The Elements of Storytelling
The elements of storytelling – sometimes referred to as narrative elements – are the essential moving parts of every story, regardless of the form it takes. An understanding of the elements of storytelling helps you tell better stories. Whether in creative work, such as filmmaking, digital storytelling, or fiction writing; or in more practical activities such as business communication. You can keep in mind and apply the basic elements of storytelling in planning your story and while actually creating or delivering it.
Origins of Storytelling Elements
The rules and insights of effective storytelling have developed over a very long time. We probably have to reach back to ancient Greece to find the first time that they were defined.
The ancient Greeks used to tell stories to each other, with great epic poems such as The Odyssey and The Iliad. Still, they also told short stories about famous people from history or myth. Moreover, their works were often written as a way to pass on great wisdom.
The famous philosopher and polymath Aristotle (384-322 BC) was an accomplished storyteller. Aristotle detailed seven elements in his work ‘Poetics,’ which over time have expanded as writers, filmmakers, and others explore the story form.
It’s an old chestnut among writers and creatives as to whether Character or Plot comes first – and which between them is the more critical. But they are inseparable. It is through the actions of the characters that the Plot unfolds. So if the Plot is an arc, then Characters are the line that creates it.
I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Things in life have no real beginning, though our stories about them always do.Colum McCann, author
I’m going to come down on the side of Character being the most important element of great storytelling, without which no story can excel. The reason is that it’s in the nature of the human experience that we get very good at observing ourselves and others; we are relatively poor at retaining and engaging with a bunch of ‘factoids.’
Unless we have characters with whom we can relate, it is hard, if not impossible, to immerse ourselves in a story.
Within an overarching story, each main Character has their own individual story – it’s up to you as the creator of the story to decide which bits to tell and in what way.
Although there are many different types of characters, the principal ones – present in every story – are protagonist and antagonist. Without these, no story can have Conflict and tension, which are essential to move a story forward and have a satisfying conclusion.
In a story, the Plot is the events that happen within the overall story. Thus, the Plot is what happens and is a critical element in storytelling.
An event can be a series of physical actions – such as the characters arguing. Or a chain of decision-making within a Character, such as whether to take the sword or the money.
As the storyteller, it’s crucial to know what is in your Plot. However, this does not mean that you have to plan everything out in advance. Many writers and storytellers in other storytelling forms ‘panster’ the work. They allow the Plot to develop as they write, often in response to the central characters’ motivations, desires, and behavior.
Broadly speaking, plots go from a setup and inciting incident – which jolts the hero into action – into rising action. Then, a series of ‘complications’ raises the tension and Conflict (and sometimes the tempo also) until a climax and resolution.
Writers and filmmakers tend to use different terms for all this, but the overall story sequence is basically the same.
Narrative Arc or ‘Story Arc’
The Narrative Arc of a story is the path it takes to resolve the Conflict. It is the sequencing of the story and the thing that gives it shape. As the backbone of any story, the Narrative Arc is characterized by:
– “exposition” (story setup)
– “rising action” (the Conflict builds)
– climax” (the turning point where the situation is at its most intense)
– “falling action”
– “denouement” (the unraveling of the Conflict to show how things have changed).
The Narrative Arc differs from the Plot because the Plot is what happens. In contrast, the Narrative Arc is the sequence in which the Plot events occur in the story to create the overall story. To put it another way: the Narrative Arc is how the story is told, using the ‘cards’ of the Plot. It’s the sequence in which the cards of the Plot are dealt.
It’s the combination of Plot and the Narrative Arc that creates a Story.
The Theme is what your story is about, and as the author of a story, you usually can express its Theme (s) succinctly.
Sometimes as a storyteller, you have a clear vision and expression of your story’s Theme at the outset; sometimes, the Theme emerges as you craft the story.
Theme can be, for example, about resilience – and how your characters (and you as the storyteller) have the will to overcome adversity. Or about consequences – such as the power of words to deceive, as in ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ The futility of revenge – like Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ – or the consequences of inaction as in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by Styron.
What’s important is that the Theme should be consistent with your other storytelling elements. For example, look at how ‘The Godfather’ applies the character-driven Theme of loyalty within an overall organized crime plot.
The Theme is often subtextual: hinted at or not clearly expressed. You leave it to the reader/viewer to discern the message – connecting the story’s dots to understand the Theme directly or subconsciously.
In complex stories, themes that start out as subtextual may become overt. This is not to say that you have to explicitly tell your audience what the story is about. In fact, the most powerful stories often leave the audience to draw their own conclusions about the Theme.
Universal and timeless themes can be potent in a story. Love endures all, for example.
The Controlling Idea or Hypothesis of a story is more specific than its Theme. The Theme often can be expressed quite broadly, in non-specific terms. The Controlling Idea of a story is the main specific point that your story addresses, which needs to be expressed in concrete terms.
Understanding the Controlling Idea of your story will help you know whether you are telling the right story!
It could be a point of theory or one of observation. It does not have to be a moral message or lesson, though it may be. You don’t need to have an answer at the start of your story, but you do need to have resolved the Controlling Idea – the question it poses – by the end of your story.
