This lesson covers... how to tell a good story.
By the end you should... understand how almost every Hollywood film is structured.
Time 10 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: 14-19     |     ebook: pages 15-20

Here’s the structure that most American films use. Learning this may change the way you watch films (it did for me). It’s a structure as old as time and storytellers have been using it for thousands of years. Joseph Campbell called it the monomyth or Hero’s Journey. I’ll refer to as narrative structure. Its basic elements are:

  1. Status Quo
  2. Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change
  3. Raise the stakes
  4. Moment of Truth
  5. Outcome/New Status Quo
If a whiteboard or blackboard is available, I’ll often write the elements on the board one-by-one as I describe them, as I find there’s something about revealing them gradually that helps students to learn them (as opposed to revealing them all at once).

Also, feel free to use your own films to illustrate this structure. I find most Disney and Pixar films work well, for example, and I usually let students pick between Toy Story and Finding Nemo because most students have seen these films.

You can watch me describe Narrative Structure and how it relates to Toy Story and Finding Nemo, by watching 27:30-36:00 of the video by clicking here.


Life as is. The hero, our main character, is living his/her normal life.


One day, something happens. A boy discovers he is a wizard (Harry Potter). A girl falls down a rabbit hole (Alice in Wonderland). A murder happens (almost every mystery). You get the idea. In short, the hero is called to adventure.


Things get more dangerous and important.

  • In small dramas, the events become more important inwardly, to our main characters’ personal lives, threatening to change them forever.
  • In action movies, events become more important outwardly, escalating until not only our characters’ lives are threatened, but the country, the world, then (in big budget films) Civilization as We Know It.
  • In some films, the character’s inward journey (what s/he must learn) and outward journey (what s/he must do) are intertwined. See: Star Wars, Avatar, The Dark Knight.


The climax. The moment of highest tension. The character must make the Ultimate Choice or fight the Ultimate Battle.

  • Will Beauty kiss the Beast and save his life? (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Will Neo realize—and accept—his role as The One before it’s too late? (The Matrix)
  • Will Frodo destroy the Ring and save Middle Earth? (Lord of the Rings)


The result.

Here’s a sample essay that follows this format:

I like to read the following essay aloud, pausing to highlight the elements of Narrative Structure (Inciting Incident, Raising the Stakes, etc.). Students seem to find it useful, as it demonstrates how the story elements I’ve been relating to film can apply to a real personal statement.

Also, this helps students see that great storytelling isn't magic--it's a skill that has techniques you can learn.

If you’re curious which points I highlight in this essay when I go through it, check out pages 30-32 in College Essay Essentials or watch 32:45-42:00 of the video at this link.


Written by a student who has faced significant challenges and did know what she wanted to study.

The clock was remarkably slow as I sat, legs tightly crossed, squirming at my desk. “Just raise your hand,” my mind pleaded, “ask.” But despite my urgent need to visit the restroom, I remained seated, begging time to move faster. You see, I was that type of kid to eat French Fries dry because I couldn’t confront the McDonalds cashier for some Heinz packets. I was also the type to sit crying in front of school instead of asking the office if it could check on my late ride. Essentially, I chose to struggle through a problem if the solution involved speaking out against it.
My diffidence was frustrating. My parents relied on me, the only one able to speak English, to guide them, and always anticipated the best from me. However, as calls for help grew, the more defunct I became. I felt that every move I made, it was a gamble between success and failure. For me, the fear of failure and disappointment far outweighed the possibility of triumph, so I took no action and chose to silently suffer under pressure.
Near meltdown, I knew something needed to be done. Mustering up the little courage I had, I sought ways to break out of my shell—without luck. Recreational art classes ended in three boring months. I gave up Self Defense after embarrassing myself in class. After-school band, library volunteering, and book clubs ended similarly. Continued effort yielded nothing.
Disillusioned and wrung dry of ideas, I followed my mom’s advice and joined a debate club. As expected, the club only reaffirmed my self-doubt. Eye contact? Greater volume? No thanks.
But soon, the club moved on from “how to make a speech” lessons to the exploration of argumentation. We were taught to speak the language of Persuasion, and play the game of Debate. Eventually, I fell in love with it all.
By high school, I joined the school debate team, began socializing, and was even elected to head several clubs. I developed critical and analytical thinking skills, and learned how to think and speak spontaneously.
I became proud and confident. Moreover, I became eager to play my role in the family, and family relations strengthened. In fact, nowadays, my parents are interested in my school’s newest gossip.
Four years with debate, and now I’m the kid up at the white board; the kid leading discussions; and the kid standing up for her beliefs.
More importantly, I now confront issues instead of avoiding them. It is exciting to discover solutions to problems that affect others, as I was able to do as part of the 1st Place team for the 2010 United Nations Global Debates Program on climate change and poverty. I take a natural interest in global issues, and plan to become a foreign affairs analyst or diplomat by studying international affairs with a focus on national identity.
In particular, I am interested in the North-South Korean tension. What irreconcilable differences have prompted a civilization to separate? Policy implications remain vague, and sovereignty theories have their limits—how do we determine what compromises are to be made? And on a personal level, why did my grandfather have to flee from his destroyed North Korean hometown--and why does it matter?
I see a reflection of myself in the divide at the 38th parallel because I see one part isolating itself in defense to outside threats, and another part coming out to face the world as one of the fastest- developing nations. Just as my shy persona before debate and extroverted character after debate are both part of who I am, the Korean civilization is also one. And just as my parents expect much from me, the first of my family to attend college, I have grand expectations for this field of study.
(Word count: 630)

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