Photo by Florian Klauer
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
This six-word story, often attributed to Hemingway, is an emotional tragedy. With just six words a writer can communicate a whole story.
What do you think of when you hear the term story?
Probably books and movies come to mind. Long narratives of heroes and foes acting in their worlds. But story is more prevalent than that. Because our brains are wired to think in stories. We virtually see them everywhere.
A story doesn’t have to belong either. The one above unfolds its power with just six words. It changes your emotional state after two seconds and makes you sad. That’s how powerful story is.
We’re all storytellers. We all know the language of story. But in case you’ve gotten rusty, let me fresh up your memory.
And then, and then, and then…
A story is nothing more or less than a chain of events or experiences that are linked through cause-and-effect.
To tell the story above in chronological events: Baby shoes were bought, then the baby for whom they were for died, and then the shoes are being sold.
In its most basic form a story is just that, a chain of events linked together. But of course, you need more to make a story gripping, relatable, and valuable for your reader.
A good story needs a bit more than linked events. It needs an interesting world to play in, relatable and fascinating characters, and a goal or direction on where it all goes to.
The elements of a story
What every story needs is a world to play in. This is where the events happen and this is where the characters live and act. Since we’re formed strongly by our environment and our experiences, the world we live in makes us as a person. It implies the history and setting of the characters.
The most central element of every story is the protagonist. First and foremost, stories are always about people, their goals and their struggles. The protagonist is affected by the change and needs to grow as a person to cope with that change.
To make the chain of events gripping, you need them to invoke significant change. Change is the lifeblood of the story. Because of the way our brains function, we pay close attention to any change happening around us. A story usually starts with the world around the protagonist changing in some significant way. Suddenly, his beliefs and behavior are no longer suited to achieve what he wants. With this the journey begins. Now the protagonist himself needs to change and adapt to the new circumstances — he must grow as a person. We’re naturally curious about where this change will lead and how the character of the story will deal with it.
The world is filled with people that help or hinder him on his quest to reach his goal. The hero has to fight against enemies and obstacles that lie in his way. Often he has to rely on friends and secondary characters that show him how to overcome his flaws and weaknesses. These supportive characters are often the ones providing the hero with personal breakthroughs that equip him to achieve his goals.
A vivid world that is changing, a relatable protagonist and his goal, and an arduous journey where he needs to become a better person, this is the fabric story is made of.
Structure of a story
A chain of events and experiences that are linked sounds simple enough. But to write a gripping story the teller needs to keep the audience’s attention and invoke the right emotions at the right time for the crescendo to reach its ultimate climax. The arch of emotion that a story invokes in the audience up until its satisfying solution can be conducted in a variety of ways.
The classical three-act structure often found in theater and film was already coined by Aristotle in ancient Greece. The three parts are the setup, the conflict, and the resolution. First, the world and the characters are introduced. Then a sudden change is creating conflict in the characters’ world. Finally, it will either all be resolved (happy-end) or it will not (tragedy and ambiguous endings).
This basic three-act emotional journey can be recognized in all story structures, even in more sophisticated.
The most famous approach to story structure stems from Joseph Campbell, it’s the famous hero’s journey. Campbell describes seventeen plot points the hero goes through after analyzing mythological stories.
The author Christopher Booker identified seven basic plot structures such as rags to riches, comedy, tragedy, and overcoming the monster.
What all of these templates and plot structures attempt is to tap into our innate storytelling inclinations. There is a blueprint to a good story. At the same time, however, should the expansiveness of the few examples mentioned above already convince you of the leeway still present. Storytelling is more of an art than science.
Principles of good storytelling
This doesn’t mean we cannot identify underlying principles that drive a good story.
1. Make people care
If your audience doesn’t care it will not waste its time. Make your audience care by making the characters of your story relatable and interesting. Make them three dimensional by thinking about the character’s history, values, beliefs, and especially flaws.
Most importantly, express your truth, something you care about. If you don’t care why should anyone else?
2. Storytelling is about conflict
We’ve already talked about this but conflict drives the story. It’s the obstacles, the enemies, the challenges, and the character’s false beliefs crashing with the harsh reality that make stories interesting. Create conflict and put something valuable at risk. The stakes need to be high.
3. Show, don’t tell
This is true for all elements of the story, the world it plays in, the characters acting, the challenges and conflicts that drive it. C. S. Lewis said it best in his advice to a young writer:
“instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible’, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.”
4. Storytelling has guidelines not hard rules
For every great work following a principle or structure of storytelling there is somewhere a great piece that does it differently. For hundreds of years ancient storytellers wrote stories with satisfying resolutions. In modern times many creators choose to leave endings ambiguous.
I think certain principles are non-negotiable, among them the ones outlined above, but it’s always valuable to try things differently.
Storytelling is a fascinating craft. A good story can delight and even change people for the better. Mastering the art of story makes you a better writer, more fun at parties, and can even help you in business and your professional life.
Like any craft you best learn it by practicing. So let’s go together:
“Once upon a time…”