The Essential Elements Of Storytelling

Are you ready to learn the secret formula to great storytelling?

You may be sad to learn that there isn’t one. 

What there is, though, are the essential elements of storytelling that you should learn in order to master the craft and become a better storyteller.

Let’s look at each element in some depth and include some accompanying examples from stories that have stood the test of time. Each element will also be further expanded upon with future articles that dig a little deeper into the specifics. 

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling is the process by which a story is shared or told; an ancient art form that involves the presentation and delivery of a narrative, revealing the elements, images and events of a story whilst encouraging the imagination of the audience.

What Are The Essential Elements Of Storytelling?

There are numerous elements involved with storytelling and far too much to include in a single article, but we’ve boiled it down to the seven essential elements of storytelling.

  • Message
  • Plot
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Conflict 
  • Story Arc
  • Craft

Message

Definition of message in storytelling

The message is the purpose and the underlying idea or information that you’re delivering to your audience through your story.

What’s the point of a story without a message? It’s no big secret that stories are usually remembered and passed on because the underlying message is something that resonates with those that hear it.

Think of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ or ‘The Tortoise And The Hare’. 

One storytelling device that many people use as an integral part of their story structure is the four P’s of storytelling which includes:

  • Plot
  • People
  • Places
  • Purpose

The purpose is really another spin on your story’s message. Why are you telling this particular story, what are you trying to communicate?

The true purpose of storytelling is to communicate an idea, offer guidance, impart wisdom, or teach a lesson. Stories are a vehicle for delivering information in a memorable and relatable manner.

Fairy tales and fables are especially well known for delivering a clear message and teaching a lesson and this point is demonstrated perfectly when you read through Aesop’s Fables of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 

An important part of the definition of message is that it’s much deeper than just a theme, which is more of a surface-level element. 

For example, in the classic Steven Spielberg movie ET, there are multiple themes but themes are only on the surface. The themes we see running throughout ET include family, friendship, adventure; and there are more.

The true message of ET, however, is about accepting others who are different from yourself and showing empathy.

Plot

Definition of plot in storytelling

The plot can be considered as the sequence of related events that connect your audience to your protagonist and the goal they’re striving to achieve.

Just like in real life, a story relies on a series of plot points in order to flow in a way that’s both logical and engaging. Simply put, the plot is what happens in a story.

Although the plot is a sequence that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to follow a chronological order, there are numerous great stories that experiment with timelines and the order of events and do so in a way that enhances the story rather than subtracts from it.

As well as defining your story and what the audience will experience, your plot sets up the motivations, challenges, conflicts, objectives and paths of your characters. 

The plot of your story should be a sequence of cause and effect; this happened because that happened, and then this happened, etc.

The focus of the plot is usually the protagonist’s primary goal or challenge, the central problem of the piece. Each event that occurs in the story is to push the protagonist toward a climax of either success or failure in resolving the central problem.

For example, let’s take a look at the film synopsis for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship Of The Ring

“A young hobbit, Frodo, who has found the One Ring that belongs to the Dark Lord Sauron, begins his journey with eight companions to Mount Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed.”

We see the plot of the overall story beautifully summarised. Our protagonist is identified as Frodo, the central problem is the One Ring and his goal is to take it to the only location where it can be successfully destroyed.

As the plot progresses, the stakes get higher and the suspense and tension increase until reaching the climax, which is the moment in the story where the tension peaks and is followed up with a resolution; resolving the main plot or central problem as well as any subplots.

When storytelling is done properly, all plot events are necessary to the main story and relate to the central problem, to the extent that any event being removed would result in breaking the story. 

A story shouldn’t contain unnecessary filler regardless of the reasoning behind it; as soon as you deviate from the plot you’ll lose your audience. 

Your audience will be engaged with your story only if your plot is well crafted. 

Ultimately, they are there because they care about your characters and they want to find out what happens next.

Character

Definition of character in storytelling

Characters are the living elements of your story who are affected by the events of the plot. In fact, the events that take place throughout your story are defined by the way your characters think, feel, act and respond to them, even when those events are outside of their control. 

It’s the actions and reactions of your characters that will drive your plot forward and determine the overall flow of it. 

For effective storytelling, you need well-defined, consistent characters throughout the story in order to make your audience believe and resonate with them. Your audience needs to be able to deduce a character’s traits to see the justification behind their actions in order to empathise with them truly.

Most stories contain numerous characters and each will have a different role but in almost every story, there should be at least a protagonist and an antagonist serving as the central characters that are vital to the story’s development. 

There are countless types, subtypes, archetypes and roles of characters involved with story structure and that can be the subject of another article, but for now, we’ll take a look at 3 character types that almost summarise the lot.

Protagonist

Also referred to as your hero, is your story’s main character who has a clearly defined goal to achieve or a conflict to resolve. Your protagonist should be changed in some perceivable way from the beginning to the end of the story.

Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be a likeable character as long as they can gain an emotional connection with your audience. 

Antagonist

An antagonist, or villain, is a character created to oppose your protagonist in an attempt to stop them from achieving their goal. An antagonist doesn’t specifically need to be a person but can be presented in the form of anything representing a huge obstacle to your protagonist.

Contrast Characters

Contrast characters, sometimes referred to as foil characters or clone characters are used in all types of storytelling. They can be antagonists or characters that work alongside your protagonist, they can even be passing tertiary characters that you meet only briefly in the story. 

The purpose of these characters is to exhibit traits that contrast with those of your protagonist to clearly highlight the important traits and attributes of your protagonist.

Let’s illustrate the point using Star Wars: A New Hope

Protagonist: Luke Skywalker

Antagonist: Darth Vader

Contrast Character: Han Solo

There are many contrast characters in most stories, and even in this example both the antagonist and the chosen contrast character highlight the traits, qualities and attributes of the protagonist.

As with all good contrast characters, they have their underlying similarities too; such as both wanting to see adventure and the bigger universe outside of their home planets as well as wanting to become pilots.

When Han Solo is introduced we see him as a self-serving, streetwise and cynical smuggler with a very egotistical nature. The traits we see from Han stand in direct contrast to the Luke Skywalker that we meet. We meet Luke as a compassionate, naive farmboy who believes in a better future and knows his limitations.

That is in very short form, how contrast characters work to highlight the key attributes of a protagonist. 

Back to story structure, one of the most important things to remember about characters with story structure is that it’s usually the characters that keep people invested in your story. 

Even when there are plot points outside of the control of your characters, the way they respond to conflict and react helps to keep your audience engaged. 

For your audience to connect with your characters they will need to have depth and substance, relatable flaws and motives that make sense.

Every single character within your story should feel real and well-rounded, if they’re not in the story to serve a true purpose, cut them out. Only real, relatable characters that the audience can connect with and care about will keep the audience on the journey. 

Again, whether your characters are likeable or not isn’t the key here, it’s that your character needs to be believable and compelling, with a strong driving motivation; an internal struggle that drives their external conflict.

Setting

Definition of setting in storytelling

Simply put, the setting of your story is where your story takes place. 

The universe, realm, world, time, location, you get the point. That’s the setting.

With a good story, your setting can be much more than just a static backdrop, it can be used to influence the pace, plot and conflict of your story through the way your characters view it; after all, in some ways, your characters will be defined by their setting and as a result, their perceptions and world views will be shaped by it.

You can also use your setting to influence dialogue and action between your characters. Take Jurassic Park for example and think of the difference in the characters as a result of a changing setting. 

We have our first setting which is a safe park with beautiful blue skies and nice high electric fences to keep the dangerous dinosaurs contained. 

Then we have our second setting; rain lashing down in hurricane-like conditions, and deactivated electric fences that are rendered useless against the now loose and roaming deadly dinosaurs.

In the example of a story as well structured as Jurassic Park, it’s clear to see exactly how the setting influences the characters as well as the pace, plot and conflict of the story. 

You can also use the setting in a symbolic and metaphorical manner to highlight key points about your story or characters.

A good example of this is the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King; a geothermally active, barren wasteland that reeks of death and danger and is also the very place where the enemies of the lions live, the hyenas with personalities that reflect the death and danger of the setting they live in.

However you use setting in your story, it should provide a context for your characters and the story itself. 

When choosing what to include or exclude when it comes to describing your setting, your choices should be intentional and should be made for the benefit of the story; in the same way that a landscape painter may choose to leave out certain elements of his view to bring a better overall composition to his painting.

Conflict

Definition of conflict in storytelling

Conflict is the struggle between opposing forces which can be either internal, external, or both.

Without conflict, you don’t really have a story, just a list of happenings. Conflict is how your characters move, grow, and achieve their goals. 

Conflict adds tension to your story and keeps your audience engaged and wanting to see how it unfolds.

Ultimately it means that your protagonist wants to achieve or obtain something, but has to overcome obstacles in order to do so, or there’s an antagonist standing between your protagonist and what they want. 

There are many ways to indicate conflict in a story.

Whichever way you choose to show the conflict in your story, resolving it should be extremely difficult for your protagonist and they should also have to be facing those aforementioned internal struggles to overcome the external conflicts.

Let’s briefly look at those two types of conflict:

Internal Conflict

The conflict your character is experiencing within themself that they need to overcome in order to achieve the goal that has been motivating them from the beginning.

External Conflict

Any conflict that exists outside of your character and acts as an obstacle between them obtaining or achieving what they want.

The bottom line is that nobody is interested in a story without conflict; where everything goes perfectly to plan without any obstacles or deviations. For an audience to fully engage with a story they need to be unsure of how it will turn out, or at least have doubts.

Some of the most powerful storytelling centres around characters that have to overcome their internal struggles so that they can succeed in resolving their external conflict.

