A Framework for eLearning Scenarios

a flowchart and a person's hands on a notebook computer keyboard.
In this post, I’ll teach you about how to write eLearning scenarios using the same framework that best-selling authors and Hollywood screenwriters use: the dramatic arc.

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Introduction: What Makes a Good eLearning Scenario?

Several years ago, my good friend and colleague, Monique, changed the way I approach eLearning scenarios. In her life before instructional design, Monique taught theatre. I was an English teacher, so Monique and I often have spirited conversations about the power of stories for learning. One day, she and I were talking about what makes a good eLearning scenario. She said something like, “It’s all about the Dramatic Arc.” That was a lightbulb moment for me, and it’s helped me write better scenarios ever since. In this post, I’ll teach you about how to write eLearning scenarios using the same framework that best-selling authors and Hollywood screenwriters use: the dramatic arc.

The Dramatic Arc: A Framework for eLearning Scenario Development

If you are not an English or theatre teacher, you might need a refresher on just exactly what the Dramatic Arc is. It’s a widely used plot structure, also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Freytag’s Triangle, and it looks like this:

Illustration of the dramatic arc used for eLearning scenarios: At the bottom left is exposition, followed by the inciting incident, which is at the bottom left of the triangular shape. Rising action forms the left side of the triangle. Climax is at the point. Falling action forms the right side, ending with resolution or denouement.

A triangular shape with six labels. At the base is Exposition. The Inciting Incident leads to Rising Action (the longest side of the triangle) and then the Climax at the apex of the triangle. Down the other side is Falling Action and finally Resolution or Denouement.

Good storytellers know how to structure a story, and the Dramatic Arc provides a tried-and-true framework. Let’s look at each part and how it can be used for eLearning scenarios.

Exposition

Exposition is a fancy English teacher term for description. It’s used to set the scene and introduce the characters and other important information. For example, when The Hobbit begins, we learn what a hobbit-hole is—and what a hobbit is—and are introduced to Bilbo Baggins.

In eLearning scenarios, exposition is when you give the learner critical information they need to understand the situation and inform their decision-making. You don’t need to tell the learner everything about the scenario in the beginning—in fact, it’s better if you jump into the action right away. Exposition can continue throughout the story, revealing more information as it is needed. This is not only better for story development and learner engagement, but also for reducing cognitive load.

Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident is what happens to disrupt the characters’ lives—such as when Gandalf and company enter Bilbo’s comfortable little hobbit-hole and sweep him off on an adventure to reclaim treasures from the dragon Smaug. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Prim Everdeen’s name is drawn at the reaping ceremony—forcing her Katniss into action to take her sister’s place as tribute.

The inciting incident introduces the conflict—and without conflict, you don’t have a story. Would The Simpsons have become the longest-running sitcom on TV (since 1989!) if Homer and Marge were perfect parents with perfect children, and nothing ever went wrong? Of course not. No one can relate to flawless characters who never have problems. We become invested in characters when there’s conflict. Something must be at stake.

In an eLearning scenario, the inciting incident introduces a problem related to the terminal learning objective—what your learner will be able to do that will solve the performance problem the course is meant to address.

We’ve all been through courses with a scenario about helping the newbie figure out how to use the copier or something equally mundane. Who cares, right? If nothing’s at stake, the learner will tune out. A problem learners can relate to is essential.

You can often combine the exposition and inciting incident. Consider Cathy Moore’s iconic example, Connect with Haji Kamal. The scenario begins with these words:

Your lieutenant is young. He's new. He's about to screw up—unless you give him good advice.

This introduction immediately tells us what’s at stake and draws us into the story. The scenario introduces more information in small amounts as needed for decision making.