For example, In Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Ebenezer Scrooge is sent the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future. Finally, he has a chance to change his ways and re-engage with love. The question is whether a man steeped in avarice and distrust can ever turn around into the light.
The story needs investment for the protagonist, which goes beyond their own personal needs and expresses the universal human condition.
This is usually reflected in the form of what the protagonist has to lose. The stakes must be something significant – the stakes need to be high enough for us to care. For example, if the hero does not complete a mission, someone close to them will be killed.
Setting up a story with sufficiently high stakes, you set in motion a ticking time bomb that needs to be solved!
The problem with stakes is that they can be positive (winning the love of a beautiful princess) and negative (being turned into a frog). But in practical terms, the negative side of the equation has to be the strongest, or you’ll have no conflict.
Conflict is fundamental for stories to work. It’s the storytelling element without which all else fails. Of course, we don’t mean literal battle (although it might be this), but rather anything that opposes the protagonist’s goal, and it needs to be significant.
Conflict can be emotional or physical, internal or external… as long as it provides tension that makes the story interesting. And Conflict can start as soon as the protagonist comes up with a goal. The Character doesn’t even have to know what the Conflict is yet (though they often do).
In a sense, Conflict can be thought of as the reason for the story. Everything else in the story (Plot, Dialogue, descriptions, etc.) serves to set up, create, or resolve Conflict on the way to the story’s resolution.
The protagonist needs to have a conflict, whether with their environment, other characters, or themselves. The best Conflicts have emotional and moral dimensions, too, as well as emotional and physical stakes.
Conflict doesn’t have to be purely external, with characters at each other’s throats. Internal Conflict, where characters in a story are opposed by themselves or a false belief, can be compelling.
Conflict is what builds suspense and…
In storytelling, tension is what builds interest in the story, as well as suspense. Tension usually arises from Conflict (as described above).
A great story has periods of low tension that are relieved by escalating tension. The whole point of this is to keep the reader/viewer hooked.
In storytelling, there are two kinds of tension: passive and active.
Passive tension is when the potential for Conflict exists, but it’s not yet clear if there will be a conflict. The reader is unsure of what’s going to happen next.
Active tension means that Conflict has already happened, and the reader/viewer knows it. Still, they don’t know what’s going to happen as a result. The reader/viewer can be wondering what will happen or worried about what might happen.
Both kinds of tension can happen simultaneously.
A lack of tension in a story is a bad sign. If there is no tension, the reader/viewer is unlikely to continue.
Tension, in a story, should be felt from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s like a rubber band that is stretched, relaxed, and pulled again repeatedly until finally, it snaps in the climax.
Dialogue in a story is as vital as Plot and Character. Just as the Plot explores actions, Dialogue explores thoughts.
The best Dialogue is when the words and the characters’ behavior are in alignment so that the reader understands their motivation without the Dialogue becoming purely info-dump.
Dialogue is the words that characters say to one another and inner monologues (thoughts). Dialogue can be devoted to direct communication between two (or more) characters or indirectly reflect their relationship. For direct contact, Dialogue is a powerful storytelling tool.
When writing Dialogue, it’s essential to know the goals of the characters at that moment. Do they want to get to know each other better? To make a point? To avoid saying what they are really thinking?
Great Dialogue can be both funny and tragic, dramatic and mundane, wordy and cryptic. It’s also multi-layered. Great Dialogue should open up different possibilities of meaning beyond what’s actually said.
Well-written Dialogue can get into the heads of the characters to understand how they think and feel. In addition, Dialogue can be used as a tool to add variety and interest to the story’s prose.
Dialogue should feel authentic – in other words, the way characters would really speak to each other.
Prose is the language of the story – how it’s written – including parts of speech and sentence structure. Prose is also the texture of the story/text: the words on the page. The rhythm and sound of the text. Prose can also be used to reflect mood or tension in the scenes or the characters.
In modern storytelling, prose reflects the tone of the story. Prose can be a combination of sentence length, sentence structure, and the rhythms of words. But more than this, the language of prose is linked to the movement of the story.
A short sentence that implies a negative tone is very different from a terse, clipped sentence that implies hostility or duplicity.
Prose that contains many grammatical mistakes can have the same effect as Dialogue. For example, it can imply that the people in the story are inexperienced or just not very bright.
Whether you write in the first person or the third person (see Point of View below) will significantly impact the prose you write. First-person will be more informal as a rule, whereas third-person is often more neutral in tone (though this does not mean dull!)
The thing to remember about good prose is that it doesn’t call attention to itself. Great prose should be transparent – like a good set or costume, it doesn’t draw undue attention because it is part of the story.
Good storytelling considers the Setting carefully. The Setting is the story’s time and place; it is sometimes referred to as ‘décor’: the material backdrop against which the action occurs.
As the storyteller, you have to put in enough detail to conjure the Setting up in the reader’s imagination, but not so much that you have to stop the story or slow it down.
