Write and tell stories that stick. Learn about the 7 elements of storytelling and how to use them.
Whether you’re trying to write the next great novel, hope to become a famous YouTuber, or just want to be more interesting at parties, it all comes down to telling great stories. And if you’d like to become a better storyteller, you’ll need to start with a good understanding of the key elements of storytelling, the building blocks that make a tale worth telling (and, more importantly, worth listening to).
Read on to learn about the seven elements of storytelling that you’ll want to make sure to include to make your next narrative unforgettable.
Put simply, the plot is what happens in a story. Plot is one of the most key elements of storytelling—in fact, story and plot may seem like one in the same. But, as author Barbara Vance shares in her Skillshare class, there’s actually an important distinction: While a story is simply the linear events as they happened, “plot is the sequence of events as you have designed them for the reader.”
Plot involves structuring your story to elicit specific emotional responses from the people hearing it, which can involve rearranging the order of events, withholding information until just the right moment, or using other plot devices used to create more interesting narratives.
“Plot is manipulative,” Vance explains. “You are tweaking the story.” She suggests asking yourself: “How do I take the sequence of events that I have in my head and make it as suspenseful, as engaging, as emotionally gravitational as possible?” For instance, Hamilton starts by telling us about all the things that Alexander Hamilton will eventually achieve—and even spoiling the fact that he will be shot in the end—to make the audience want to understand how he gets there.
While there are many different plot structures or narrative arcs you can use, the most basic involves opening with exposition that sets the scene, rising action that complicates things for your characters, a climax where the most important part of the story happens, and then falling action and a resolution that wraps everything up.
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The characters are who is involved in your story—who the plot is happening to. Many people would argue that creating interesting characters is one of the most important elements of good storytelling. “If you think about it, most of the time that you’re not really feeling the story is because you don’t care that much about the characters,” explains author Daniel José Older in his Skillshare class. “The characters have to be alive.”
Good stories have multiple characters, which can include:
For instance, in Harry Potter, Harry is obviously the protagonist, with Voldemort as the antagonist, Ron and Hermione as the confidants, Draco Malfoy as the foil, and a whole cast of other characters that fill in the world.
According to Older, there are two critical aspects of character building, which are especially important for your primary characters: “We have to understand and believe in their humanity to the point that we care about them on some level, and they have to want something.” The first point is all about making interesting characters. It doesn’t mean the reader has to like them, but they have to want to know more. The second is all about making sure your characters have a driving motivation.
The setting is the last of the three elements of storytelling that must exist for a story to even be a story. The setting is where your story is happening, the world it is in. At its most basic, your setting should involve painting vivid scenes of the places where your story is taking place using the descriptive writing style.
“That world may just be in the space of a room, but you still need to understand a room they’re in, and who else is in it, and what it looks like, and what matters about that room,” explains Older. “What are the experiential levels of being in this place? What are the sounds? What are the smells? What do you see? What do you feel when you’re here?”
But the setting should also include other information about how the world your characters are in works, which is why Older calls this element the context. While this is especially true when you’re building new worlds for fantasy or fictional stories, it can also be important information in non-fiction. What are the societal dynamics you need to understand about this place? Who has the power? How do your characters feel about the place that they’re in? For instance, while the literal setting of The Great Gatsby are high-end communities near New York City during the Jazz Age, it’s also important that the reader understands the structures of wealth and power that were at play at the time.
What you include—or don’t include—in your description of the setting should be an intentional choice as you’re building your story. Older explains, “Just like a photographer decides what is in the frame, what is outside of the frame, and can change the entire story based on what you keep in the frame,” how you frame your story using context can make a difference.
The four P’s of storytelling—one device people use to remember what needs to be included in a story—adds an additional critical element: plot, people, places, and purpose. Why are you telling this story? What are you trying to convey?
While your purpose could be simply to entertain with a funny anecdote, usually the purpose takes the form of a moral or message. Fables and fairy tales are especially known for being on-the-nose with their messages (e.g., The Boy Who Cried Wolf is all about the repercussions of lying). It can also take the form of a higher-level theme you are exploring, without having a specific stance you’re trying to get across about the subject: Star Wars is consistently exploring good vs. evil; Hamilton is about legacy; Little Women about coming of age.
Ultimately, the message or theme is what makes your story bigger and more universal than just the series of events. It’s what turns a plot into something that really sticks with readers and makes them think, and it should be interwoven throughout your story.
Conflict is something that happens in your story that gets in the way of your main character. It’s one of the most important elements of good storytelling because it adds tension and suspense, making the audience want to keep listening to find out what happens. “If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story,” says Older. “You just have a bunch of stuff that happened. Figure out your conflict, understand it deeply, know what’s at stake.”
Think about it this way: Nobody wants to hear a story where everything goes right, nothing surprising happens, and nothing has to be overcome. You need to create bumps in the road for your character so the audience will be unsure how everything is going to turn out in the end.
There are two kinds of conflict that can be woven into your story: internal and external. “Internal conflict is going to be what the character is going through within themselves, what they have to overcome to get what they want, to get their desire which has been fueling them for the story,” says Older. “The external conflict is whatever outside of them stands in their way in the world.” While Katniss Everdeen’s external conflict was the fight-to-the-death Hunger Games she was forced to compete in, her internal conflict centered around where her allegiances lay and what she was willing to do for what she believed in.
“Your best bet is if you can marry those two together as much as possible so that the internal conflict is something that they have to overcome in order to succeed at achieving their external conflict,” adds Older. “Then you’re telling me a powerful story.”
Of course, once you create conflict, you don’t want to leave the audience hanging: you want to make sure your story also has a resolution, also sometimes called a denouement. A story without a resolution is just frustrating and unsatisfying!
While very often resolutions take the form of a “happily ever after” ending where everything works out, it doesn’t always have to be that way. You could decide not to give your character what they want and have them learn a lesson. Or to give them what they want but have them realize it’s not really what they wanted all along. Often, how you choose to resolve your story could tie into the message you’re trying to convey. In Romeo and Juliet both the protagonists die at the end, showing Shakespeare’s feelings around the deep, long-lasting wounds that feuds can cause.
There are so many options for how you wrap up a story but, whatever you do, make sure not to leave your readers or listeners hanging!
Finally, perhaps one of the most overlooked elements of good storytelling is craft—or how you bring all of the above elements together. It’s your word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level writing. “Craft holds it all together,” says Older. You can have a great conflict with cool characters and awesome world building, but if you can’t write a good sentence, we’re going to put the book down on page one.
While, yes, craft can involve poetic, beautiful language or especially clever writing, start by making sure your story is clear and doesn’t have any confusing errors or writing that’s hard to muddle through.
Older says the best way to start to improve your craft is to read your story out loud. “You will catch, first of all, really dumb mistakes. Second of all, really awkward sentences. Third of all, stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. That’s what you need to be on the lookout for.”
Storytelling 101: Character, Conflict, Context & Craft
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