A Screenwriter’s Guide to Epic Narratives for your MBA Essays

Here are my insider tips from my days as a screenwriter to help you construct Epic Stories in your MBA essays and shine as your very best self in your MBA applications.

First: What is an Epic Narrative?

An Epic Narrative is our approach to the kind of personal essay you would write in answer to questions like HBS’s “What more would you like us to know about you?” or Stanford’s “What matters to you most and why?” It’s a weaving together of your own Life Story that centers on your key values.

Said another way, an Epic Story is your narrative approach to your past. Schools like Harvard give you the chance to cover anything and everything that you want to cover in their essay, to sum up your life to date. It's the story of how you became and are becoming who you are.

We systematically guide our clients to develop powerful new storytelling skills through our work together. Based on my years of studying screenwriting and making films, we help our clients leverage the gifts of Hollywood drama and comedy – pathos, inspiration, and connection with the audience in all of their interpersonal communications – essays, networking, and interviews.

So let me share some of our insider tips with you in this article so you can get a sense of what we do and how it enables you shine as your very best self in your MBA applications.

The Main Components of an Epic Narrative

To begin telling your Epic Life Story, you need three things. First, you need a strong sense of your core intrinsic values. (For more on intrinsic values and how to identify them, check out our amazing How-To for writing the Harvard MBA Application Essay.)

Next, you need to decide which core incidents and anecdotes comprise your Epic Life Story. Obviously not everything that's ever happened to you is going to fit into your narrative—You have to make some choices.

Finally, you’ll need to decide which details to focus on in your telling of these core stories. But that piece will come more organically: you'll discover the right details as you go.

Shaping Your Narrative

While these values, key stories, and details are the meat of your essay, I recommend that you use a brilliant framework called the Hero's Journey to shape your essay. Almost every movie you've ever really loved was a Hero's Journey story. Your own life is a Hero's Journey story.

I’m going to give you some insight into a redacted version of the Hero's Journey framework that I invented. I call it The Four Cs: Context, Conflict, Choice, and Change.

If you want to super geek out on this framework, check out my bestselling book, Interview Hero.

Context

As you might’ve guessed, context refers to the background information for your narrative. This is the stuff that your reader—namely, the adcom—needs to understand to be able to follow the story. It's the who, what, when, and where of the story. These components are super important because stories happen in space and time. If you don’t lay out the space and time, it's not a story. It's something else. It's an essay, it's a theoretical discourse. It's not a story.

Conflict: The Linchpin of Storytelling

Conflict and Choice should get the lion's share of the word count in an Epic Narrative. If you think back over your own life story, there was probably a scene—a moment in your life—when something happened, and all of a sudden life was completely different. Suddenly there was a core value at stake, and you had to really think about what you were going to do in the given situation.

We have many inciting incidents in our lives, but the one that we care about for this kind of essay is the one that defines the core conflict of the story that you’re telling.

Conflict is what defines the story. If there's no conflict, it's not a story. (Or at least, not a compelling one.) You want to hold all of your narrative essays up to this critical lens: Is there a clear challenge that I’m trying to solve that is defining the shape of the story?

So what is conflict, exactly?

It's actually a very simple thing: It's what happens when the protagonist (the main character—you!) wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it.

There are only three kinds of conflict in all the history of literature. (I’m a purist about this.) The three categories are: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. In a man versus himself scenario, the thing that's truly holding you back is you—or your view of yourself, or your view of the world. Have you ever noticed that a lot of what we struggle and grapple with in life is something that's going on between us and ourselves? Yeah, me too.

The choices that you make in light of this conflict—whatever the obstacles in your way may be—are going to be the very most important part of your life story, because this is where the adcom gets to see your character in action.

Turning Points

The important scenes and anecdotes in your story should center around moments when you make a choice, so keep homing in on the pivotal choices that you've made with respect to your values.

If you want to know how many major choices/turning points/pivotal moments your story should have, I’d say three or four, max, is probably where you want to be. But even in a long essay, one turning point can be enough. More isn’t always better.

A Quick Note on Framing

Beyond this larger framework, when it comes to choosing a more immediate framing for your narrative, feel free to go in whatever direction best supports the conflict and anecdotes you want to focus on. You can tell your story chronologically (this is always a solid choice, because it’s easy for a reader to follow), but that certainly isn’t your only option.

You could even do something like this: “I want to tell you about the three most important decisions I've ever made in my life,” and then you just tell each one as a discrete anecdote.

Your key anecdotes don’t have to fit together as a single cohesive narrative. They can, and for many of you, that is the right approach, but they don't have to. You can think outside the box!

From Life Choices to Vivid Moments

You cannot possibly inspire the reader with your Epic Narrative if you don’t come across as human. This is the most important tip I can give you. So you need to write intimately about your choices. If you want the reader to experience that emotional connection with you and your story, then you have to unveil your thoughts, your decision process, and how you ultimately made the choice to change at this pivotal moment (i.e. how you reached the turning point in your narrative).

Moments of choice are the most important moments for you to be vivid with your reader.

Being vivid means talking clearly about your choices—giving concrete details so that your reader can envision the situation. It also means baring your emotions, your internal actions, and your thoughts for your reader. Sometimes the most important movement in a narrative happens internally, and if you don’t articulate those inner shifts, the adcom will never know.

Three Kinds of Epic Stories

We could argue there is an infinite array of Epic Stories that could be told about a heroic life. (We’re talking about your life here!) But for simplicity’s sake, and because you’re applying to business school after all, what I find is that many people’s Epic Life Story boils down to one of three flavors.

  • You could tell a story that reveals how you stuck to your values despite multiple challenging circumstances. That's the first kind of story.
  • You could tell a story about how your values evolved as you made different choices shaped by the circumstances of your life. (That’s the second kind of story.)
  • And the third way that you can tell your Life Story is to do both. (Sticking fast to certain values, evolving on other fronts. Note: Both isn’t necessarily better.)

As you begin to draft your Epic Life Story for your essays, you have some creative license. There's not really a right answer here. It's going to depend on the life that you have lived so far and the values that you want to convey.

If you end up talking about how you stuck to your values despite multiple challenging circumstances, the kind of growth that you'll exhibit for the reader is how you became stronger, more steadfast, and then ultimately in some way changed your circumstances to fit your values.

If you go with the second option, it’s essentially a story about how you embraced a new value, revealing flexibility, a growth mindset, and – most likely – greater compassion. (And if you want to cover both, you’ll reveal how you became stronger in terms of an existing value while embracing a new one.)

Trusting the Process

You probably won’t have a sense of what kind of Epic Story you’re writing—or of how your narrative is going to turn out—until much later in the process. Essay writing is iterative and transformative and fluid all at once. This is why we work through unlimited drafts with our clients. Our approach is dynamic and iterative.

But to capture the essence of what we do, don’t think like this: “I’m going to write Epic Story Type 1!” Instead, adopt this writing process:

  1. “These are my values.” (I.e., This is what I want the reader to know about me.)
  2. “These are my key stories.”
  3. Write!!
  4. Once you have that first draft, see what your story actually says.
  5. Refine/revise that story around the values you started out with.

Then, in the end, you’ll look back and recognize the kind of story you’ve been telling (or wanted to tell) all along!