Story Structure

In one of my previous posts, I discuss how stories are a powerful way of making or illustrating your point and to get your message across and accepted. This post consists of a recommended story structure for speeches. It applies whether it’s a single story speech, or one of a number of stories within a speech.

Below is a condensed version of my seven-minute speech that I’ll be referring to when explaining story structure.


Dragon's Back Mountain in Malaysia
Dragon’s Back Mountain, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Wall

Have you ever been faced with “The Wall”, or a seemingly insurmountable challenge in your life?

Well it happened to me. Hi, my name is Henk and my wife Vicki and I went trekking when we were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last year. Our Malaysian guide was Amos, and Amos was going to help us climb the Dragon’s Back Mountain. It was so called because of its many steep, rugged peaks of quartz crystal ridges jutting out from the huge jungle mountain. Amos, in his thick Malaysian accent, informed us, “The firs part is kinda flattish, but it knee deep in mud down dere. So we will cross it by walking cross dees water pipes above the mud.” Then he said, “Any one scare o heights?” “Meeee!!!” But that wasn’t me, that was my wife. I wasn’t scared of heights, just falling down from them. I don’t know how, but we made it across, with Vicki clinging on to Amos’s backpack for grim life. After that it was mountain climbing, then rock climbing and then it got even steeper. Amos would look down from time to time and call out, “‘enk, how ye doin’?” I would reply, “Yea! Good!” Yea, I lied. Then looking up, I was faced with this steep, shear almighty rock face, “The Wall.” On either side of me, the sides dropped away steeply. I was so nervous, that in fact I felt sick. I asked my wife, “Are you scared???” “Henk, apart from the fact that I could die… No!!” Thinking about how I was going to get out of this, my thoughts were interrupted by Amos, “‘enk, how ye doin’?” I didn’t lie this time. “Amos, I can’t do this, I think I’ll just turn back!” But then Amos said something that changed everything. “‘enk, you can do it! Baby steps, and the mountain will come to you.” Wow! Baby steps, and the mountain will come to you. Those words changed everything. Changed the way I looked at my life today. It changed the way I deal with my all challenges these days. And it changed the way I looked at that almighty steep rock face in front of me that day. I stopped looking up. I stopped looking down, I just looked straight in front of me, for that next, baby, step. And then out of nowhere a tree root would appear that I could pull myself up on. I would suddenly spot crevices that served as footholds. And before I knew it, I was standing triumphantly on top of the highest peak, with my wife beside me. I was so proud of her. Heck! I was proud of myself. And the only words that came out of my mouth were an almighty Australian bush victory cry of, “Cooee!!!” And the only words ringing in my ears were Amos’ words, “Baby steps, and the mountain will come to you.” Now, I don’t know about you, but can I suggest that when you are facing your wall, that you stop looking up, at your seemingly insurmountable challenge. Stop looking down, at what might go wrong. Instead, look directly in front of you for that next, baby, step. And when you reach your peak, your peak of success, let out an almighty victory cry of “Cooee!!!” And the only words that will be ringing in your ears, will be Amos’ words,

“Baby Steps, and the Mountain Will Come to You.”

Story Structure

The story structure model below is a bit like the mountain climb above.
It involves the story’s characters, the crisis and the hero or guru that changes the way you think.  Below I go into some detail about these story aspects.

Mountain with Labels as Metaphor for Story Structure


The Characters

Think of a well-known story and ask yourself, who were the main characters? What were their names?
What did they look like? What relationships did they have with each other? Were the characters introduced early? And is that way to many questions to start of with? However, when it comes to stories, you’ll often find that the characters are established early and named. Often a physical, relevant fact about your characters is briefly referred to, to establish the visual in your mind.

