Storytelling: Basics

Posted on July 20, 2011

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There are tons of books on the market that go into great detail about the fundamentals of writing (check the WDBC for many of them). I’m going to give you an outline of the basics. You decide what you need to research further.

The most basic story in the world: A character in a context with a conflict. The character tries three times to resolve the conflict (in traditional, Western, literature). The first two times he fails, but learns something he needs to succeed the third time. That’s your plot.

The climax of the story is when your character faces his greatest fear in order to achieve his greatest desire.

Character

Obviously, your character can be male or female. Your “character” can also be a group. If you have a group of protagonists, then each one should have his or her own arc in which we learn greatest fear, and greatest desire. In really good ensemble stories, each character overcomes his or her fear and achieves that greatest desire. Until that happens, the group fails to resolve the conflict at the heart of your story. What they learn as individuals makes it possible for either success in overcoming the shared conflict, or makes the denouement possible.

Your character does not have to be likeable, but your audience has to want to know what happens next. Stephen R. Donaldson made a career out of that with his Thomas Covenant books.

Context

As with character, you must go simpler the shorter your fiction. If you spend all your short fiction explaining your setting, then there’s no room for character or conflict. You’ve created a travelogue. Longer stories allow for more elaborate descriptions and unique contexts.

Context should matter. It should play a role in the conflict and illuminate character. For example, in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it’s not important what sea or what island. The struggle of man against nature, and man against himself, requires that the old fisherman be isolated and alone in his boat. The story wouldn’t work if he were beach or dock fishing.

Your character may or may not be familiar with the context. It’s a very old (and pretty tired) trick to introduce a character to an unusual setting so the character can ask the audience’s questions. Dialogue with your protagonist explains the context to your audience.

Context also says a lot about genre. Old West stories generally don’t have space stations, and fantasy stories generally don’t have Sherman tanks. A story about an old man in a boat trying to get his catch back to shore before sharks eat it could happen in many settings – that’s why we still read it. That said, it loses vitality and importance in worlds with transporter beams or magic spells. It needs a real-world setting.

Conflict

Conflict illuminates character. How your characters deal with conflict reveals their training, personality, physical ability, and more.

As with character and context, the shorter your story, the easier it must be to understand the conflict. A romantic triangle is an easy conflict for us to understand. Greed, jealousy, and rage are sources of easy to understand sources for conflict.

Plot

The plot begins when your character makes her first attempt to resolve the central conflict of your story. Until then, you’re developing and revealing context and character. The protagonist may not even understand the central conflict until she starts trying to resolve it. She just knows that something is “wrong,” or that she doesn’t like something and wants it to change. What she learns as your story progresses is the exact nature of the conflict.

Pacing is an important issue in plot development. Keep things moving.

Each time the protagonist fails to resolve the conflict, things must get worse. The need to resolve the conflict must increase. The consequences of failure must be worse each time. Failure might make the context more dangerous. The possibility of never resolving the conflict must be more horrific. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little there. Your story might not be a doomsday thriller or a horror tale, but you get the idea. Things get worse.

There are some additional things worth noting here:

  • You don’t have to tell the whole story. Many short stories are only about one aspect of the basic story – for example, one attempt to resolve the conflict.
  • Your protagonist doesn’t have to resolve the conflict. Your story might be about her refusal to enter the conflict, and the consequences that has for her.
  • You must know your genre. In horror, for example, the final lesson is often learned too late, or resolving the conflict results in the protagonist’s death – so she never gets to share the lessons that she learned in the denouement (see this book for more on the Hero’s Journey).

Climax

The shorter your fiction, the easier it must be to understand. Don’t make the greatest fear something that requires in-depth psychological explanation if you’re writing a short-story, for example.

The greatest fear, and the greatest desire, have to matter. Introduce them early, and let them impact your characters’ decisions and choices. Tell us about your character in how he deals with them. For example, if your character is confrontational, he might face his fear or he might purposely avoid it. Either choice tells us something about him. Your character might openly acknowledge her fear, showing self-knowledge and understanding. Or another character might point out how your character’s fear effects her life, telling your audience that your character is not self-aware.

Similarly, your character might accept or reject his greatest desire. He might not even acknowledge it. That said, as the storyteller, you must find ways to communicate them to your audience. If we don’t know these things early on, then your climax makes no sense to us.

Tying It Together

Joan is a recent college graduate. She’s a smart, funny, young woman. She’s interning at an advertising agency to gain some experience, and lives at home with her parents. She doesn’t have much money, so she pitches in around the house instead of paying rent. She does things she doesn’t enjoy because they’re her responsibilities. Joan’s fears up to this point – fear that she won’t find a good job, fear that she won’t move out of her parents’ house, concerns about a romantic life while still living at home – should all be minor at this point.

That’s character. It could use some more context – what kind of house, where, what her parents do, what her parents are like, but it’s a good start. It needs one more thing: Immediacy. It needs something to give it some urgency. So let’s say that on the day that our story begins, Joan’s family is hosting a dinner party for Joan’s boss and some important clients tonight. You could come up with a clever reason why they’re doing that instead of going out to eat. Anyway, Mom and Dad are out running errands for the party. Joan is cleaning the house.

Our plot begins when the power goes out. Joan’s first attempt to resolve things is when she goes to the window and looks at the neighbors’ houses. Their lights are still on, so Joan knows it’s her own fuse box. That’s in the basement. This is a really minor ramp up in consequences. Checking the neighbors’ power is so effortless and common sense that almost anything ramps up the difficulty. That’s okay. At this point, the storyteller would review why she needs the power back on. This is where you talk about how much she still has left to do, and how little time she has to do it, and why it’s so important to her personally to make a good impression. All of that has to make sense with what the audience already learned about her character. In addition, this is where you could reveal a fear: The fear might be that her parents are hiding something from her, and Joan thinks they might be broke – relevant here because they might not have paid the power bill. The fear might be that Joan hates the basement. Maybe her parents locked her there as a child as punishment. Maybe Joan fears the dark. Maybe there are rats down there, or cockroaches, or ghosts – depending on your context.

You see, the first attempt to resolve the situation was really about Joan trying to avoid her greatest fear. That didn’t work, so now she must, and that increases the drama – the context becomes worse, and the conflict potentially as well.

Her second attempt to resolve the conflict is getting a flashlight and going in the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, the flashlight dies. If her parents are broke, then this ramps things up psychologically. Joan thinks about what she’s going through because her parents hide things from her as if she were a child. If they paid the bill, she wouldn’t be in the basement. If they had money, the flashlight would have fresh batteries, and so on. If she’s afraid of the dark, then the basement door automatically shut at the top of the stairs, and Joan has to face climbing those stairs in the dark.

Does Joan try to get back up the stairs, or does she try to find the circuit breakers? Is she more afraid of the dark, or of hurting herself stumbling around the basement – which would mean not wearing a short skirt to the party? Is the problem really the circuit breaker? Is there a stranger in the house? Did her parents forget to pay the electric bill?

Depending on what kind of story you’re telling, your answers to those questions will be different.

What did I miss?

I’m smart, and pretty well educated. I’m also human, and thus fallible. What did I miss?

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Posted in: Self-Reference