May 26, 2020 / Esther Choy

Structure is critical to stories, just as it is to buildings. When the structure of a building is solid, we don’t give it a second thought! Same goes for story structure, which holds all the elements together, usually without your realizing it. In fact, all strong stories share the same basic structure: they use three-acts.

The “IRS” formula simplifies that three act structure, reminding you of what’s most needed:

  • I – Intriguing beginning

  • R – Riveting middle

  • S – Satisfying end

Here’s an example of a response to one of the prompts from our Seven-Day Leadership Storytelling Challenge. See if you can find the IRS structure, and then scroll down to the annotated version below.

You can also use this structure to create very brief stories! Each section–beginning, middle, and end–can be just a sentence or two.

Prompt

Think back on times someone came through for you in a meaningful way:

  • Helping you land a new job.

  • Speaking a difficult truth.

  • Giving life-changing advice.

  • Helping you make space for self-care.

  • Mentoring you.

  • Visiting you when you were sick, lonely, or sad.

  • Promoting your work.

  • Believing in you when no one else did.

 


Response to Prompt: Life-changing Advice from My Support System

Getting kicked out of your apartment is not fun, but if you have a support system, it can be a kick in the right direction.

When my husband and I had lived in our suburban Jupiter, FL apartment for about six months, we found a note Scotch-taped to our door. It said a new management company had purchased the property. We could see the writing on the wall (and smell it in the chemical funk of the Kilz paint that was sealing that wall’s Florida mold). Our apartment—one of the oldest, cheapest units on the property—was due for an upgrade and we were doomed to relocate.

It would be our third move in two years. I was just starting to feel at home and seethed about being forced out of our rented home.

Soon after we found out, my parents flew down from Pennsylvania to visit, narrowly escaping a late-March snowstorm in Pennsylvania. We took them to all of the places we loved in Jupiter, knowing it might be our last chance. Enjoying warmth, sunlight and leisure, they took their time at each site. As my dad lifted his steel-gray head to survey the lighthouse, and as my mom unfolded her reading glasses and examined a plaque about loggerhead sea turtles, I knew they were saving up information to share later. Years later, my dad was sure to remember the trip with something like, “Cool lighthouse—and the glass came all the way from France!”

They praised the beauty of our neighborhood, with its parks, museums, and florescent bougainvillea blossoms. They said nothing about our dim apartment with its oppressive popcorn ceilings and head-splitting paint smell. We had worked hard to establish an adult relationship in my early twenties, so now they try to search for what’s good about whatever I’ve chosen and refrain from unsolicited critiques. But they also knew that that our lease was up. So, a few days into our trip, as we drove an hour south to Fort Lauderdale to show them the seminary my husband was commuting to a few days a week, my dad offered unsolicited advice. “You should move to Fort Lauderdale. It’ll simplify your life.”

I tried to picture living in the ugly South Florida city amongst space age architecture and strip malls. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to move there.

But after our apartment complex kicked us out, we did regain our footing in Fort Lauderdale. I’d forgotten that, as much as I had loved walking across the street to the wildlife refuge in Jupiter, I also loved being able to take a short walk to the library from our new apartment. And even though I loved to hear frogs chirping from my back porch in Jupiter, I also loved the energetic whoosh of cars from the busy street outside my window in Fort Lauderdale. We quickly made friends in our new neighborhood, and I loved how living in the city meant living about five minutes away from them. The move has simplified my life, helped me find my city-person self again, and made me grateful for my support systems while connecting me with new ones.

Annotated Version:

Intriguing Beginning: Getting kicked out of your apartment is not fun, but if you have a support system, it can be a kick in the right direction. [The author got kicked out of her apartment? Why? And how did it actually turn out well? This is an intriguing beginning because it inspires curiosity.]

When my husband and I had lived in our suburban Jupiter, FL apartment for about six months, we found a note Scotch-taped to our door. It said a new management company had purchased the property. We could see the writing on the wall (and smell it in the chemical funk of the Kilz paint that was sealing that wall’s Florida mold). Our apartment—one of the oldest, cheapest units on the property—was due for an upgrade and we were doomed to relocate. [The story moves forward while also including vivid details to keep the reader’s senses engaged.]

It would be our third move in two years. I was just starting to feel at home and seethed about being forced out of our rented home. [This section introduces a new layer of emotion by showing how many moves there have been recently.]

Riveting Middle: Soon after we found out, my parents flew down from Pennsylvania to visit, narrowly escaping a late-March snowstorm in Pennsylvania. We took them to all of the places we loved in Jupiter, knowing it might be our last chance. Enjoying warmth, sunlight and leisure, they took their time at each site. As my dad lifted his steel-gray head to survey the lighthouse, and as my mom unfolded her reading glasses and examined a plaque about loggerhead sea turtles, I knew they were saving up information to share later. Years later, my dad was sure to remember the trip with something like, “Cool lighthouse—and the glass came all the way from France!” [This section introduces new characters who allow us to see the setting with new eyes. It introduces conflict and keeps things riveting by mentioning why it’s so crucial that they see the sights–it might be the last chance.]

They praised the beauty of our neighborhood, with its parks, museums, and florescent bougainvillea blossoms. They said nothing about our dim apartment with its oppressive popcorn ceilings and head-splitting paint smell. We had worked hard to establish an adult relationship in my early twenties, so now they try to search for what’s good about whatever I’ve chosen and refrain from unsolicited critiques. But they also knew that that our lease was up. So, a few days into our trip, as we drove an hour south to Fort Lauderdale to show them the seminary my husband was commuting to a few days a week, my dad offered unsolicited advice. “You should move to Fort Lauderdale. It’ll simplify your life.”

I tried to picture living in the ugly South Florida city amongst space age architecture and strip malls. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to move there. [In these two paragraphs, the support system comes through–or does it? Is the unsolicited advice welcome? Is it good advice?]

Satisfying End: But after our apartment complex kicked us out, we did regain our footing in Fort Lauderdale. As much as I had loved walking across the street to the wildlife refuge in Jupiter, I also loved being able to take a short walk to the library from our new apartment. And even though I loved to hear frogs chirping from my back porch in Jupiter, I also loved the energetic whoosh of cars from the busy street outside my window in Fort Lauderdale. We quickly made friends in our new neighborhood, and I loved how living in the city meant living about five minutes away from them. The move has simplified my life, helped me find my city-person self again, and made me grateful for my support systems while connecting me with new ones. [The ending answers the questions above: the advice was helpful and the support system came through. It’s a satisfying ending because it connects to the theme of support systems.]


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We’d love to help you become a better storyteller in your workplace. Schedule a complimentary working session with us. For more examples of the right stories to tell at the right time, sign up for our monthly guide. My book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available and serves as your business storytelling toolkit.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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