Elements of a good story

February 01, 2021 - 9 min read

You wouldn't believe if I say there's a golden storytelling formula. And you would be right. There's no perfect way to tell a story, but there are bricks you can use to pave your way.

Stories share similarities, common tropes and patterns that often work well. But there are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines. Many authors, writers and storytelling theorists try to define those guidelines and teach them to others. And it is always up to you to follow or ignore them.

After reading a couple of those, I decided to compile a guideline for myself. Why? I believe, t's a good way to structure your knowledge and identify what's important for you in storytelling. Having guidelines is helpful to deconstruct the work of others, write and rewrite your own stories and build a more profound understanding of how storytelling works.

So welcome to my storytelling guideline.

Theme

"What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it." - John Truby

A story starts with an idea, a recurring theme. Before starting to write, you should understand why you doing it. And a theme is exactly that. Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." It applies to storytelling, too.

A theme is what keeps your story together like glue, shapes it and defines your vision.

Imagine you want to tell a story about love, or friendship, or betrayal, or insanity. Whatever you choose will require specific characters, story world and narrative structure to deliver thoughts and convey emotions you want to. For example, if you are writing about friendship, your main characters could be two friends who take each other for granted. To depict the importance of friendship, you need to separate them and show that one by one they are much weaker than being together. But how to do that?

To create confrontation you need to create a conflict. It is a juxtaposition of different values and beliefs that represent your vision on how people should interact with each other or their inner selves. Conflict can be philosophical or moral, depending on what question you're trying to answer with your story.

If two friends are arguing, maybe they are fighting for one common goal, or maybe they beliefs on how to live has become the opposite of what they used to be. All of these examples represent conflict in different variations.

Are there stories without conflict? Sure. Some narrative structures work well without relying on conflict. For example, "slice-of-life" stories like Paterson. Jim Jarmusch describes his film as “a quiet story, its central characters without any real dramatic conflict”. Many classic stories in Eastern culture also don't have a conflict in its usual sense. For example, My Neighbor Totoro is an example of Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditional story structured in four acts.

The story doesn't require conflict to be beautiful or resonating. But conflict is a great addition to the narrative and the audience's engagement because it's highly illustrative and empathic.

Perspective

“What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book?"― Julian Barnes

Any story has "a point of view" through which we experiencing it. Even if it's a narrated story, the narrator focuses on someone or something, even self, which becomes a subject of a story, someone who acts. It isn't necessarily a person or even a living creature. But it is a lens through which the audience sees and "lives" the story.

Sometimes there's no main character but multiple who are equally important, and we have many points of view on the same problem. But can you write a story without character at all? Not really. Anything can be a character. The story doesn't have to be about a human or anthropomorphic creature. A subject, or a character, can be an inanimate object like a house, a city or an abstract philosophical concept. For example, in Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains", a house becomes a character.

Characters, like most of the story components, act as tools in expressing the theme. If there's a conflict in a story, characters represent confrontation of values and beliefs. Each of them is a variation of the theme serving their unique purpose in the story.

Just like our life, the story is never static, we're always learning. Same happens with characters. They learn new information, pursue their desires, win and lose. Even in slice-of-life stories, characters go through a series of different events, which have a contrasting environment, people or mood. The change represents a juxtaposition between the next and the previous states in the story. For example, a beginning versus the end, a character wanting something versus the character achieved their goal.

With the change, storytellers show why the resolution of the conflict is possible how it supports the main theme of the story. In stories, where change is impossible, it is often left for the audience to understand. But it is rarely a one-time switch. We should see how the change grows to understand why it's possible or not. To be organic, the story structure and change should arise from who characters are but not with what the author wants them to do.

Promise

"Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty." - William Archer

All good stories give you a promise. They grab your attention from the first few words and keep you engaged for the rest of the story. Why people read, listen or watch stories? They are curious about something. And your goal as a storyteller is to keep promises given to them, like in real life. Otherwise, the audience will be disappointed. Why? Because maybe they are reading or watching your story only because you promised it to be interesting at the beginning.

