How to Use the Three Act Structure to Make Rockin' eLearning Videos

Keeping your learners entertained is a key component of an eLearning video course. How can you keep them engaged? By mimicking other videos that entertain them. I’m talking about movies and TV.

In this age of easily accessible video entertainment, most of us are watching a lot of TV and movies. As you consume large amounts of this entertainment medium, sometimes in binging sessions of course, you may start thinking what my wife said to me not two weeks ago: “All of this is the same thing!”

Of course, this is simply not true. You can’t tell me that Star Wars, Gilmore Girls, and Downton Abbey are all the same thing. But as far as their stories go, you’re looking at an age old formula that you can bet your bottom on. Each of them follows the process of a hero’s journey, or climb to conquer, and once you’ve watched enough of these (especially in a row, in one afternoon), you start to realize there is a definite pattern.

If you have taken an American High School English class, you’ve seen the “story mountain,” or “plot diagram,” or “story arc.” This is as true with any sort of story as it is with books. It’s a basic plot structure that successful movies/videos/stories follow. Very rarely do stories that do not follow this structure survive. I’ll go ahead and break this down in a basic fashion, and then tie it into eLearning.

For the sake of universal understanding, I will use the 1977 Star Wars as an example.

Stories can be broken down into three parts, known as Acts. The first Act is generally called “the set-up.” This is where we are introduced to our characters, and see their daily life/world. This is also where the problem is introduced, and our main character is placed at the beginning of the journey. They have to decide to go on the journey, and jump headlong into it.

Star Wars translation:

  • Introduced to characters and the problem
    • C3-PO and R2-D2, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, as well as the problem (the Empire stinks).
  • Introduced to our main character and see his daily life
    • Luke in his natural habitat wanting to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters
  • Main character is placed at the beginning of the journey
    • Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke he must go to Alderaan with him
    • Luke rejects that idea
  • The main character decides to go on the journey and jumps headlong into it
    • Luke finds his home destroyed, and actually says, “I’ll come with you to Alderaan, there’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

The second Act, or “the rising action,” is all about the hero being trained and honed into the kind of person who can overcome the problem. In fighting movies, like Rocky or The Karate Kid, this usually means learning new fighting techniques, gaining confidence in themselves, and often ends in a training montage. A key point to this act is that the hero will dive in head first to overcome the problem and fail, normally losing just about everything.

Star Wars translation:

  • Hero is trained
    • Luke goes through basic lightsaber training, and gets a little better at feeling with the force
  • Hero learns new techniques and gains confidence
    • Luke works with Han and Chewie to save the princess, and proves himself to be a useful person
  • Hero dives into the problem, and barely survives
    • Luke and his friends save the princess and try to fight the empire, but are overwhelmed and barely survive the Death Star. Luke also loses Obi-Wan

The third Act, or “the resolution,” is about the hero gathering their forces and going in against the main problem in a more organized and methodical manner. After the climax, showing a new normal is generally the last scene.

Star Wars translation:

  • Gathering forces
    • Luke and his group get to the rebel base, and they collect their gathered information
    • Luke and all the rebel pilots fly in against the Death Star
  • Going against the main problem
    • Luke, using the force that he developed during the second Act, destroys the Death Star
  • Finding new normal
    • Everyone parties and gives medals to Luke and Han (and no one else for some reason) and then credits roll

So how does this translate to your eLearning video course? Simple. Follow the three act structure. It doesn’t have to be exact; you don’t have to have every little point in there. But if you can tell a story using the structure, you’ll find that your course is more enjoyable, and you’ll have higher engagement.

Your first Act may be introducing the topic, and introducing your learner to the setting. You may choose to have your viewer fill the role of the hero, and they’ll need to choose to embark on the video journey. Interactive videos in Camtasia can help to make that possible. For your second Act, allow your viewer to learn and make wrong decisions. Show the negative results, and show some failures. This will help to increase the value of successfully finishing the course in the third Act.

For an example, let’s say that I am building a video course on how to use a fire extinguisher and that I am having my viewer be the main character (or hero). Also for this example, we are not going to make this an interactive video.

ACT I

  • Introduced to characters and the problem
    • Welcome the viewer to the course
  • Introduced to our main character and see his daily life
    • Show the viewer the setting, maybe even show where the fire extinguisher is
  • Main character is placed at the beginning of the journey
    • Explain to the viewer that there is a fire, and that it is up to them to put it out
  • The main character decides to go on the journey and jumps headlong into it

ACT II

  • Hero is trained
    • Talk about the different ways to put out fires, including water, calling the fire department, or stomping it out
  • Hero learns new techniques and gains confidence
    • Show the right way to use the fire extinguisher
  • Hero dives into the problem, and barely survives
    • Show an attempt at putting out a fire that fails, maybe throwing water on a grease fire, or calling the fire department for a small fire in the fireplace

ACT III

  • Gathering forces
    • Finally, our hero finds themselves at the fire
  • Going against the main problem
    • They show all the proper techniques, assessing and fighting the fire in all the ways learned during the second Act
  • Finding new normal
    • Congratulatory footage, certifying them in fire safety

The power behind eLearning videos is tremendous, but only if it is utilized well. Use this power wisely and develop high-quality storytelling skills so that your viewers and eLearners can get the most out of your course.

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