Storytelling is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communication available to us. Well-told tales have the ability to forge connections between disparate people and situations, forcing us to think and feel beyond our own experiences in engaging ways. Stories are visceral, experiential and can range from the universal to the uniquely singular. Looking back, it’s easy to see how humans have used stories to convey our feelings, histories and cultures through the ages. From our very first utterances and cave paintings to Marcel Proust’s tomes on the search for truth and remembrance, stories are part of our DNA. In this post, we investigate the essential elements of storytelling and why they matter. Let’s dive in.
What Are Stories Made Of?
Tackling the art of storytelling is a worthy endeavor for anyone interested in communicating their ideas to the world. Visual learners benefit from the mental images conjured up by descriptive language, conveyed in illustrations or played out on screen and stage. Auditory learners can focus on the words and a storyteller’s voice, while those of the kinesthetic persuasion appreciate the feelings and sensory experiences conveyed through language. Stories are also easy to retain, which makes it a great tool for getting important information to sink in. In fact, psychologists have found that information received through a well-told story is about 20 times more likely to be remembered than when learned through purely informational facts and figures. That said, what are stories made of? We can distill storytelling down to four essential elements:
Plot—the sequence of events that takes us from beginning to end.
Setting—where and when your story takes place.
Character—whose story is it, anyway?
Conflict—the glue that holds it all together.
Here’s a handy little chart to illustrate:
While your character/s and central conflict are the two biggest story components that will keep readers invested, plot and setting warrant just as much attention. Let’s discuss each of these elements in greater detail.
Storytelling Elements: Plot
Plot simply refers to the series of events that will take us from point A to point B, or from beginning to end. What these events are, how they affect your characters and what order they take place in will all determine how effective your story ultimately is. Depending on your goal and the genre you are working in, several plot archetypes exist as a foundational roadmap to crafting a water-tight plot that will feel satisfying to your readers while preventing you from meandering too far away from your core idea.
Storytelling Elements: Setting
The setting of your story is the physical place and time in which your story takes place. It may be tempting to keep your setting vague so as to allow readers to fill in the blanks and insert themselves or their hometown into the plot, but these are dangerous grounds that risk alienating your audience entirely. A good rule of thumb is to ground your reader in the time and place of your story as quickly as possible. That way, they can free up brain space and focus on getting to know your characters (and consequently caring about your story).
Storytelling Elements: Character
When a character is compelling enough, we might be content just to watch them do laundry. Of course, it’s wise to aim for something a bit more exciting than household chores, but creating well-crafted, three-dimensional characters with compelling goals, flaws and obstacles in their way is half the battle. Just about every story worth reading involves some sort of journey or transformation, either physical or inward. To make this journey intriguing and satisfying, you’ll want a protagonist who’s compelling to watch—someone with goals and desires who gets proactive about their problems and typically ends up in a very different place from where they started (Walter White, anyone?).
Storytelling Elements: Conflict
Conflict—or the main obstacles your character/s must face and overcome throughout the course of your plot—is the main storytelling element that makes the whole engine run. Without conflict, your story won’t have any stakes, and your readers won’t give a hoot about your characters if things are too easy for them. There’s something incredibly satisfying about watching characters face off against all odds. Perhaps we enjoy the vicarious experience of survival and triumph, and perhaps we are consoled when we can commiserate in those inevitable failures. Either way, conflict matters. It matters so much, in fact, that we’re not done talking about it yet.
Common Types of Conflict
If you examine any number of your favorite books or films through the lens of conflict, you might recognize familiar patterns. Here are the 7 most common types of conflict in storytelling:
Character vs. Character (Kill Bill: Volume 1 &2)
Character vs. Self (The Wrestler)
Character vs. Nature (Jaws)
Character vs. Technology (iRobot)
Character vs. Society (The Handmaid’s Tale)
Character vs. The Supernatural (Dracula)
Character vs. Fate (The Lord of the Rings)
A deeper analysis of just about any good story reveals several layers of conflict going on at once. A good example here is The Hunger Games. Bow-wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen comes into nearly every type of conflict listed above. The first and most obvious one is character vs. society. Katniss is up against the oppressive regime that forces children into the Hunger Games in the first place. Once in the Games, she comes into direct conflict with other characters, most of whom are trying to kill her on sight.
Since Katniss doesn’t start out as a murderous sociopath, she’s in conflict with herself when she realizes she has to kill or be killed. Of course, she’s also battling some inner demons when it comes to all those icky, confusing romantic feelings. In the arenas, Katniss faces off against both nature and technology while trying to survive the hellscapes of engineered mutts and forced natural disasters invented by the Gamemakers. Lastly, it doesn’t seem like Katniss or any of her competitors have much control over their fates on reaping day—the day the names of those unlucky tributes are chosen at random in the first place. That checks off six out of seven types of conflict, all in one story. Yes, fiction writers have the dual tasks of creating characters they love and then torturing them. We’re monsters. We know.
The result of skillful, multi-layered conflict, however, is a story that keeps us invested in the characters and the outcome. Now, that’s not to say a story with one central conflict can’t hold our interest, but there is a danger of creating a plot or character that feels one-dimensional. The last thing you want is a one-note character who can’t stop whining about their one, singular problem—unless you want to be in conflict with your readers, which I don’t recommend.
Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant
This line from Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name captures the purpose of storytelling wonderfully. Through story, we can examine harsh truths and face our own fears in a safe, indirect way—all while stepping into someone else’s perspective. When these four essential elements of storytelling converge in a meaningful way, our words can move people to action, foster empathy and shine a light on the worst—and best—of what makes us all human.