Storytelling: The Foremost Fundamentals And Elemental Essentials

A Surprise Treat Awaits You

Every day is a day for stories.

No, I don’t mean movies, or television, or that novel you’re reading, or that game you’re playing.

I mean you, me, and the falafel vendor on the corner, we all are the givers and receivers of stories. We tell stories, and they are told to us in return. This is a primitive, critical need inside us hairless monkeys: it’s why we painted stories on cave walls about punching antelope, it’s why we sat (and still sit) around campfires and tell stories about how the gods created microwave ovens or how Betty Sue McGooligan was cut apart by the serial killer with the hook for a head. It’s why when we get together with our wives or our friends or even our children our first impulse is to tell stories. “Oh, today at work, Ronnie, from the warehouse? He ran over Tony’s boombox with the forklift. No, no, on purpose! I know!” “Dude, that reminds me, did I ever tell you how my Uncle Tim was raped by a forklift? Seriously, it was on the news. Check this out, so he was sitting on the banks of the Seine…”

Seriously. It’s what we do. It is practically our default state. Hanging out over dinner? “Oh, honey, that Chinese food reminds me, tell them how you found that leprechaun skeleton under the house.” At the conclusion of that tale, someone else adds, “Man, speaking of leprechauns, did you see that triple rainbow today?” And from there it’s another story about rainbows or buried treasure or pirates or parrots or ostriches or sandwiches or whatever.

Story after story. Endlessly tumbling. Each chained to the last. Like a human caterpillar.

We’ve all been privy to great stories — and, by proxy, the great storytellers who tell those great stories. And, sadly, we’ve also been sucked into the whirling vortex that represents the opposite end of the spectrum: shitty storytellers telling their shitty stories. We’ve all been there. You feel trapped, as if in a phone booth, unable to pull away from a story that just goes on and on and on and seems to have no point and no value and no rhythm, no peaks, no valleys, no nothing but an awful narrative unfolding like a bleak black curtain that threatens to smother you and all the goodness within your heart.

Hence, it’s important to look and say, “What makes for a good story?” This isn’t just for writers or filmmakers or other creative types. This is for everybody. We all tell stories. Stories are deeply fundamental and wholly elemental to our very being.

So, to reiterate: what are the essential ingredients to good storytelling?

Oh, no, don’t get up. You stay duct-taped to that recliner. I got it covered.

Number One: A Reason To Give A Fuck

The first and worst reason that a storyteller traps you in the telling of a bad story is by guaranteeing that you just don’t give a rat’s right foot about the story he’s telling. It has no purpose. It has no connection, no relevancy, no emotional core. The story — and its teller — fails to conjure any reason to care.

Stories are part of our call and response behavior — we see something or think of something, so we share a story about it. And that often triggers something in the listener, and then that person shares her story. And back and forth it goes, a ricocheting game of narrative ping pong.

But see, that’s the thing: a story must either call us to it or must act as a response. If it fails to do either of those things — if it fails to call our attention or if it fails to respond to something in our lives — then what’s the goddamn point? A story at its core must must must endeavor to make the audience give a fuck. The reason for the aforementioned fuck-giving can be multifarious — my Dad died of cancer, so maybe you want to tell me a story about cancer. You have a dog, I have a dog, now we’re talking about dogs. Maybe you just know a guy, and his story is the saddest you’ve heard — or the happiest, or the weirdest, or the bat-shit-nuttiest — and you want to convey that, you want to transmit that emotion to me.

A story has to make us care. It has to make us feel something — anything! — to be a story that matters.

For the record, the reason to give a fuck is also the reason the storyteller gives a fuck — at least, most likely. Storytellers tell stories for a reason: again, it’s part of that response. Stories have a message. Or, good stories do. I don’t mean some lofty, hoity-toity thematic intent — I just mean, there’s a reason and a message implicit. It might be as simple as, “I think this is funny,” or as complex as, “The ennui of old age is forever at war with the diabolical impetuousness of youth.”

Number Two: Characters To Care About

Stories are told by people. And so they must be about people. Or, at least, characters — a character could be a grumpy wombat, a robot toaster, a vampire unicorn. But even then they are representative of people — ultimately, we anthropomorphize so that they are relatable to us — so that, in essence, we’re all speaking the same narrative tongue.

You do not have a story without characters. Defy me. Go ahead, I dare you. Even the most oblique, abstract tale — “This is the story of Sirius, the Dog Star!” — ultimately makes characters out of its subject matter. It must! Because characters are the vehicles that carry the story forward.

Further, we must care about the characters. Somehow. Someway. It goes back to number one: if we can’t give a fuck about the characters, what does the story even matter?

What makes characters compelling and give-a-fuck-able remains somewhat elusive: complexity isn’t the key. Children’s stories do not feature complex characters. Nor do urban legends or campfire tales. But somehow we relate: they are within, not outside, our sphere of understanding. If characters are too far outside the firelight, we can no longer understand them.

Once we understand them, we care.

Number Three: A Problem

A story hinges on a problem. Specifically, a problem for those characters we care about.

Characters alone do not make a story. Timmy wakes up, eats eggs, goes to school, gets an A+, plays baseball with Dad, has Captain Crunch before dinner, then goes to bed ultimately fulfilled… that’s not a story. I mean, okay, it’s technically a story, but it’s a story that sucks a bag of dicks. The only conflict in that story is the question blooming in the listener’s mind: “How will I beat a murder rap if I bludgeon this storyteller to death with this talking robot toaster I found?”