The Setting is a powerful storytelling tool. Setting can elevate a story by invoking a unique atmosphere. For example, it can reinforce the mood or help characterize the people or actions in the story.
Setting can also be used to deny access to the characters, so they are forced to solve a problem independently. Setting can be an enemy, or it can be a source of hope. Finally, it can be a vehicle for symbolism, rhythm, pace – or color.
The importance of Setting is often under-appreciated. Yet, Setting can be as crucial as Plot or Character. So, you should pay careful attention to the Setting of your story.
Verisimilitude – Truth
In a good story, told well, ‘Truth’ in storytelling is something that is felt because a story seems real; captivating. We believe in the story and in the characters. This has nothing to do with ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ truth.
The word verisimilitude is based upon the Latin for “likeness to truth.” Written as vērī similitūdō; from vērī, the genitive singular of vērus (“true, real”), + similitūdō (“likeness, resemblance”).
Truth includes what seems inevitable – it’s based on what readers might expect to happen in the particular story (in terms of the Plot). Or it’s based on the ‘truths’ that the readers believe about the world.
In stories, truth is often about a reality that tells us more about the nature of humanity.
Whether a story is written in the first, second, or third person, the reader should feel they are experiencing it and not reading it.
It is believable. The principle of verisimilitude suggests that the reader/viewer should be able to believe the story because of its emotional and intellectual integrity.
What the reader/viewer should be able to sense is a sense of emotional truth that draws them into the story. A knowledge of the kind of people that might be part of the story (and how they would behave) engender a form of empathy.
Point of View
Determine your story’s point of view is a crucial decision. Often, the point of view you write from will determine the writing style you use. For example, the story’s point of view can be first person, second person, third person. Or it could be omniscient if you’re writing from the point of view of a particular omniscient character or god-like being.
- First-person – the story is seen through the ‘eyes of one of the characters. The whole story is from the perspective of the first person ‘I.’
- Second-person – the story is seen through the ‘eyes of one of the characters. But the ‘you’ is addressed to the reader. The whole story is from the perspective of the second person, ‘you.’
- Third-person – the story is seen through the eyes of a narrator who may or may not get involved. The story is from the point of view of the third person ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it.’
- Omniscient is God-like: the reader can see into the minds and ideas of all the characters. Of course, this kind of omniscient POV can also interpret the story as a character who is telling the story.
Point of View can shift throughout a story, and you may want to change it to suit your story. But don’t change it just for the sake of changing it: this may weaken your story.
As you create your story, the Point of View can emerge as the story takes shape. You should describe your characters in a way that will indicate how you will tell your story.
You should look at other stories with the type of POV you want to use to get a sense of how it should feel about writing it.
Pacing is one of the most essential elements with which you can play as a story creator. Pacing is about the speed at which the story moves, the rhythm of the story.
Pacing is the rate at which a narrative goes forward. It is related to the rhythm: long, slow scenes that discuss feelings and motivation give the story a slow rhythm; action-filled scenes will do the opposite. A steadily slow story will not hold the reader. A steadily fast story will bore the reader and leave him feeling that they don’t understand the characters or why they are doing what they are doing.
Pacing can affect tone and how the reader/viewer experiences your story. If the story is going too slow or too fast, you will likely be alienating parts of your audience. Rather than drawing them into the world of your story.
Always remember that you can deliberately break time to get the story to work in filmmaking and writing. Indeed, it is usually the case that you will need to play with time to get to your narrative’s juice.
One of the main concerns of the storyteller is to develop the tension at the right moment. This is the essence of storytelling: building tension, then releasing it, building it again, releasing it – in a way that will keep the reader’s attention. So, naturally, pacing will play a significant role in this.
Although variation in pacing is trickier to achieve when writing a short story, it is still vital.
Other Things to Keep in Mind as You Develop Your Story
Stories work best when they reflect the universal human experience when they uncover something unfamiliar in what we thought was familiar. Feeding our natural sense of curiosity into a thirst for discovery.
Stories should be more than just about the action and the adventure. It should be about the human condition. Even though this usually is never stated overtly, because to do so would be dull and laborious.
A good storyteller does not tell you what to think or how to feel. Instead, a good storyteller tells you the story in a way that will allow you to see some truth about the world, about the human condition. That is what makes a compelling story, more often than not.
One of the critical resources at your disposal is your own feelings about events in your past. Or things that happen around you. Take the time to reflect on these feelings and why you see things the way you do. This will dramatically help to enrich the characters you create and how they behave.
If you find yourself struggling to find a basic structure for your story, watch this:
Remember that although you can learn about and apply story structures such as the Hero’s Journey, you don’t need to be locked to them.
Underdog characters are very appealing. People like to root for the underdog, so they are used in so many movies and stories. For example, in a romantic comedy, you are attracted to the person who has the least chance of getting the girl.
The most important thing to keep in mind as a storyteller and writer is emotion. Actors dial into the emotional subtext of a scene – as an author, seek to do likewise!
‘Truth is always stranger than fiction.’ This fact means that you can stretch your fiction creatively without it ever being impossible!