When you watch a lot of movies, you start to get the feeling that they’re all the same story, just told in a different way. Take romantic comedies for example:

  • Boy meets girl (the “meet cute”)
  • Boy and girl start dating>
  • Boy and girl have a fight
  • Boy wallows in self-pity
  • Grand Romantic Gesture
  • Boy and girl are back together
  • End Credits

You’re not crazy; there really is a formula to movies. In college, I took a screenwriting course from a professor who went out of her way to drill that formula into my head. (Her favorite movie? Independence Day.)

That formula is called the Three Act Structure. It’s actually a really useful way to learn storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with using it (but sometimes the best movies are the ones that take a few liberties). This is also a useful framework for nonprofits that are just learning how to tell their story through video. For a typical Hollywood movie, your three acts might look like this: 

Act One

  1. Inciting Incident or Catalyst: what starts the story in motion?
  2. The Big Event: what changes your character’s life?

Act Two

  1. The Pinch: Point of no return.
  2. Rising Conflict: build tension, character takes bolder choices.
  3. Crisis: the low point for your character.

Act Three

  1. The Showdown or Climax: exactly what it sounds like. The final showdown.
  2. Realization: the character (or audience) realizes that the character has changed
  3. Denouement: Tie up all the loose ends.

You can also simplify that down, especially for a shorter story. 

In a three minute or shorter video, you could just hit the Big Event, Rising Conflict, Climax, and Denouement; the important thing to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story.

So, this is great for potential screenwriters, but how would a nonprofit put it all into practice? First, think about what you want to accomplish with your video. Do you want the people at home watching the video to take a specific action? Are you motivating them to donate, sign a petition, plant a tree, or volunteer? Whatever that action is, that’s the end of your story.  Your Inciting Incident is that your organization needs money to continue to operate, the Big Event is your annual campaign, the Rising Conflict is all the services your organization won’t be able to provide without the support of the viewers at home, and the Climax is the audience actually making that donation. There’s an example of a thrilling short video with a cliffhanger ending—will our hero, the scrappy Nonprofit-That-Could, survive to provide services another day?

That story could look entirely different depending on who the main character is. Maybe the protagonist is not the nonprofit, but a potential supporter. Their story begins with an email from a nonprofit, asking for a donation. The Big Event is making a donation, and the Pinch is that the nonprofit still needs other forms of help. In the Rising Conflict, our new donor pitches in in other ways, donating canned goods or blankets, volunteering to help deliver services, and asking friends and family to also donate or help out. In the Climax, the nonprofit meets their fundraising goal. Finally, the supporter has the Realization that they made a difference in the community.

No matter the character you follow in the video, make sure that their story has a beginning, middle, and an end, and that the choices they make or actions they take make sense. This doesn’t have to be an epic, cinematic thriller where the “stakes are high and the danger is even higher” to be compelling—but you can be a little tongue-in-cheek if it feels appropriate (a little goes a long way—don’t make fun of your mission or constituents). This isn’t a two-hour feature film, it’s a YouTube video; there’s only so much characterization or plot development you can do in three minutes.

It wouldn’t be an Idealware blog post if I didn’t include some examples to inspire you. Check out the winners from the DoGooder Video Awards for examples of nonprofits telling short stories. My personal favorite is Meet the Digits from Ronald McDonald House Austin.