Little Red Ridding HoodIn Little Red Ridding Hood, Red Ridding Hood is introduced in the first line, then her mother, than her grandmother and soon after that, the wolf. Similarly, this happens in Cinderella. In Cinderella, her two step sisters and stepmother are all introduced at the start. And you’ll notice that in “The Wall” story, I introduce my wife, myself and our guide Amos at the very start. In a speech, it gets your listeners into the story quickly and will grab their attention straight away. It’s also handy, as it allows you to refer back to your characters, both verbally and with your hand, indicating where you anchored them. You can do this anytime throughout your story. Also naming your characters makes them more real. In my story, there were in fact two more trekkers, however, they weren’t relevant to the story and were left out. As mentioned, it’s good to mention something physical about your characters. Take a look at the introduction below;

“The last time I saw my aunt Rose, she was bend over her walking stick. Despite this, she still managed to look up at me and say, “Henk, it doesn’t hurt to be nice to people.” 

In two brief sentences you learn that she is my Aunt, her name is Rose and that she is old. You might realise that she’s old by the fact that she is my aunt, or maybe because Rose is not a modern name. The fact that she is bent over and needs a walking stick should do the trick though. Similarly in “The Wall” story, I mention that Amos has a strong Malaysian accent. In my speech however, I just mimic his accent. This information or acting out helps you create a visual, and it doesn’t matter that everyone has their own visual.

The Crisis

The next thing you need in your story is a crisis. A crisis, that leads to a resolution, that will illustrate your point. This crisis needs to be introduced early, escalated and then cranked up to bursting point. Usually, without a crisis, you don’t have a story. At least not one that leads to a message or purpose. Think of a children’s story. Is there a crisis in that story? What is the crisis? Was the crisis introduced early? Was the crisis escalatEgg CRISIS!!ed? Was it cranked up to bursting point and how? Where did the busting point occur? In Little Red Ridding Hood the crisis is the wolf and it is escalated by the wolf eating grandma. The bursting point was when the wolf threatened to eat Little Red Ridding Hood. In a simple story like Cinderella, the crisis is that she’s living with her wicked stepmother. It’s cranked up by her having to put up with her two nasty step sisters. It’s escalated when she is forced to stay home while they go to the ball. The bursting point is when she cries, just before the fairy godmother appears. In the “The Wall” story, the crisis is my fear of heights, which is escalated by the increasing steepens of the mountains and finally the bursting point is facing the wall and realising that I can’t climb it. You’ll find the same pattern in your favourite movies. These bursting points lead to “Aha moments” or revelations. And it’s better if this insight or change maker is someone that’s not you, but someone else. That someone else is referred to as the guru or hero.

Guru or Hero

As mentioned, it’s at the bursting point, the peak of the mountain of my model image above, where a change or revelation occurs. This is where something is learned, realised, an aha moment or an insight occurs. In Little Red Ridding Hood the bursting point was when the wolf threaten to eat her. The hero was the woodcutter, and the change or lesson wSuperman Logoas, not to talk to strangers. In Cinderella the hero was the fairy godmother and the message was? Well, that has been debated for a long time. However, I think it’s to be good, despite circumstances and you will be rewarded. What do you think? In “The Wall” the Guru is Amos and the lesson is when you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, just focus on that next step and take one step at a time. Again, think of your favourite movie and see if you can spot the three main elements. My favourite movie is “The Matrix.” The main characters are Neo, Morpheus and Trinity and they are all introduced early. The crisis also starts early and is cranked up throughout, until finally, because Morpheus, Trinity and eventually Neo, believes that he’s the one. I think the lesson is, if you believe it, you can achieve it.

Wrap Up

So I believe that a story, that is used to illustrate your point in your speech, will benefit from these three main elements. Introduce your characters and name them early, have a crisis early in your story and crank it up to bursting point, at this time the hero or guru provides the new insight that leads to something learned, a message and a takeaway for your audience.

A story is a powerful way to connect with your audience.

Speak to Connect, and make a difference.

Author: Henk van den Bergen

I have been speaking on Champagne for 20 years and decided to improve my speaking skills by joining Toastmasters International 13 year ago. I'm still a member today and I'm passionate about sharing what I’ve learned. I’m also proud to be the 1998 “Vin de Champagne Award” winner and being a three time Australian finalist in the International Speech contest.

3 thoughts on “Story Structure”

    1. Hi Marlene. Thanks for your comment. I also have to watch my spelling and grammar. I just realised that I have to approve comments before they are posted, so apologies for the delayed reply. Can you let me know what punctuation in particular? Thank Henk.

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