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Story Structure Basics Can Build Your Success

We all can harness the power of storytelling to craft our own next chapter, thrilling sequel, surprise ending and hard-won triumph. Beginning to view your career from a story structure perspective will enable you to hone the stories you need to tell at work for success.

Once you learn the fundamentals of how to create a great story – the techniques that all writers know but those outside of that rarified realm do not – you will shape your messaging while you also:

  • Clarify your responses to the obstacles you will inevitably face;
  • Focus on your goals while keeping yourself open to what’s new and dynamic;
  • Improve your creative problem-solving and questioning;
  • And, cultivate your power to invent new ideas and reinvent approaches.

So, think like a writer with these top three story lessons to shift the way you view your work life and live up to your true potential:


The narrative arc is every story’s spine; a line graph that shows how a story rises, falls and progresses. There’s only one difference from other work charts – the story arc cycles being tracked are always the same. Whether it’s The Wizard of Oz or Game of Thrones, the plots, characters, beginnings, middles and ends that fill every narrative arc are different. But the pattern of any great story remains constant (otherwise it wouldn’t be great).

There are four cycles that shape every narrative arc and every project, initiative or team effort at work. They are:

  • SHIFT: Something changes the landscape which establishes a goal or quest.
  • INSTABILITY: New uncertainties and realities emerge from the unfamiliar terrain.
  • DARKNESS: Despair hits as more about the goal is known and challenges mount.
  • LIGHT: Intense struggle, resolution and then evolution.

Try doing this one thing today:

Look at a recent challenging project through the lens of these four cycles and note what happened in each. Viewing the endeavor through these predictable stages will help you to see the pain – and the gain – as a natural part of every process. Reframing what you experienced will also help you realize that a new plot twist or solution always appears to alleviate any feelings of “stuckness,” being overwhelmed or fear when you’re thinking about your next project.


The greatest forces affecting what you want at work may be other people. From mentors to antagonists – and everyone in between – there are personas around you that add drama and dimension to your work story – even those pesky antagonists. Why? Because they will always teach you something about yourself you wouldn’t have known otherwise so a better you can emerge.

Because human nature and needs are the drivers of everything, to best succeed you must grasp the perspective of the characters around you, as well as group dynamics. But the character you most need to understand is yourself. Our shadows on the sidewalk are caused by the obstacle that is us, and at work, we are so often in our own way. Your progress demands dealing with the self-sabotaging antagonist within that can keep you in neutral, hold you back or send you in the wrong direction.

Try doing this one thing today:

Ask yourself: what trait, tendency or feeling have I now outgrown and can leave behind? To help answer, contemplate yourself and the characters who shaped you. Reflect on the whole of you, them and on what they may have faced. Revisit scenes and old plotlines from your life without rage or blame, and with the possibility of forgiveness.


Now it’s onto the one other element that’s entrenched in every single story – conflict. A story without obstacles is a giant bore. In fact, without something standing in the way of the quest, it’s not even a story.

Bumping up against an external challenge and finding your way around it not only keeps things interesting – it also builds resilience. Without conflict, results at work would be unimaginative and unproductive. No matter how annoying, we all need stressors to take us to a higher level. So, embrace conflict and confrontation (within reason, and civilly) and seek different personas, contrasting opinions and whatever else you would normally avoid to win at work.

Try doing this one thing today:

No matter how nurturing, your work environment is bound to also be populated with some characters that stir up conflict and confusion. To deal with difficult people in your path, place this one notion at the center of your work-world: try to view them as teachers who are just challenging you to work through an issue that you need to heal in order to further evolve.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected]. And to read more from our Spring 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention. She’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media Chief Innovation Officer (CIO), a leader of brands like ELLE Décor and Metropolitan Home, an industry consultant and throughout a creative pivot that led to the award-winning memoir, “Saturday’s Child.”

The experience of becoming an author illuminated the path to her second book, “Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life.” Now, Deborah combines her business and creative expertise in professional development workshops that improve outcomes and help everyone invent, reinvent and live up to their career potential.

You can connect with Deborah on LinkedIn or at her website.

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Maddie Willis

Deborah, I really resonated with your closing statement “try to view them as teachers who are just challenging you to work through an issue that you need to heal in order to further evolve.” this is such a positive spin on an issue that is always prevalent in the workforce.

Avatar photo Deborah Burns

Maddie, thank you for your feedback. It really is wonderful for any writer to know that a point resonated, and for me, especially now. My career has taken me down many roads, but this is the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. DB

Avatar photo Pearl Kim

Um this hit me hard! (In a good way!) “Our shadows on the sidewalk are caused by the *obstacle that is us,* and at work, we are so often in our own way. Your progress demands dealing with the self-sabotaging antagonist within that can keep you in neutral, hold you back or send you in the wrong direction.”

Avatar photo Deborah Burns

Pearl, so pleased to hear this resonated! Turning conflict into progress is the goal, and to do so, it’s not just about the external conflict we face. Turning inward will help us get further, faster. DB

Isaac Constans

As a writer, I often find myself seeing life’s events through the prism you described. But I never really took a moment to set down a roadmap for how to use that to my advantage. Thank you for doing that work!