The Arc of a Great Story

by Ted Burnham

You’ve probably heard that if you want to become the kind of leader who can engage, inspire, and motivate your employees to perform, you should learn to tell a great story. But what makes a story “great” – and why do great stories have the power to change people’s mindsets and behavior?


Turns out, people have been asking this question for a long time!

Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Aristotle wondered why his fellow Greeks were so captivated by epic stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the tragedies of Sophocles, Aristophanes, and other playwrights.

So he broke each story down. He looked for common themes. And he realized that all great stories, from the most epic adventure to the bleakest tragedy, share a simple story arc that triggers three emotions in their audience: pity, fear, and catharsis.

From the most epic adventure the bleakest tragedy, all great stories share a simple story arc.

First, we meet a likeable and relatable character to whom bad things start to happen, and we pity or empathize with them. Then, as the threats escalate, we fear for them. Finally, we experience catharsis – the relief that comes when, for better or for worse, the character meets their fate and their struggle is resolved.

Centuries later, Joseph Campbell studied the myths of dozens of cultures and discovered a similar pattern. He called it the Hero’s Journey – the plucky underdog who struggles against overwhelming odds, risks life and limb, fails but perseveres, and ultimately saves the day.

The Avanoo StoryApp can help your employees tap into the age-old power of their own stories. To learn more, join us for a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo with our team.

Your school teacher probably simplified the story arc even more: Beginning, middle, and end. But no matter how you frame it, the arc of a great story is deeply ingrained in our humanity – so deep, in fact, that it’s wired into our brains.

Neuroscientists have found that when people listen to a story, our brains secrete three hormones: cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine. Together, they form a potent cocktail that pulls us into the story, connects us emotionally to the characters, and rewards us for sharing their journey.

By structuring stories around a classic story arc, you’ll give your audience a familiar pattern they can latch onto again and again. And you’ll leverage their own brain chemistry to ensure they focus on, care about, and remember your message.

In future posts we’ll look more closely at the hormones cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine – and explain how you can maximize their effects to make the stories you tell more impactful.


—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more:
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