The Essential Elements of Storytelling – a Quick Guide


Characters Are Where You Start

A character is someone who plays a role in the story. 

Characters can be human (like the protagonist) or non-human (like the antagonist). They may also be fictional or real people such as politicians, scientists, soldiers, or even animals. 

It doesn’t matter whether they are good or evil; all that matters is that they play some part in the story. 

Types of Character

There are many types of characters: hero, villain, anti-hero, sidekick, and so on. 

Heroic characters usually are more powerful than their antagonists but sometimes die at the climax of the story. Villainous characters sometimes win and then get killed off later on in the story. Anti-heroes are generally portrayed as morally ambiguous, but they are usually sympathetic towards their antagonists either way. 

Sidekicks may act as comic relief or background information for the protagonists, while animal companions may serve no purpose other than to provide comic relief.

Character Traits

Traits define most characters, which are simple qualities that describe a character. These can be both positive and negative. It is best to give a few examples of what these traits are rather than try to assign an overall one, such as “Kind” or “Stubborn.” Qualities such as these would help in the characterization process.

For example, if you were to create a kind character, then deciding upon a few kindness traits such as “generous” or “sympathetic” would help make that character’s actions in-character. Qualities can also be mental or physical. If you had a character with a fear of heights, it would be a physical trait; while if a character desired to make his friends happy, it would be an emotional trait.

There are traits that you need to avoid. Negative or evil traits do not make excellent traits for your protagonist, while positive ones do not make an interesting antagonist.

A “flat” or static character is one with no interesting or complex personality, usually reserved for minor characters who have little to no relevance to the plot. These types of characters will make your story dull and difficult to read, as they have nothing new to bring to the table.

There are a few types of traits that can be positive or negative, such as bravery. A brave protagonist is usually a positive trait, while a cowardly antagonist is usually a negative one. However, a cowardly protagonist could interest as long as their fears were well-explained or came from a place of logic.

All characters should change during the story, whether that change is minor or as dramatic as them dying or living. If a character doesn’t change at all, then they’re likely to be flat or static.

Relationships Between Characters

There are many types of relationships between characters. The first is a direct influence, in which a character changes another's feelings or actions. For example, a protagonist may directly influence their friend to go on a quest with them. 

The second type of relationship is one where a character is influenced indirectly. For example, the protagonist might persuade their friend to go on a quest by writing them a letter. 

The third type of relationship is one where one character is influenced, but the other isn't. For example, the protagonist might persuade their friend to go on a quest, but their friend refuses and goes home. 

The last type of relationship is one where neither character is influenced at all. The protagonist persuades their friend to go on a quest, but their friend refuses and stands their ground, perhaps even going so far as to insult the other for even asking.

All relationships should have a reason behind them. It's all too common for fictional works to just throw in random relationships or none at all, such as having two characters who have no reason to even talk to each other just happen to sit next to each other during class. Such things don't make for a believable story.

Relationships should also be taken into consideration when it comes to making characters interact or develop. As such, depending upon the type of relationship they have with other characters, it can be easier to develop in certain ways. Having a hostile relationship with one character could make it easier to develop a character in killing them, for example.

Types of Story

There are many types of stories within the fantasy genre alone, each with its own formula. These formulas can be used as well as ways to improve or alter them. 

  • The Overcoming the Monster Story, in which a certain character has a history of defeating greater foes. I could find one example of this in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where Link, the protagonist, had defeated Ganon, the Demon King of the Shadows.
  • The Rags to Riches Story, in which a certain character starts out poor and miserable, eventually becomes happy and successful. An example of this could be Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, a lowly moisture farmer before rescuing Princess Leia and eventually destroying the Empire’s Death Star.
  • The Slave to Destiny Story, in which a certain character is forced against their will to go on a journey they don’t want to go on. An example of this could be Gulliver, from the book Gulliver’s Travels, who was stranded on the island of Lilliput and later on the island of Brobdingnag.
  • The Rites of Passage Story, in which a certain character goes through a series of trials that show just how much of a hero they are. An example of this could be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry must face a fire-breathing dragon in an obstacle course to retrieve a golden egg.
  • The Supernatural Aid Story, in which a certain character receives help from an unlikely source with far more power than they should probably have. An example of this could be The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in which Saruman the White gives the vast armies of Orcs to help enslave Middle-Earth.
  • The Task Accomplished Story, in which a certain character completes their goal after going through much strife to do so. An example of this could be the first Harry Potter book and film. Harry Potter defeats the greatest Dark Wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort, who killed his parents.
  • The Transformation Story, in which a certain character goes through a complete change in personality and outlook. An example of this could be Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series, who starts out as a weak kid afraid of spiders and eventually becomes a courageous man that defends Hogwarts from invading Death Eaters.
  • The Underdog Story, in which a certain character starts out poor and ill-equipped but eventually comes out on top after gaining allies and resources. An example of this could be The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The weak and outnumbered men of Rohan fight off the seemingly endless hordes of Orcs sent at them by the treacherous Saruman.

