The key elements of good storytelling
This week’s post is going to be relatively short because it’s designed to make you think about your story, ask questions about it, and to help you analyze it for effectiveness.
Keep in mind that because each story is different, not all of these elements carry equal weight in every story, but they are all vital to the success of any story.
Before I present the points, I want to remind you that readers are different in what they expect in terms of the type of story they like. I’m not going to address those differences.
(1) What promise do you make the reader in your opening? What compels the reader to want to read your story? It has to be about more than merely something that you find interesting.
Not every story will touch every reader, but if your opening is lackluster, it won’t compel your reader to continue. The more interest, mystery, surprise, or story questions you can pack into your opening sentences, the better.
Consider this story opening:
Friday afternoon Ann Decker was running the vacuum cleaner in the living room when their fifteen-year-old black Lab suddenly appeared in front of her, whimpering. She shut off the vacuum and looked at the clock.
“Ted, I think Digger needs to go out,” she called down the basement stairs. Ted had taken the day off to catch up on some projects. She turned around to find the dog standing behind her. He never followed her, and he always scratched at the door when he needed to go out. Or barked once if that was ignored. “What’s the matter, Digger?”
Then the phone rang.
That’s not awful, but it’s certainly not strong and at best is only mildly interesting. It’s 103 words and at least half of them are wasted. How does your opening stack up? Do you waste words in your opening? Let’s see if we can do better with this opening.
Friday afternoon Ann Decker was running the vacuum cleaner in the living room when their fifteen-year-old black Lab suddenly appeared in front of her, whimpering. She shut off the vacuum.
“Do you need to go out?” But instead of prancing to the door, he stood there and whimpered again.
“What’s the matter, Digger?”
Then the phone rang.
At just over half the word count, we get to that foreshadowing line. What comes next in this story should definitely catch the reader’s attention (which I’ll share in a moment), but the extraneous information about Ted in the opening slows the story. If it’s essential to the story, it should come later, not in the beginning. The same is true about ANY opening.
Here are the next lines in that story:
“Mrs. Decker?” the male voice said.
“This is the dean of the college your son attends…”
(2) Does each subsequent scene (or chapter in the case of longer works) reinforce that promise and continue to compel the reader to want to turn the page?
How many stories or novels have you read where the author spends the next several paragraphs (or pages) going into background information and backstory? These have their place, but not before you’ve grabbed and secured the reader’s attention.
(3) What do your characters want? This can be either some goal set out in the beginning or some goal thrust upon them later.
We often hear writing advice articles talk about character wants and goals. This point is often stressed as being not just important but required in any story. Well, that works for certain types of stories that are indeed goal oriented, but not every story is that way. Many pieces with a more literary bent focus on emotions and emotional impact.
Maybe a better way of stating the characters’ goals issue is to ask what you the author are trying to accomplish or convey to the reader with this story.
(4) Why should the reader care about your characters or what they want? Alternatively, why should the reader care about what you’re trying to accomplish with the story?
(5) Are your characters interesting?
For example, do they have flaws or have something about them that makes them interesting? Regardless of the purpose of your story, either the story’s characters need to be interesting, or the narrator’s voice needs to be interesting. In the absence of any characters (other than the narrator), it’s even more important that the narrator’s voice be interesting.
(6) What’s at stake for the characters (and for the reader)? What happens if the characters don’t succeed in their goals? And why would the reader care if they don’t succeed?
This point only applies to stories that have stakes. Not all do, but if they don’t have stakes, then something in the story must make up for it. In any case, the story must offer something interesting for the reader or touch on something that touches the reader.
(7) Is the writing itself interesting and compelling, or is it flat?
One of the best ways to assess this is to read your story aloud. Or, in this day of modern software, text-to-speech is a feature available in the later versions of MS Word. Have your computer read it to you. While the computer voice may not be the most thrilling, it will still give you an idea if your writing is interesting or flat.
In fact, I just proofed this blog post using the text-to-speech feature in Word 365. I was impressed!
(8) Who is telling the story: you the author, or the characters? Is the reader being told the story by the author or being shown the story by seeing it happen through the characters’ eyes?
One thought on “The key elements of good storytelling”
As always, helpful comments and examples. I needed to hear your willingness to suggest an opening chapter/paragraph doesn’t necessarily have to have a gun shot or a huge traumatic moment. The goal/dilemma of the main character needs to be clear early in the narrative, but it doesn’t always have to be spelled out for the reader immediately. Much of what I hear about novel openings implies that without such an in-your-face action on the first page, no reader will go on to page two. I’ve certainly never done that as a reader. Then again, I don’t write thrillers or mysteries. Much of my work tends to be character driven, and sometimes that requires time to build the tension and to let the main characters discover for themselves their real goals and even the obstacles they’ll face.