How to Create a Narrative: Jeff Bezos & the Three-Act Structure

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bezos Blueprint" by Carmine Gallo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the three-act narrative structure? How can you use stories to communicate effectively and sell your ideas?

An effective way to simplify complex ideas and explain why they matter is to tell a story about them. According to Carmine Gallo, Jeff Bezos is a natural storyteller with an intuitive grasp of how to use narrative to get an idea across to his audience.

Read more to learn how to create a narrative using Bezos’s techniques.

How to Create a Narrative

One way to engage your audience through storytelling is to structure your message as a narrative. According to Gallo, many of Bezos’s communications follow a three-act narrative structure.

(Shortform note: The three-act structure [which Syd Field popularized in his book Screenplay] is one of several options for structuring your story. Some models are more complex, like the five-part Freytag’s Pyramid, which divides narratives into setup, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Others are simpler, like Aristotle’s two-part model of complication and resolution. But what all these models have in common—and what you need to make your message into a narrative—is a deliberately crafted story arc.)

To learn how to create a narrative in the style of Bezos, understand the parts that make up the three-act structure:

Act 1) Setup: The storyteller sets the scene, introduces the key characters, and establishes the world. At some point, an inciting incident kicks the main character into action by giving her a problem to solve or a goal to achieve. For example, Gallo says, when Bezos tells the story of Amazon, he begins by talking about his parents and grandparents, who taught him the lessons he’d use later in life (setup). He then describes the moment when he had the idea for a massive online bookstore (inciting incident).

Act 2) Challenges: The main character encounters obstacles and setbacks on the way to her goal. These challenges force the main character to grow and change. For example, after launching Amazon, Bezos faced challenges ranging from the need to mail packages himself to the dot-com collapse that tanked the company’s stock price and put its future in doubt.

Act 3) Resolution: The main character overcomes the obstacles and achieves her goal. In the process, she improves herself and the world, as when, Bezos says, Amazon overcame its obstacles and became one of the world’s top companies by continuing to put customers first (resolution).

Sell Your Ideas Using Stories

In Building a StoryBrand, Donald Miller provides a more detailed seven-part story outline that he designed as a sales device. But his outline isn’t just for selling products—you can also use it to sell ideas or to motivate, influence, or persuade. Here’s how:

1. Show the audience that they want something they don’t yet have (Gallo’s Act 1: Setup.

2. Point out an obstacle standing between the audience and the thing they want (this and the next four steps are elaborations on Gallo’s Act 2: Challenges).

3. Frame yourself as a mentor who can guide them past the obstacle.

4. Explain how you (or your idea or product) can solve the audience’s problem.

5. Tell the audience what next step they should take.

6. Point out the risks of not acting.

7. Preview the happy ending the audience can expect if they take the action you recommend (Gallo’s Act 3: Resolution). 

Note that in Miller’s approach, the audience is the hero of the story and you’re merely a helper. This makes the audience the center of attention, forcing you to explain why your message matters to them and how it will make a positive difference in their lives. This may not always be the best approach, especially when you’re not directly selling something. For instance, the story Gallo mentions above makes Bezos and Amazon the heroes—a choice potentially designed to generate goodwill given that the story in question was the core of Bezos’s testimony before a U.S. Congress antitrust committee.

(Shortform note: Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate in part because the human brain is designed to connect ideas using the same cause-and-effect logic that powers stories. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that the brain makes causal connections automatically—in fact, we make these connections even when they aren’t warranted, leading to mistakes in what’s known as the narrative fallacy.)

How to Create a Narrative: Jeff Bezos & the Three-Act Structure

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  • How to improve your communication by using Jeff Bezos's principles
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  • Why you should ban PowerPoint in favor of storytelling

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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