These are only a few types of stories, and there are many more types. To be successful, you must pick one and make it your own. You may use any type of story, but you must put your own spin on it.

The Basic Plotline

Now that you’ve decided on a story, you need to think of the basic plotline. Your story should follow a cycle of events; it should go from one event to the next in a cycle that never stops.

You need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning is the start of the cycle. A lot of times, the beginning will have the most action or drama in the story. It should show who the principal characters are, what they’re about, where they’re going, and why the reader should care about them.

The middle is the longest part of the story; it’s when most of the drama happens. Whether the character is going through emotional or physical turmoil, it will look bleak for them at some point. This is the point where they need to think of a strategy to overcome their problems.

The end is the conclusion of the cycle. It’s the part where the reader finds out if the characters succeed or not, and what happens afterward.

A story can have many beginnings, middles, and ends. You can change them around as you see fit. For example, you can take the Star Wars movies and mix-and-match the beginning and endings:

  • Beginning: A young farm boy watches from his homeworld as his planet is destroyed by the Death Star.
  • Beginning: A Jedi Knight is killed during the Clone Wars.
  • Ending: The young farm boy joins the Rebellion and destroys the Death Star.
  • Ending: The Jedi, who died during the Clone Wars, passes on into the Force.
  • Ending: The Rebellion succeeds, and the Empire falls.

To be a successful writer, you need a minimum of a beginning and an end. 

At the bare minimum, you need to tell the reader if the main character lives or dies.

You must make sure that every scene in your story has a point. 

Common Mistakes In Storytelling

Nothing should be included that doesn’t contribute to the story. This sounds easy, but it’s harder than it seems. Many writers fall into the trap of writing unnecessary scenes or including pointless information in their stories.

A common example is describing a character. Writers let their minds wander and spend paragraphs writing about a character’s physical traits, likes, dislikes, etc. While this might seem like a good idea, it isn’t. Only include information that is absolutely necessary to the story. 

Another common mistake is including too much detail about the surroundings; keep it short and sweet. The surroundings don’t need to be described in great detail.

Flesh Out Your Stories

Once you’ve decided on a story, you need to flesh it out. Think of at least three major events that will happen in your story. These can be anything from battles to confessions of love to the discovery of a murderer.

When you’ve written the story, you need to go back and look at it. Have you followed the guidelines listed here? Have you included too much unnecessary information or too little? Is there a part of the story that makes little sense? Do the beginning, middle, and end flow into each other naturally? Is there anything you would change if you wrote it again?

Once you’ve looked it over and you’ve made any necessary changes, you’re finished.

Plot vs. Narrative

Figuring out the difference between a Plot and a Narrative is one of the most important things to learn when writing a story. The best way to understand this is through examples.

A narrative is just the order in which events happen. Here’s an example of a simple narrative:

First, I went to the store. Then I came home. Finally, I ate dinner.

This brief series of events is a narrative, but it isn’t a plot. There is no rising tension or conflict. The events are not important on their own, but in the order that they happened.

A plot, on the other hand, involves several elements. These include:

  • Exposition: This is the introduction of the story and what sets up everything that comes afterward. In our example, we could say that the story's opening was when I went to the store.
  • Rising Action: This is when things get complicated and unpredictable. A good example of this would be if, when I came home, I noticed that someone had broken into my house while I was out.
  • The Climax: The most intense part of the story, the climax is when everything settles down, and you know that things will never be the same again. In our example, the climax would be if I discovered that my entire family was murdered while I was out. This scene might also serve as the so-called Inciting Incident that gets the plot underway.
  • The Falling Action: After the climax, there is still more story to tell. While the conflict has been settled, there are still events to take place. For example, if the murderer was caught and killed, this is when that would take place.
  • The Resolution: This is the event at the very end of the story. In our example, this would be when the police arrived to take my family to the hospital, and I saw them carrying them out on stretchers. More often than not, the author delivers a message at this stage in the story.

Other Things That You Should Keep in Mind While Writing Your Story

  • Not every story has a happy ending!
  • You don’t need to follow the structure of beginning with exposition and ending with a resolution. Be as creative as you’d like!
  • Try to remember the importance of vocabulary. Use a thesaurus to find stronger and richer alternatives. This is not to say that you need to be unduly obtuse! In the long run, riching up your writing will strengthen your writing and make it more interesting. However, style should serve the story, not the other way around!
  • Have fun while you write! If you aren’t enjoying the story you’re writing, then there is no point in continuing. Writing is all about experimentation. If one story doesn’t turn out how you’d like, just throw it out and start on a new one. Write for yourself, not for others. Writing is a way to release your imagination and creativity.

Good luck, and have fun!

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