There are many tools to promise an interesting story for the audience even before they dive into it. For example, book cover, movie poster, synopsis, logline. If you can describe your story in one compelling and engaging sentence you can hook many people.

The first word, sentence, page, first 10 minutes also make a promise by putting intriguing questions without answer, withholding the information or presenting the conclusion without telling how characters arrived at it. It's where you set up the characters and the world they live in and create an inciting event that launches the story.

For example, at the beginning of every Star Wars movie, we see opening crawl, that despite being a plain exposition promises us an interesting story. At a beginning of  "A New Hope", we meet Luke, a farm boy on the desert planet Tatooine, then Princess Leia who sends a message in an escape pod to that planet before being captured by Darth Vader. We are curious to learn more about the world, the galaxy, characters, the Force, Jedi,  how characters ended up in the situation we see, and what will happen next.

Empathy

"I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." - Joseph Cambell

"Make me care" - that's what we expect from a good story. Best stories transport us into someone else's lives giving us emotional, intellectual or aesthetical experience. Not every story can give all three of these, but almost any good one evokes emotions.

One of the strongest emotions is empathy. Per Aristotle, we're "social animals". Sharing experience with other people is what makes us who we are. The audience must have an opportunity to put themselves in someone's shoes, live another life, feel someone's joy or pain, experience love or betrayal.

Sympathy, on the other hand, isn't necessary. We might not approve characters' actions, or even deeply dislike them for being immoral, evil, or sharing beliefs we cannot accept, but if we the story gives us a chance to feel with them, it resonates with us on a profound level.

To feel empathy, authors often show character flaws. Everyone has interesting and individual flaws. Having them means being vulnerable, often wrong, make mistakes, losing control of a situation or the whole life, not seeing anything of it. Just like in real life.

Seeing characters struggling emotionally engages us with them, helps to identify and accept their and our flaws. That's why empathy is difficult. It requires deconstructing the life rebuilding it in a new and improved form. The story doesn't tell us what to feel or how to feel but evokes feelings organically by showing other people's lives, wins and struggles, allowing us to see ourselves through another pair of eyes.

And that brings us to the last point.

"Show, Don't Tell"

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ― Brandon Sanderson

Anton Chekhov famously said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass". This quote is often repeated as a perfect example of the "Show, Don't Tell" rule. "The moon is shining" is just an informative statement, an exposition of what is happening to characters. On the contrary, "the glint of light" is an experience, a sensory detail that characters see and feel at the moment. That's their perspective rather than the author's perspective.

"Showing" immerses. It allows you to feel what's happening and leaves a room for imagination. When the audience has to deduce information rather than just absorb it, we become from passive observers to active participants.

"Show, Don't Tell" works for everything in storytelling, from environment and landscapes to dialogue and thoughts. "Showing" does not mean the story must have no words. For example, to "show" dialogue, you need to make characters' words and actions motivated by who they are, not what the author thinks the story needs. We must see their lives and how they interact with other characters, react to events and live in the story's world.

You can also "show" using subtext. The subtext is what we see versus what happens. It's another layer of the story that implies hidden meaning. We can see it only by paying attention to details, knowing more than characters are or understanding the context. It requires thinking and active participation in the story. That's why it's also hard.

The Coen Brother's ‘No Country for Old Men’ is full of subtext, symbolism, philosophy, and suspense. One of the most memorable scenes is a conversation between Anton Chigurh and a gas station owner behind the cash register. In dialogues without subtext, one person leads the conversation and the other follows. But in this one, the gas station owner doesn't follow and doesn't understand the questions Anton Chigurh is asking. The scene has no blood or violence, no screamers or banging sounds, but we are terrified. All because of the subtext and suspense it creates. We know who Chigurh is and what sadistic things he can do. That turns a small talk into a Russian roulette with a simple coin toss.

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