Let’s have a glimpse into Buzz Lightyear from the original Toy Story movie.

Buzz Lightyear’s external conflict is one of isolation from the others as well as the bigger problems like Sid and needing to get back home. But as an audience, we’re more keyed into his internal conflict. The internal struggle for Buzz is that he believes he truly is Buzz Lightyear and not a toy. 

It’s a great synergy of internal and external conflicts, his internal conflict being the relatable struggle of who you think you are, and who you really are.

To give the context of storytelling to this example here’s plot 1, without any conflict:

Buzz Lightyear, a new addition to the toys in Andy’s room fits in straight away and they all move to a new house together.

Now let’s look at plot 2, with conflict:

Buzz Lightyear, a new addition to the toys in Andy’s room believes he is a real spaceman and is desperately trying to return to his home planet. Meanwhile, Andy’s family move to a new house and Buzz and Woody need to escape the clutches of the sinister young boy next door that enjoys destroying toys.

Which version would you be more intrigued to watch?

Again, conflict is what keeps an audience engaged with a story waiting to find out how it ends.

Story Arc

Definition of story arc in storytelling

An element that you’ll find in every good story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction is the story arc.

The story arc is the path your story follows. It’s the way your story is structured and shaped, using the events in your story and plot sequence to set the peaks and valleys of the story as well as the pace. 

If you intend on engaging your audience and keeping their attention from beginning to end, you’ll need an interesting story arc.

Every story can be broken down into three parts and that’s what the story arc describes; the beginning, the middle, and the end. A good story tends to start with a generally calm beginning, a middle rife with conflict and tension that rises to a peak, and an end that brings a resolution to the conflict.

The general story arc is a very simple structure and it’s by adding flesh to the bones and building a complexity of narrative momentum that will result in a story that stands out as different, despite the underlying bones of the story arc being very similar to another.

A classic example of this: A man goes on a quest, finds a precious object and returns home changed. Now that’s a very simple story arc right there, but if you add flesh to the bones and a little touch of storytelling magic, you have ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien. 

But if you took the same bones and added different flesh to them, you could end up with ‘Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade’.

Let’s look a little closer at those three parts:

Act I – Setup

This is where you set the scene, introduce your characters, establish the rules of your world and sow the seeds of conflict. 

Act II – Build

In this part, the tension will be rising and your characters will be learning, growing, and changing in response to their internal and external conflicts as well as the circumstances established by your plot sequence. Your characters will be trying to resolve the main problem and we’ll see the conflict escalate to a climax with a major decisive turning point for the protagonist.

Act III – Resolution

Here’s the part where we see the main problem resolved, the characters changed and the story comes to an end. 

A story arc is essential in order to define your story structure and keep everything on track with steady momentum for a good story.

Craft

Definition of craft in storytelling

Craft is the skill and expert ability to tell a story well and keep your audience engaged throughout.

An often overlooked but essential element of storytelling is craft.

Craft is missing from far too many essential storytelling lists and should feature on all of them. Craft is how you skillfully bring together all of the elements into a whole, cohesive and engaging story. 

Without craft, all you have is words on a page, paint on a canvas, or noise leaving your mouth for no apparent reason. 

Craft comes mostly with experience so it’s best to get stuck deep into learning as much as you possibly can, learning from those that have mastered the craft and using their examples to inform your own craft. 

Before too long, you’ll have the fundamentals down and can continue honing your skills and mastering the craft of storytelling.

Making A Meal Of It

A good story can be thought of in the same way as a good meal, not only is it both rewarding and nourishing, but it’s also only as good as the sum of its parts.

If we were to illustrate the essential elements of storytelling as the essential elements of a decent meal, it could look like this:

The message of your story could be the purpose of your meal, why are you making this particular meal and how does it benefit those you’re serving it to?

You could equate your characters to your ingredients and your plot to your cooking techniques; the way you cook your ingredients will affect how they turn out, and applying different techniques to the same ingredients will have different results.

Your setting is the way you decide to present your meal and presentation is always an important aspect of a meal; imagine serving soup on a plate or a sandwich in a bowl.

You’ll need some kind of tools in order to prepare a good meal and that’s where your conflict comes in, without the right tools your meal will just be food. 

Also to prepare a truly great meal it’s always wise to have a good recipe to hand and that’s your story arc, the thing that brings together all of your ingredients and cooking techniques. 

As for craft, well, that needs no metaphor; craft is translatable across both storytelling and cooking and without craft, neither will turn out well. 

The essential elements of storytelling are called essential not just because they need to be a part of the story, but because they are a necessary feature that should play a prominent role in your story and without them, you have no story.

Explore The Art Of Storytelling. Unlock Your Inner Storyteller.

Unlock your inner storyteller by Joining The Journey with me in exploring the art of storytelling; discovering new worlds, stories and techniques for capturing a narrative, creating moments and bringing stories to life.

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