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 can also be fictional or real people like politicians, scientists, soldiers, or even animals. 

It does not matter if they are good or evil; all that matters is that they play a role in the story.

Types of Character

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

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

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

Character Traits

Traits define most characters, which are simple characteristics that describe a character. These can be positive or negative. It is best to give a few examples of these traits rather than trying to assign a general trait, such as “Kind” or “Stubborn”. Qualities like these would help with characterization.

For example, if you are creating a friendly character, deciding on a few friendly qualities like “Generous” or “Sympathetic” would help make that character’s actions true to the character. Qualities can also be mental or physical. If you have a character who is afraid of heights, that would be a physical quality; if a character wants to make his friends happy, that would be an emotional quality.

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

A “flat” or static character is one without an interesting or complex personality, usually reserved for secondary characters who have little to no relevance to the plot. These types of characters make your story boring and hard to read because they have nothing new to offer.

There are a few types of character 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 trait. However, a cowardly protagonist could be interesting as long as his fears are well explained.

All characters should change over the course of the story, whether that change is minor or as dramatic as their death or life. If a character does not change at all, then they are probably flat or static.

Relationships Between Characters

There are many kinds of relations between characters. The first is a direct influence, where one character changes the feelings or actions of another. For example, a protagonist may directly influence his friend to go on a quest with him. 

The second type of relationship is one in which a character is indirectly influenced. For example, the protagonist might persuade his friend to go on a quest by writing him a letter. 

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

The last type of relationship is one where neither character is influenced. The protagonist persuades his friend to go on an adventure, but his friend refuses and stands firm, perhaps to the point of insulting the other for even asking.

All relationships should have a reason behind them. It’s all too common for works of fiction to include only random relationships or none at all, such as when two characters who have no reason to talk to each other simply sit next to each other in class. Such things do not make for a believable story.

Relationships should also be considered when it comes to having characters interact or develop. Depending on what kind of relationship they have with other characters, it may be easier to develop in certain ways. 

For example, if you have an adversarial relationship with a character, it might be easier to develop a character that kills them.

Types of Story

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

Overcoming the Monster Story, in which a particular character has a story in which he defeats larger enemies. I could find an example of this in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where Link, the protagonist, defeated Ganon, the Demon King of Shadows.

The Rags to Riches Story, where a certain character starts out poor and unhappy and eventually becomes happy and successful. An example of this might be Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, a lowly moisture farmer before he saves Princess Leia and eventually destroys the empire Death Star.

The Slave from Destiny Story, in which a certain character is forced against his will to go on a journey he does not want to go on. An example of this could be Gulliver from the book Gulliver’s Travels, who is 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 how much of a hero he is. An example of this is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry must face a fire-breathing dragon in an obstacle course to find a golden egg.

The Supernatural Aid Story, in which a particular character receives help from an unlikely source with far more power than they probably should have. An example of this might be The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in which Saruman the White helps the vast armies of orcs enslave Middle-Earth.

The Task Accomplished Story, in which a particular character achieves their goal after going to great lengths to do so. An example of this would be the first Harry Potter book and movie. 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 attitude. An example of this could be Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series, who starts out as a weak child with a fear of spiders and eventually becomes a brave man who defends Hogwarts from invading Death Eaters.

The Underdog Story, in which a particular character starts out poor and ill-equipped, but eventually rises to the top after gaining allies and resources. An example of this might be The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The weak and outnumbered men of Rohan fight against the seemingly endless hordes of orcs set upon them by the treacherous Saruman.

These are just a few types of stories, and there are many more types. To be successful, you need to pick one and make it your own. You can use any type of story, but you must give it your own spin.

The Basic Plotline

Now that you have decided on a story, you need to think about the basic plot line. 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. Often the beginning has the most action or drama in the story. It should show who the main characters are, what they are about, where they are going, and why the reader should care about them.

The middle is the longest part of the story; this is where most of the drama takes place. Whether the character is going through emotional or physical turmoil, at some point things look bleak for them. This is the point where they have to come up with a strategy to overcome their problems.

The end is the completion of the cycle. It is the part where the reader finds out if the characters succeed or not, and what happens after that.

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

  • Beginning: A young farm boy watches from his home world 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.
  • End: The Jedi who died during the Clone Wars passes into the Force.
  • End: the rebellion is successful, and the empire falls.

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

At the very least, you need to let the reader know if the main character lives or dies!

You need to make sure that every scene in your story has a purpose.

Common Mistakes In Storytelling

Nothing should be included that does not contribute to the story. This sounds simple, but it is more difficult than it seems. Many authors fall into the trap of writing unnecessary scenes or including pointless information in their stories.

A common example is the description of a character. Authors let their minds wander and write for pages about a character’s physical attributes, likes, dislikes, etc. While this may seem like a good idea, it’s not. Only include information that is absolutely necessary to the story. 

Another common mistake is to give too much detail about the setting; keep it short and sweet. The setting often does not need to be described in great detail.

Flesh Out Your Stories

Once you have decided on a story, you need to fill it with content. Think of at least three important events that will be in your story. This can be anything from battles to confessions of love to the discovery of a murderer.

Once you have written the story, you need to go back and look at it. Did you include too much unnecessary information or not enough? Is there a part of the story that makes little sense? Do the beginning, middle, and end flow naturally into each other? Is there anything you would change if you were writing the story again?

Once you have gone over it and made any necessary changes, you are done.

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 simply the order in which events happen. Here is an example of a simple narrative:

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

This short sequence of events is a narrative, but it is not a plot. There is no rising tension or conflict. The events are not important in themselves, but in the order in which they happened.

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

Exposition: this is the introduction of the story and what sets up everything that comes after. In our example, we could say that the beginning of the story 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 got home, I realized that someone had broken into my house while I was gone.

The Climax: The climax is the most intense part of the story, when everything settles down and you know that things will never be the same again. In our example, the climax would be when I find out that my entire family was murdered while I was away. This scene could also serve as what is called the Inciting Incident that gets the plot going.

The Falling Action: After the climax, there is more story to tell. The conflict has been resolved, but there are still events that need to take place. For example, if the murderer was caught and killed, this is when that would happen.

The Resolution: this is the event at the very end of the story. In our example, this would be the moment when the police arrive to take the family to the hospital and I see them being carried out on stretchers. Usually at this stage of the story, the author delivers a message.

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

  • Not every story has a happy ending!
  • You do not have to stick to the structure of starting with exposition and ending with a resolution. Be as creative as you like!
  • Think about the importance of vocabulary. Use a thesaurus to find stronger and richer alternatives. This is not to say that you have to be overly obtuse! In the long run, enriching your writing will strengthen your text and make it more interesting. However, the style should serve the story, not the other way around!
  • Have fun with your writing! If you are not enjoying the story you are writing, then there’s no point in continuing. Writing is all about experimentation. If a story does not turn out the way you want it to, just throw it away and start on a new one. Write for yourself, not for others. Writing is a way to unleash your imagination and creativity.
  • Good luck, and have fun!

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