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Three Act Structure: How To Use It In The STAR Interview Method

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    The three-act structure is a popular storytelling format that divides a plot into three parts. The first part introduces the characters, the second provides more meat to the story and is longer. And the third part builds the story to a steep climax which is resolved and usually good prevails over evil.

    It’s brilliance lies in the simplicity around the structure of the story. It uses a weaving together of relatable human emotions around initial excitement, perseverance and impossible odds. But yet culminates in a triumph. The result is that we tend to see ourselves in the role of the protagonist. We see the mini stories in our lives through the same lens. Many people against us making our life difficult, but we yet prevail.

    We shall first discuss the three-act structure for screenplay plots. Then, use elements from it in the STAR interview method format with behavior-based questions.

    The Three Act Structure Story Format

    First described by Syd Field in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979), the three-act structure is simple and consists of the following parts:

    A woman with a pink top and a man with a checked shirt watching a movie in a theater.

    First Act: The Setup

    In the first act (about one quarter of the plot), some background information of the main characters is presented. Towards the end of the first act, a life changing event occurs for the protagonist. This necessitates that she or he take on an epic struggle to achieve a task such as defeat a villain or solve a significant problem.

    It is usually clear at the end of the first act that life will never be the same again for these characters. What happens to the hero or heroine is so impactful, that they have no choice but to undertake this life-altering journey of learning and change.

    Second Act: Confrontation Or Rising Action

    The second act (about half of the plot) is the main part of the movie or story where the protagonist makes serial attempts to resolve the problem but only finds himself or herself in more dire circumstances without resolution of the problem.

    The protagonist struggles to achieve the task mostly because they don’t yet have the necessary skills. Thus, they often need to learn new skills and become fully aware of who they really are. This is called character development or a character arc and is typically aided by a mentor or another protagonist.

    Third Act: The Resolution Of The Story

    In the third act (approximately the final quarter of the plot), the protagonist finally achieves the goal and defeats the villain. This is done through a climatic sequence where the audience is subjected to strong emotions not knowing what the outcome will be. Often a surprising twist is also used in the third act such as one more unsolvable problem.

    Usually this involves what may initially look like defeat of the antagonist. But he somehow returns for a final conflict with the protagonist. And in the last part of the plot, the protagonist prevails by using one final skill or trick that was made important in the second act.

    Movie theatre with red lights and people buying tickets. The words "central cinema" are lit up in red neon lights.

    STAR Interview Method

    Questions in behavioral interviews are generally expected to be answered in the situation, task, action, result (STAR) format. Much advice is available on how to structure your answers using this format. Astoundingly, none take advantage of this neat cognitive trick, seemingly, only known to Hollywood. It is a tried and tested method for narrating a hero’s tale of trial and ultimate triumph called the three-act format featured in most movies.

    Using A Three-Act Structure With The STAR Interview Method

    This storytelling format works every time because human minds are primed to be influenced through this approach from an evolutionary cognitive perspective. The many Hollywood movies we’ve seen only serve to further solidify the impact this narrative structure has on our minds.

    This allows your story to be thought of as more compelling in the interviewer’s mind than told through other formats. This forges a strong emotional connection between you and the interviewer by eliciting the release of feel-good brain chemicals in the right order just like they have been primed to from the many movies your interviewer has seen.

    Fortunately, the STAR format already fits the three-act structure plot in that the situation/task usually is the first act (setup) with the action taking on the second act (confrontation) and the result, the third and final act.

    First Act – The Setup (Situation)

    Your story should start with the background information about yourself and the circumstances that led up to the problem you need to address. The key is to end this part with a good inciting event to set up the second act. Here you are looking for a problem that is critical to your role or how your team operates. Something life altering from a work standpoint.

    Second Act – The Confrontation (Task/Action)

    Batman dressed in his bat suit and a golden belt with his fists clenched.

    Here you want to build up things with rising action where you have solved several initial challenges to make headway with the task. Include aspects where you’ve reached out to other colleagues and team members for help (the hero always has a side-kick or two and generally gets some help from others).

    It is critical to conclude your second act effectively.  The standard way this plays out in a movie is that even though the hero and the rest of the good guys have done an impressive amount, the final objective still fails (villain still prevails). This gets to the character arc in which the hero needs to radically change a part of his very character and then try for a win against the villain facing very low odds at success.

    This builds the climax for the final act. For a STAR response this will usually involve making a radical change to yourself or viewpoint which to evolve to a higher level of knowledge and transform to a new person.

    Third Act – The Resolution (Result)

    This part should start out somewhat glumly and could even hint at the story ending without success. Then from out of nowhere you should provide the final act where you throw one last Hail Mary at the problem and finally emerge triumphant.

    It’s that easy and works every time for the right situation. Try it out because it will be a hit, I assure you.

    Why The Three Act Structure Works For The STAR Interview Method

    Common perception is that we make decisions based on facts and reason. Modern behavioral scientists have done enough research to show that this is far from the case. You can find a list of our recommended books that cover this here. Humans are influenced by emotions first and then the facts are used later to rationalize the decision.

    Control the emotions of the interviewer through this form of narration and you will persuade them more effectively towards your candidacy.

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Three-Act Structure; STAR Interview Method; Behavioral Interviews; Career Development

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