The 5-act structure, and how you can use it to your advantage

The 5-act structure has been around for as long as people have been telling stories. Every storyteller from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss has been using it to great success.

The success of this arrangement is totally explainable: readers won’t accept anything less.

The reason I mention it here, on a blog about environmental communications, is to emphasize this point:  the people you communicate with are readers.  How you communicate with them should be through the author-reader relationship.

In case you need an reminder, here’s a refresher on the 5-act structure…

  1. First, we as readers must be drawn in (exposition).  There has to be a hook, a reason for us to keep reading, and starting anywhere other than the hook will lose your reader before you’ve even told the important part of your story.  Generally, this is where the bad guy is introduced.*
  2. Then, you must build the story (rising action).  Generate interest, drama, backstory, foreshadowing…  This is where the meat of a good story lies.  Conflicts arise and are dealt with, bad guys are battled, good guys grow in character and strength.
  3. There is a climax, where we cheer the conquering hero or mourn in defeat.  And then we keep reading.
  4. There is a wrap up (falling action), where all our questions about the story and characters are answered.
  5. And finally, the ending (denouement).  It should be dramatic, fulfilling, engaging, intelligent.  We come away wiser and deeper people.

* As a quick aside…If you haven’t highlighted, in a classy, subtle way of course, that you are the good guy and that there is a bad guy, you’re missing out on an opportunity. People love to place blame.  And in environmental work, you have your pick from a long list of bad guys.

What does this have to do with environmental communications?

Good question.

At first glance, you’re probably thinking this is not necessary or perhaps too touchy-feely for your organization. But I believe otherwise…

The way I see it, all environmental organizations are like little nonfiction documentaries, and every little thing you do should be treated as a chapter within that dramatic story.

Even though what you do is science, law, politics, and of course, oh-so-serious, most people (all people!) still react with their gut emotions first, their intellect second.

Why?  Because people inherently relate to and remember a story better than they do facts…up to 22 times more.

For you fact people, (I’m looking at you, scientists…) numerous studies have backed this up. The main reason behind it is this:  when you tell me a story, you’ve effectively passed on your feelings about the actual experience directly to me.

This means that I can feel exactly what you felt when you lived it.  For more on The Science of Storytelling, see this great post on

Facts, figures, and data are all great for backing up your science, solidifying your place as an expert in your field, providing evidence that you are an actual company working on actual problems, and rationalizing decisions.

In your environmental work, there is still a story to be told.

But when it comes to convincing people to support you, to donate money to you, to follow you on social media… tell them a story.  Take them on a journey.  This way, they’ll be convinced both emotionally and intellectually.

For you long-winded ones out there, keep this in mind.  The 5-act structure doesn’t have to be a small novel.  A good story can be told concisely in one sentence if need be, and still hold the elements of the whole structure.

And that denouement?  If you’ve told your story effectively, your readers will be convinced that your plan of action, whatever it may be, is the best and only thing to do next.

Perhaps your resolution is more fluid than in the case of a fiction, or even nonfiction, story. You are probably still working every day on furthering your resolution.

In fact, it is the continuing on of that resolution that will further engage your readers. Everyone loves a sequel.  We already love the main character.  We already hate the bad guy.

So, what good is thinking about your environmental organization in terms of the five-act structure?

Not much, if you chose not to use it.

But it could be worth a lot if you do.


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