SCQA – the minimum structure for story telling?

SCQA from the Pyramid PrincipleThere are many treatises / books / blogs that cover the structure of the novel (or screenplay, TV series and similar). I am also interested in short-stories and have wondered how far a short-story can be compressed and still be a story. In doing this thinking I recalled the SCQA structure that most Management Consultants use when they write — the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto. I wondered if there were any analogies that could be drawn between the worlds of fiction and factual writing.

This blog entry explores this idea by giving a whistle-stop guide to Barbara Minto’s work. I will follow-up with short story structure suggesting the similarity to story structure.

Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle

Barbara Minto produced the definitive handbook for structured writing (and the thinking that precedes it) the template by which the world’s top consultancies craft their work. This article does not intend to replace the book (or course) but I do want to highlight part of the idea — the mnemonic Situation Complication Question Answer.

What is SCQA?

The Pyramid Principle requires the writer to start with a tightly constructed introduction in story form. This needs to hook the audience in so that they will pay attention to the rest of the document or presentation. The structure for this introduction is referred to by the acronym SCQA — Situation, Complication, Question and answer. These can be thought of as:

Situation: What is the context? What is undeniably true and something the audience will accept as such. The Situation reminds the audience of that portion of what they already know about the subject that is relevant to the ideas about to be communicated.

Complication: What has happened to upset the status quo? This should be familiar to the audience or undeniably true. The statement of the Complication leads the audience to (mentally) ask the Question to which the document or presentation is the answer.

Question: What Question is in the mind of the audience? (Failing to get this right will cause your audience to lose faith in your entire presentation). The Complication should have automatically led the audience to mentally ask the question the author intends to answer.

The Question can either be stated explicitly or implied, depending on the flow. Generally there are three types of question that get asked: What should I do? Should I do what I’m thinking about doing? How should I do what I’m thinking about doing?

Answer: What is the action you wish to persuade your audience to take?


A quick example of SCQA showing how to create a dialogue with the reader from the very first sentence:

S – You wish to do X (the audience thinks: ‘Yes, I know that, so what? Why are you telling me this?’)

C – You face a problem in doing it? (the audience thinks: ‘Yes, I know that, too.’ And then asks the question you mean them to ask so that you can give them the answer)

Q – How do I fix the problem?

A – Like this

[pullquote]SCQA is the tip of the Pyramid Principle iceberg[/pullquote]

SCQA is the tip of the Pyramid Principle iceberg and I urge you to visit to learn more. you might also consider buying the book The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving. It is 12 chapters and 3 appendices in length and has a lengthy section on problem definition and problem analysis aimed primarily at consulting firms.

I’d also like to personally thank Barbara Minto for talking the time to help me put this piece together.


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