Core Elements of Storytelling

I recently received my B.A. in Creative Writing, and along the way, I’ve met lots of people who share my passion for writing, but aren’t able to study it full-time; either it’s too impractical a degree for them, it’s only a hobby and they don’t want to ruin it with deadlines and homework, or college just isn’t an option for them in general. But writing is an art form, and I think art should be accessible to everyone. So, I decided to take the things I learned earning my degree, and share them with anybody who’s interested. I’ll be writing a series of articles exploring strategies for effective storytelling. The primary focus will be fiction, but I may dabble in poetry (it’s not my strong suit, though, so no guarantees!)

Before I get started, though, a quick disclaimer: writing, like any other artistic craft, is largely subjective. My degree grants me a bit of credibility in technical analysis, but by no means gives me final authority on what makes writing “good” or “bad”. It simply means I’ve had more time and guidance studying the craft in depth. The strategies I offer are what I’ve personally found to be effective, but I highly encourage discretion — use what works for you, disregard what doesn’t, feel free to adapt anything to your own personal style, process, and philosophy.

It only makes sense to start with the basics — I’ll briefly list the core elements of storytelling here, then expand on them in upcoming entries. I’ve come across stories, even in advanced workshops, missing some, or all, of these, so don’t take them for granted!

Character: who the story is about. Character is the heart of a truly compelling story; it’s the anchor for the audience, where they relate and engage in everything else going on. The protagonist is who the story happens to, and the antagonist is the source of the conflict (though this won’t always be a sentient character — think Man vs. Nature), and there are sometimes (though, not always) secondary and tertiary characters.

Effective characters are three-dimensional, with fleshed out thoughts, feelings, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Ineffective characterization is closer to caricature: one-dimensional, defined by a single trait that influences everything they do. At their worst, they fall into archetypes or tropes: predetermined formulas that make them painfully predictable, unbelievable, and disengaging.

Plot: what happens in a story. This is where the action happens, though that doesn’t always mean theatrical car chases, fight scenes, and explosions. Plot, in close cooperation with conflict, controls the trajectory of a story.

Effective plots have movement; not just physically but figuratively as well. Stories I’ve come across that lacked plot were either uninterrupted dialogue — the story began when two characters began a discussion, and ended when they finished — or a character ruminating on an inner conflict, the story ending when they came to a resolve.

Conflict: the problem. Conflict drives the tension of a story, which is primarily what keeps an audience engaged. Even with compelling three-dimensional characters, without conflict, a story can quickly lose its audience. Plot and conflict are very closely related, but I think of them as separate elements, as I have come across stories that had one but lacked other.

Effective conflict challenges the protagonist to grow. Whether or not they actually do grow or change (and they don’t have to), a good conflict presents them with an opportunity. Ineffective conflict is resolved too easily, or not at all, or in a way that doesn’t make sense. Or it’s disconnected from the protagonist. Or it just isn’t there at all. Nothing goes wrong, or at least nothing substantial, and it quickly grows boring.

Setting: where the story takes place. Setting establishes how the character fits into the world around them. (I have to be honest here: setting is one of my major weaknesses. I understand it in theory, but I struggle to deliver it in practice.)

Effective setting not only builds a vivid world, but also further characterizes the protagonist and other characters. Ineffective setting is superfluous inventory. Even vividly illustrated scenes can be ineffective, if little to nothing described is relevant to the story. The painting of the protagonist’s father that was commissioned by the mayor of the city is interesting, but if it plays no role in the story, why are we spending half a page on it?

Theme: what is the story saying? What message is it pushing forward, enforcing, or combating even? Some might present this as a matter of choice — do you want your story to say something? — but, quite frankly, no story is apolitical, nor does it exist in a vacuum. Your story is going to say something, regardless of your intent; you are not apolitical or fully objective, so your stories won’t be either. So it’s probably wisest to keep that in mind while writing, lest you unintentionally push harmful or toxic narratives.

Effective themes are substantial, nuanced, and properly complex. It’s not contradicting itself or going against the values it’s established, and is staying on point. Ineffective themes will be a messy, inconsistent narrative.

Keep an eye out for future entries exploring these concepts (and more!) in greater depth. Until then, happy writing!

And, if so inclined, feel free to drop a tip in the tip jar!