storytelling from the Storytelling for Business course by Kevin Allison at the StoryStudio.org. If you’re just joining us now, make sure to catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3 to learn about the basic requirements of a story, how to account for your audience, and how to use scenic writing to pull your listeners in and get them invest.

Today, we’re finishing up with the element that ties them all together: structure.

The Basics of Structure

Every good story has a structure that follows a basic pattern, including stories that are simply meant to provide raw information. Even the most dry PowerPoint presentation should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with certain key events that help the watchers understand where they are.

In a story, the beginning consists of the setup and the key incident. The middle contains the turning point. The end contains the climax and the resolution.

The Beginning

The setup is the first segment of your story. It presents the world as things were before the story started. In the case of your nonprofit, it could either explain how things were for the people you are helping (if they are the focus characters) or how cozy your world was before your eyes were opened (if you are the focus character).

The key incident is the event that changes everything. For most nonprofits, this is the moment the founder had his or her eyes opened by the problem they set out to solve. For a social entrepreneur, you might focus instead on the local leaders who got fed up and took a stand to start making a change in their communities.

What’s most important is that the key event be something the sets the story in motion by engaging the emotions of the character involved. After this event happens, there is no turning back for the character.

  • If life was great before the key incident, the focus character wants to make things right again.
  • If life was bad before the key incident, that moment is where the focus character sees the way to something better and is committed (either by choice or necessity) to making it real.

The Middle

This is the meat of the story. In the middle, the focus character is doing the work to move from the key incident to the solution they had envisioned. In fiction, things usually follow an action and a reaction: the character does something and the world or the antagonist does something in response, which the character is then forced to respond to, and so on.

This is where you tell the story of your struggle, how you overcame adversity, reaching out to those you wanted to help, and bringing your team together.

Each action-reaction should build on the one before, ideally increasing in intensity. In novels, the middle of the middle is the Midpoint, the event where the focus character changes tack, ups the ante, or otherwise buckles down to really start moving forward. In your story, such an incident may not exist, but I urge you to look for a moment that taught you things were going to be a bit harder than you initially thought and forced you to take stock and regroup.

The End

The middle should all work towards the Climax, which is the first part of the ending. The Climax is where all of your hard work pays off and more specifically, where the emotional arc reaches its high point. This is where the big change occurs, where things have finally been altered and the situation enters a new state.

In your story, it might be the first pilot project you put together, or it might be the first person you really managed to make a difference for. Testimonials are also great here, to provide irrefutable evidence that your project bears fruit.

The Resolution simply states the main point of your story, which should be something about how your particular approach can solve the problem you set out to solve.

Here’s an example of a very short story with the structure highlighted:

Setup:

Rural villages in Nepal have up to eighteen hours of blackouts a day. Life for those living there is very much like it was before the advent of electricity, and many of the families rely on kerosene, which is one of the leading causes of respiratory illness in third world countries. I knew this because I worked with Nepalese mothers for years as an advocate for victims of trafficking.

Key Incident:

After witnessing one of my hosts, Sita, hauling man-sized loads of firewood every day, and hearing the nonstop coughing of her two children, I was amazed at how lacking something as simple as lighting could make life so difficult. I remember the acrid smell of the kerosene smoke burning my nose, sharing dinner with a family huddled close around a single flame. I wanted to help, and I felt it should be easy, but without reliable infrastructure, I was hopeless. It wasn’t until I met my partner Barry and saw the solar lanterns his company makes that I realized a solution to the problem.

The Middle:

I reached out to community organizers in Nepal to gauge interest in a training program for women to become entrepreneurs of solar technology. They said they would be interested, but that they didn’t have the resources. Instead of backing down, I asked myself, “If I were in Sita’s place, would I care if help came through an official channel or not?” I realized the answer was no. So, I asked to be put in touch with some local candidates directly.

The women I met were so determined to make things work for their families. I explained my idea and saw a light come into their eyes, as if they were already experiencing the bright, clean light I was talking about. They wanted this more than I did. They put on a fundraiser in their village to pay for the first training program and the initial startup capital for the solar lights. We flew in, did the training and distributed the first lights. Then it was time to see if our idea would make an impact.

The Climax:

Within two months, one of our women had her first sale. She sent videos of her customers’ home lit up and smoke free, with the kids studying for the first time in ages. I was in tears watching the video, seeing kids getting so excited by lights bright enough to read by. That’s when we knew we had hit on something big.

The Resolution:

By combining the power of community leaders with renewable energy technologies, we’ve been able to transform the lives of these families.

It’s rough but it illustrates the structure, which you can use to help organize your own stories into the most compelling arrangement possible.

Use these techniques to make sure your pitch is as powerful and memorable as possible and connects with your audience in a meaningful way.

If you’d like to go even more in-depth on great storytelling, you can sign up for the Udemy course here. Use promo code StoryStudio20% for a 20% discount.

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