Top 10 Storytelling Basics

shorthand list of top 10 storytelling basics everyone needs to know from StorySci.com by James Gilmore

No matter if you are a writer, filmmaker, gamemaster, or stand-up comedian, here are the top 10 most important basic points of storytelling you need to bring your story to life.

1. Include a beginning, middle and end.

This occurs at every level. Just as a trilogy has three parts, so does an individual story have a beginning, middle and end. The same goes each and every scene within that story. How can you tell the difference between a beginning, middle and end? A beginning sets up the story. It’s a blueprint or road map to the rest of the plot. In a good story it won’t be obvious. The middle develops the story from the point of setup to the climax. It plays out the “promise of the premise” and shows how the new status quo introduced at the end of act one affects the world of the story. This takes us to the end. An ending centers around the obligatory confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. It concludes by answering all the questions raised in the story, even if the answers are new questions (aka, cliffhangers).

2. Show, don’t tell.

Instead of telling the audience that something is happening, show them by devoting screen time (or page time) to the illustration of these events. Telling (aka “summary”) is not very interesting in comparison to the audience experiencing the same thing. You don’t need to state what is going on directly. The audience will figure it out for themselves, and in so doing will create a stronger bond with the story than if you simply told the audience that it happened.

3. One word: Conflict.

Conflict is the natural result of one character’s desire intersecting an obstacle. Conflict increases proportionally to the amount that each side pushes back. It drives the story forward and keeps the audience interested. Without it, nothing in the plot would be worth mentioning because story without conflict is not story, it’s summary.

4. Make your protagonist proactive, not reactive.

The more proactive your protagonist is, the more invested in him/her your audience will be. They will want what (s)he wants. A protagonist is proactive when (s)he is the one to take charge and initiate events that advance the plot. The opposite of this is a reactive protagonist who responds to events forced on him/her by the plot. A reactive protagonist will not only make the audience feel like something is missing in your story, but they will fail to build a personal connection with the protagonist as well.

5. Have a central core to your story.

Your story ultimately needs to be about something, and that something is the central through-line (also called the “spine”) around which everything in your story is based, especially the theme. The central core brings unity and order to all the elements of your story. For example, the film Love, Actually has a central spine about love, from which it thematically branches off into different types of love. Or the novel Catch-22 whose central core explores the concept of the same name in various circumstances.

6. Know what your story is about.

It doesn’t matter if your story is based around a character, plot or theme. At some point you will need to know what your story is about—not just at its core, but at every level—in order to weave a story around it. For example, on the surface your story may be about a father-son road trip and the hilarity that ensues, but underneath that veneer it’s actually about father-son relationships and an estranged parent bonding with his troublesome child while also exploring other related thematic material, such as what it means to be male in today’s society.

7. It is better to be simple and clear than complicated and ambiguous.

Simplicity creates clear understanding in the minds of the audience. They won’t view it as overly simplistic if it smoothly and adequately conveys your story. A common mistake storytellers use is to try and tell too much without spending enough “screen time” on each segment. Set aside the big picture to work on the simple steps needed to get there. Want to see this point in action? Pick up a copy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

8. Say as much as possible with as little as possible.

Convey maximum information using minimal text (story) to do it. Implicit over explicit. This requires the use of subtext: whereas text is what is said, subtext is what is not said. Without subtext, your story will be dull and shallow. Some subtext occurs naturally but very often you have to work at it. For examples, a brother and sister talking about their lives at college but not talking about the recent death of their father colors the scene very differently than if they were just catching up like old friends. It also tells us their emotional state—that they aren’t ready to confront the truth about their father’s death.

9. Get in late, get out early.

Start as late as possible in your scene or story to provide both audience interest and optimal conflict, and then end the scene as soon the conflict has run its course. This doesn’t mean truncating valuable exposition or foregoing a beginning, but it does mean opening where the vital information starts. And once the scene or story has said all there is that needs to be said, get out! Don’t hang around and dawdle or you will be diluting your story’s final punch. For example, the audience doesn’t need to witness an entire 4-hour board meeting. They only need to see the handful of minutes that that count. In short: focus on where the action is happening.

10. Characters, characters, characters.

Even if you have a plot-driven story, your characters are what make a story really shine. A bland or passive protagonist makes for a boring story. Interesting and unique characters are memorable, if not timeless, even when relegated to smaller roles. Go the extra mile to give each character distinction, depth, and history. Consider writing character bios for each member of your cast and see if it gives you further insight into how to portray them.

 

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