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Even the Shortest Story Needs Structure

3 act story structure
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In a previous post we shared an anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, and his shortest story ever, just 6 words long. We then went on to share a story packed with emotion, meaning and impact as an example of how a lifetime of wisdom can be shared in a 60 second story, if the story means something to the teller. 

In this post we’ll deconstruct the story a little to show how the unconscious use of that classic, 3-act story structure helped the speaker make his point in a really memorable way.



Purpose: to grab the audience’s attention and draw them into the story.

“My first memory is sitting by a hospital bed, on my mum’s knee. My dad was in the bed. He’d been burned over 70% of his body…”

25 words. 9.38 seconds to say those words. Were we hooked? You bet. We wanted to know everything. What happened? Why did it happen? What happened next? Did he survive? So many questions flooded into the listeners’ heads and we were curious, impatient, anxious to know more.


Act 1

Purpose: to set out the characters, the context and the challenges facing the hero so that we care about the ‘journey’ and we can understand the rest of the story as it unfolds.

“…He worked on an oil rig in the North Sea. 30 miles offshore. There was an explosion and he was 7 stories down inside the steel structure and he had to get out. The whole place was on fire. His clothes were on fire, his hair was on fire. He could feel his skin melting off his face and…’

59 words. 21.73 seconds to say them. We knew more about him, the background to the story, and how he happened to be there on that day. The challenge was clear. Would he get out of that burning Oil Rig?

Did Act 1 give us enough to care? To understand? To want to carry on and know more? Yes. Yes and Yes.


Act 2

Purpose to bridge the gap between where the hero is now to the end of the story where he must be in a different place for the story to have any meaning. A better place if it is to be a happy story. A worse place if it is to be a sad story. The same place if it is to be a complete waste of time.

Act 2 needs to offer progress towards the goal, and rising tension to keep the audience hooked. To a point where we could not get anymore tense. He tries, he fails, he tries again, he fails again…

“…he ran up 6 flights of steel stairs to the surface. He reached the bottom of the final set of stairs. He could see the sky and safety. He could hear his mates calling him up, but he couldn’t get there. He was done. He thought, ‘This is the place that I’ll die…”

53 words and 16.53 seconds to say them. Did it keep the story moving, was there that ‘rising action’; tries and fails, tries again? Yes there was and did it bring us to the edge of our seats? Yes it did.


Act 3

Purpose to bring resolution. To close the gap between Act 1 and Act 2. To answer all of those questions raised by Act 1. What happened? Why did it happen? What happened next? Did he survive? and the larger question of relevance… Why are you telling me this particular story?

“…He looked at the daylight beyond his reach, at the clouds, and the faces of his friends, and he closed his eyes as if for the last time; but then, he saw an image of my mum at the door, holding me in her arms, smiling and beckoning him on and up. He got one huge burst of something from inside. He got up from the floor and crawled up the stairs to collapse into the arms of his rescuers. He was saved. He spent months in hospital, and he’s alive and still working today aged 60.

Thirty nine of this colleagues didn’t make it out. He was the only man to get out from so far down…”

103 words and 35.07 seconds to say it. Did it resolve the tension? Yes. Did it answer our questions? Yes it did, most of them. Apart from the final question. Why are you telling me this particular story, right now?



Purpose to send the audience away with the ‘message’ ringing in their ears. In this case, to answer that question. Why this, why now? How is it relevant to the people in the audience?

“…So when I think I’m having a hard day at work, I think about my dad and I realise that I’m not…”

22 words and 7.66 seconds to say.

The point. Well made and instantly relevant to the people in the room, on this day. On another day, with a different audience with different needs, it wouldn’t be so relevant. It would still be a moving story. But it might not be relevant.

The whole story consisted of 262 words and took 89.37 seconds to tell, including 15 seconds of pauses. It’s a really short story with huge impact.


Great speechwriters and speakers need to be working on 3 skills all the time

  1. Collecting stories so that we have a big collection for use whatever the situation demands.
  2. Understanding what those stories mean to us and to others.
  3. Being able to tell those stories simply and as quickly as we can.

Good storytellers tell great stories, and that’s a relatively easy set of skills to learn. Great speakers choose the right stories to tell and that’s much rarer.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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