The story arc of sort-of triumph

by Elizabeth McGuane

While all stories have a structure that fits into certain categories, they all have unique shapes.

My esteemed colleague wrote this in a post on this very site not long ago. I didn’t really question it at the time, because I respect her as a person and am not confrontational. But in the work I’ve done over the past year, I’ve found the opposite to be true.



I recently did a few talks about that work - and doing talks often helps me think critically about what I’ve worked on, that’s why I do it - and I realised I had to stand up for consistent structure. That’s right: I’m throwing down, rap-battle style. This may end with an aggressive rhyming couplet.

Let me tell you a story.

Over a year ago I began working on a site redesign. It was typical of the projects I had always done - big build, big platform, big team. Things have just gotten bigger and bigger, but the underlying problems - sorry, challenges - remain the same.

On this project we were starting from a few principles:

  • We would write editorial (long-form) product content
  • We would make tools and decisionmaking integral to that content, so that understanding something and choosing it would be part of a fluid story
  • We would house this in sophisticated, magazine-esque formats, using staggered layouts and lots of image styles
  • And we would make it simple enough for someone not expert in page layout to build

The casual observer may perceive a tension between those last two bullets. In the battle between complexity and simplicity, with aesthetic subjectivity elbowing in and making a show of itself, mistakes will be made. I am using the passive voice here with full intent, by the way.

We quickly realised - or had always known but struggled to admit to each other - that our page designs could not be fully bespoke. On some level, however high-minded, we had to have consistency. Tools and functionality had to occupy the same position in the page template - for consistency and technical simplicity. Headers had to remain the same. But though the walls of the playground narrowed, there was still room to play.

What we needed was clear direction, signposts for organising our limited variety. Why choose one layout style over another if you know nothing about art direction? Where on the page should you talk about technical details, about history, about things that resonate emotionally, and things that are wholly practical?

I created something to guide this process called a story arc. This story arc provided a backbone for pages - it helped us see when one story was too long and another too short. It helped the UX team understand the content the way they wanted to, in semantic chunks. Most importantly, it gave direction to teams of designers and writers, pairing off to work together, who hadn’t been directly part of the design process.

It wasn’t really that big of a deal. But when I spoke about this technique to audiences, people came up afterwards convinced there was some alchemy in it. I think that’s because it was built on a hidden thing: creativity.

When we started designing, before we’d done any wireframing or sitemaps and while the content audit juggernaut was still underway, people were writing. They wrote without structure - a blank page, open from top to bottom. They edited and revised, and worked with the images we had or scrambled to find new ones.

Out of those two or three worked-over stories came seemingly inevitable consistencies. When you’re talking about products and a brand that have story elements in common, things will work their way into alignment. There aren’t limitless ways for one writer to say a thing about a specific topic, however limitless our imaginations might be. Then, out of the later UX work came rules and boundaries that made the story arc, when I came to describe it to the wider team, self-evident.

Sometimes the work of a strategist is to frame things back to people that you can see so that they can see more clearly - show something of the bigger picture in a way that’s digestible. This might make you feel like a fraud: you’re not.

Like any other storyteller, you’re just stealing facts and adding perspective. Much like I’ve stolen Randall’s perfectly valid facts and thrown down a riposte. Storytellers are kind of assholes.


Written by
Elizabeth McGuane
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3 responses to The story arc of sort-of triumph

  1. Story arc is a technical term, it means the inevitable (and in fiction, unpredictable) progression of events: inevitable because the of the powerful force of the main conflict as embodied by the antagonist on the character of the protagonist in pursuit of goals she’ll die if she doesn’t achieve.

    It sounds like you’re talking about structured content designed to serve your consumer/reader/customer’s goals, with maybe a little information modelling thrown in?

    It’s fantastic to include writers and designers as early as possible, but I can’t quite get the story arc part of it. It can make people at work nervous when I talk about what I’ve learned from fiction and screenplays when we’re solving a tech doc problem, so hoping to learn more about this new use of the term arc!

    • Hi Mysti, thanks for the props :) I haven’t used examples because it’s not work I can show, I’m afraid, but what I’m talking about is an arc within a particular page, telling the story of a product and moving the reader through a narrative - so not just structured content & modelling, but a little bit of that too. In this case, just to give a bit more clarity, the arc moved from setting the scene, to exploring a single telling detail about the product, to a point where a decision is made (conflict, I guess you could say!) to a point of emotional resonance, usually an historical detail that put the product in context. We’re talking about products that have a long history and lots of good stories to tell, so it was a single narrative throughline that progressed, not just individual chunks. Does that help?

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About Mapped.

We're two writers who make web things. We're interested in what makes stories go: in our brains, online, in design, fiction, culture and everywhere.

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