Rising Action

Rising Action refers to a buildup of conflict. In novels and movies, this can be very complex, with multiple layers of conflict. For example, in The Hunger Games, the main Conflict (big C) for Katniss is winning the games to stay alive. There are multiple smaller conflicts (little c) she must face to overcome the main Conflict. She has to persuade her drunken mentor, Haymitch, to help her get sponsors. She must wrestle with her feelings when she believes Peeta has joined the enemy. All while outrunning fireballs and other dangers. 

staircase illustration labeled Rising Action with an arrow pointing up the stairs

You can think of rising action a bit like a staircase. The tension in the story rises with each new conflict and levels off a bit when those conflicts are resolved, but these small conflicts continue to escalate the need to resolve the main Conflict.

In eLearning scenarios, each choice leads the learner to another choice and works to build the tension a little more. These choices should be realistic problems or decisions the learner would face in her job, with consequences that progress the story based on the learner’s choices. Gentle guiding feedback can release the tension a bit to maintain a healthy level of stress for learning.

If this all sounds complicated, it doesn’t have to be. You can build rising action using Tom Kuhlman’s 3C Model for each conflict. The 3Cs are Challenge, Choice, and Consequence.

Challenge, Choice, Consequence: Tom Kuhlman's 3Cs of eLearning scenario development

For each challenge, the learner is offered several choices, each of which leads to a realistic consequence. When writing the choices, don’t make the options too straightforward or easy, and use a variety of options. If the real world topic you’re teaching has gray areas, the eLearning scenario should too.

sample eLearning scenario decision point - Photo of three people talking and looking over at a woman, who seems sad. Text reads, "You just overheard two employees gossiping about a coworker. What do you do? a) bad choice; b) neutral choice; c) good choice; d) great choice

You just overheard some employees gossiping about a coworker. What do you do?

a) Bad choice

b) Neutral choice

c) Good choice

d) Great choice

Woman looking sad while three coworkers talk and laugh behind her.

Climax

At the height of the rising action, the Climax is the turning point when everything changes. In The Hunger Games, it’s [spoiler alert] the apparent double suicide of Katniss and Peeta that causes the Capital to change their minds and allow two winners.

For eLearning, it’s when the learner solves the last challenge and either resolves the big Conflict—which, remember, is tied to the terminal learning objective—or learns that everything is way more messed up than when he began. When you’re outlining your eLearning scenario, try to arrange the decision points so they build in complexity and contribute to the overall story.

Falling Action

Falling Action is when the tension eases and loose ends start to be tied up. This is where we see what happens as a result of the climax. How does the character’s situation change? In an eLearning scenario, consider the real-world effects of the learner’s decisions. Again, think in terms of the terminal learning objective(s) at this point. How have the learner’s choices led to accomplishment of the overall learning goals?

Resolution / Dénouement

Finally, we come to the Resolution, also called the Dénouement (pronounced day-noo-MAWN), which is the conclusion of the story. It’s a bit like electricity or indoor plumbing. No one really notices it unless it’s missing. It’s (part of) the reason everyone I’ve encouraged to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail with me has looked at me when it’s over and asked some variation of, “What the heck was that?” The abrupt ending is part of that movie’s quirky charm, but it probably wouldn’t work well for eLearning.

In an eLearning scenario, the resolution may be combined with the falling action and is often a summary or simply a message such as these:

Congratulations! Your leadership has helped the department develop a more inclusive culture.

Uh-oh. It looks like some of your decisions have further divided the department, rather than helping it be more inclusive. Try again.

You’ve helped the department come a long way toward building a more inclusive culture. However, there’s still some work to do. Do you want to try the scenario again?

Summary

The Dramatic Arc structure may not be appropriate for every eLearning scenario, just as it isn’t used for every story. However, it can be a useful framework for many scenarios to make them more engaging and memorable.

Key Points for Writing eLearning Scenarios Using the Dramatic Arc

How Do You Structure Your eLearning Scenarios?

How could you implement the Dramatic Arc in your current or upcoming projects? What other methods do you use for designing scenario-based eLearning? Leave a comment! 

Want to Learn More?

Check out this post on the top 5 pitfalls in scenario writing  You can also download this list of scenario and storytelling resources we’ve curated.

If you’d like help with eLearning scenario development, let’s talk

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