The six major narrative arcs

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The narrative pull behind everything from Gilgamesh to Gossip Girls to Game of Thrones can be explained by one of these six narrative arcs. Let’s discuss how we can use the same frameworks to take your decks from dreary to dreamy.

What is a narrative arc?

Let’s go back to basics for a hot second to make sure we’re all on the same page. As Robert McKee puts it in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting,

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“the archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression”

That’s precisely what narrative arcs do for stories. They’re a framework that allows anyone, whether they’re creating films, novels, short stories (or even presentations) to identify the most recognisable shape for their story to take.

But wait, I hear you wondering, if all stories fitted onto the same frames, we’d all be well and truly bored of them by now. But the reality is that the most successful stories blend surprise with stability. The familiar pattern of recognisable arcs, paired with the unique nuances of an individual story, make for compelling narratives.

When we connect with stories this way, the unexpected elements connect with us on an emotional level and the basics of recognisable structure drive memorability. There’s no established order for the arcs (and also, somewhat unhelpfully, there’s very little agreement between storytellers how many arcs there are, what they’re called and where their boundaries lie). Let’s explore the shapes of all the six arcs we’ve chosen to focus our work around.

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Hero’s Journey
  4. In Medias Res
  5. Sparklines
  6. Man in a Hole

1. Overcoming the Monster

Picture this: a Monster appears on the horizon, ready to tear the world down. The Monster could be anything, really. A dragon, a giant, a wicked queen, a sub-par industry standard, a looming threat of business failure, or just plain and simple pig ignorance. The important thing is that it’s big, it’s scary, and it’s out for blood. The Hero will then arrive, step up to the plate and take the Monster down, armed with nothing but their wits, their Guide and a little bit of luck.

This is the Overcoming the Monster arc, one of the six major narrative arcs that have been the backbone of storytelling since the beginning of time (or at least since the beginning of literature). From Beowulf to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this arc has been used to tell tales of heroism, bravery, and triumph over evil.

At its core, Overcoming the Monster is about facing your fears and emerging victorious. It’s a tale of good vs. evil, with the odds stacked heavily against the Hero. But by using their intelligence, their resourcefulness, and their inner strength, the Hero conquers the Villain and restores peace to the picture.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This narrative arc is a classic for a reason. It taps into our primal fears and desires, and it speaks to our need for heroes to look up to. Plus, it’s just plain exciting. Who doesn’t love a good monster-fighting scene?

Incorporating Overcoming the Monster into a presentation is perfect for decks with an elephant-in-the-room Villain that needs a head-on confrontation instead of a skirt-around evasion. Or when your audience has a unified, universal Villain you’re going to help them vanquish.

2. Rags to Riches

Rags to Riches is the ultimate American Dream narrative. The Hero begins in a despair pit – maybe they’re in a position of destitution or obscurity, or perhaps they’re going through a period of terrible luck, intense fear for the future, or informational poverty. Through hard work, perseverance and some handy hints from their Guide, the Hero finds a means of rising to triumph. Think Cinderella, Rocky Balboa, or Annie.

Rags to Riches plays into our innate desire to see an underdog triumph, to believe that if we work hard enough, anything is possible. It’s a classic story that taps into the hopes and dreams of audiences everywhere.

But, as with any narrative arc, the key is in the details. The specifics of the character’s journey, the obstacles they face and the sacrifices they make all contribute to the narrative’s power. In a presentation, the Rags to Riches arc can be a powerful way to connect with audiences, inspiring them to reach for their own dreams and reminding them that anything is possible with hard work and determination.

3. The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey follows the story of a Hero who embarks on a journey of transformation, facing challenges and trials along the way to emerge as a changed individual. The journey typically begins with a call to adventure, where the Hero is presented with a challenge or a problem that they must solve. The Hero may initially refuse the call, but ultimately decides to accept and embark on the journey.

The journey itself is broken down into different stages, such as the call to adventure, the mentor, the threshold, and the ultimate ordeal. Each stage brings the hero closer to their goal, but also requires them to confront their own limitations and fears. They get a bit of help from a Guide along the way, and then, as the Hero overcomes these challenges, they experience personal growth and transformation, ultimately returning home as a changed individual with newfound wisdom and strength.

The Hero’s Journey is a popular narrative arc because it speaks to our own experiences of growth and transformation. We all face challenges in our lives, and by following the journey of a hero, we can see how it’s possible to overcome these challenges and emerge stronger on the other side.

With its timeless appeal and endless possibilities for interpretation, The Hero’s Journey is a surefire way to take a presentation’s story to its most memorable level.

4. In Medias Res

In Medias Res is Latin for “into the middle of things”. It’s a narrative arc that dumps our Hero right into the meatiest bit of the story, gets them good and confused, and then flashes back into the past to explain how things got to that point.

This is a great way to grab audience attention, drive a sense of urgency and drive excitement right off the bat. It’s a popular technique in film, television, and literature, and it can also work wonders in a presentation.

Think about it: starting with a dramatic scene or a startling fact can immediately engage your audience and make them curious about what comes next. Then, by taking a step back and explaining the context and background of your story, you can build up to a satisfying conclusion that ties everything together. It’s a powerful way to structure your narrative, and it can make your presentation more memorable and impactful.

Basically, you’re letting your Hero skip the boring setup and taking them straight to the good stuff.

5. Sparklines

A lesser-known narrative arc, Sparklines is all about delivering big impact through contradiction.

In essence, the Sparklines tells a story through a series of small contrasting moments, like tiny sparks of light that build up to create a bigger picture. It’s a perfect structure for presentations that want to emphasize simplicity and get straight to the point.

Sparkline paradoxes rely on the power of polarity, and you can use the same technique across your whole deck, or just the opening of your presentation, to get your reader instantly involved, invested and intrigued.

By delivering a story through a series of bite-sized, high-impact moments, Sparklines makes sure your message is heard loud and clear. Which is a powerful means of telling stories in a concise, impactful way.

6. Man in a Hole

Enter: the Hero. He’s pretty happy, thinks he’s content. Everything is going absolutely fine. And then BAM! Crisis. Maybe he loses his job, maybe his partner leaves him, maybe he’s falsely accused of a crime. Whatever it is, he’s suddenly plunged into a deep, dark hole of despair. Our intrepid Hero needs to fight, alongside their Guide, until they finally emerge triumphant.

This is the Man in a Hole narrative arc, and it’s all about the journey from stability to low point to victory. It’s a classic story structure that we’ve seen in everything from Shakespearean tragedies to modern rom-coms.

To use the Man in a Hole arc in a presentation, we’d start with a relatable low point (everyone can relate to hitting rock bottom at some point) and then show how you climbed out of it. Use the story to illustrate a point or to show how you can help others climb out of their own holes.

Just remember, the key to this arc is the journey back up. Make sure your audience feels the struggle, the pain, and the triumph of your story.

Framework not rulebook

Narrative arcs provide a useful framework for understanding and analysing stories, whether that’s in novels, films or even in presentation stories. However, it’s important to note that while narrative arcs can be a valuable tool for storytelling, they shouldn’t be used as a rigid formula that must be followed religiously. Creativity and originality are essential to crafting compelling presentation stories that captivate and engage audiences. Sometimes, the most powerful stories are those that subvert or challenge traditional narrative structures.

The key is to strike a balance between adhering to established storytelling conventions and taking risks to create something truly unique and memorable. By embracing the principles of narrative arcs while also allowing room for innovation and experimentation, we can create stories that are both timeless and ground-breaking.

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