As creatures we are not programmed to be compelled by unconflicted narratives. That actually speaks volumes of us as a species and just how goofy we are: we love to love our characters, but the only way we truly love them is if we first make them suffer. We can’t be happy if John McClane meets his estranged wife in the Nakatomi building and then they make out and have sex in her office and he goes home to play with their kids. We can only be happy if he has to run across broken glass and get blown up first. We’re fucked up, but hey, it is what it is. You want to tell good stories, you have to tap into that.

The problem serves as the anchor of a story.

Said it before, will say it again: in life, we avoid conflict. In fiction, we strive for it.

Number Four: Acceleration And Deceleration

Or, peaks and valleys, waxing and waning, ebb and flow.

A flatlining story is as dull as a geometry lesson. A story should never start at point A, then end at point A. We listen and want the story to shift, to change, to become faster at times and slower at others… and even those slow points — “the valleys” — seem almost designed to keep us salivating for the high and fast points, “the peaks.” It’s as if we slow down just to further anticipate the coming acceleration.

A good story has escalation. It has rises and falls. It gives the story context. It lends it suspense, and texture, and rhythm. The patterns can be different across separate stories: some rise, rise, riiiiise until they crest the climax and fall — while others are more bumpy, more iterative, more up-and-down-and-left-and-right. There’s no one pattern that dominates the narrative design — but the pattern must have that sense of speeding up and slowing down.

It’s not all that different from a long car ride. A car ride down a long stretch of gray highway is about as soul-crushing as one can imagine. But a trip through the mountains, or in and out of small towns, is compelling: the stop and go, the new sights, the shifts in the wind and the change in direction. Those things keep us interested. They keep us awake and aware.

Good stories do that.

Bad stories are a long stretch of dead interstate.

Number Five: A Conclusion Appropriate To The Story

And, stories (like overlong rambling blog posts) must end.

But not just end in the sense that, “Well, that happened, and now it’s over,” but rather end in the way that actually means  conclude. We say stories have endings, but really, the good ones have conclusions. They tie up. They complete the tale. They take our characters to their final destinations (narratively speaking).

The worst thing is when a great story dies with a bad ending. Or barely an ending at all — the story just stops. Ever have that happen? You’re listening to someone and it’s all like, “So, Jim is left alone in the hotel room with this drunken hooker, and she’s pried her peg leg off, and she’s busting up lamps and she smashes the TV — and Jim thinks, Jesus, the syphilis has really driven this prostitute batty.”

“So what happened then?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Wh…? What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I guess he’s okay. I saw him in the break room eating a donut.”

“That’s it? That’s the end? Then he was in the break room just eating a fucking donut?”

“Shrug, I guess.”

It’s like storytelling blue balls. Nothing sucks more than an unfinished — or worse, an ill-finished — tale.

Number Six: Your Turn

I know I asked this before, but keep on noodling it. What else is essential to a good story? I don’t mean preferable — I mean, what elements will kill a story when absent from the narrative?

Swish it around in your mouth. Spit it out in the comments below.

Ptoo.

33 comments

  • Character movement, I like to see characters, not just the protagonist be affected by what they’ve gone through in a story, expecially if violence is involved. If no one changes then the story tends to feel hollow and the ending unsatisfying.

  • Curiosity. This can be strong enough even to replace problems. If the compulsion just to know what happens next, even if it just how a character develops, is powerful this can propel a (this) reader unstoppably forward.

    • @Mandoran:

      I can see that, yeah. I might’ve lumped “curiosity” under “reason to give a fuck,” but there is an ancillary bit there about how good stories are driven by unknown variables, by questions, by mysteries. We are driven forward by our need to know — our curiosity, as you note.

      — c.

  • A story should never start at point A, then end at point A.

    I’m quibbling, I know. I just have to say Catch 22.

    But to answer your real question – character agency. I can’t stand it when the characters are just buttmonkeys of the plot. I need to see them act and change the course of the story rather than them sitting back and reacting to what happens to them.

  • (Catch-22 as in, the novel — or the saying?)

    I like and prefer character agency — but is character agency *necessary* for a good story? I’d say that no isn’t. Preferable, yes. But not critical. The stories we tell at the dinner table do not require character agency. I can think of books and films that have passive protagonists — most of them, I don’t like, but a few still work despite this.

    The question is — what else *must* be in a story for it to work?

    — c.

  • The novel. :-p

    I think I can see your point, but I still can’t think of any good stories lacking agency. But maybe my dinner table is more lively than most people’s.

  • You implied this above but didn’t say it outright: something needs to change. That’s why the A-plus student with his Captain Crunch is boring: nothing changes.

    It might not be the character, it might be the world, it might be me. I’m not that particular about what changes, as long as something does.

    • @Sylvia:

      Agreed — change is a catalyst within good narrative. I’m on board with that — while I think it’s implicit in the post, I think it’s better to make it explicit, like you did here.

      — c.

  • @Kate:

    Well, look at a lot of urban legends or campfire tales — many offer compelling stories but offer little character agency.

    Again, I agree that it’s a preferable part of storytelling. It’s harder to tell a good story without active or reactive characters. But my point is merely that I do not consider it *impossible.* It may be a desirable ingredient to the recipe, but it is not an essential one for a thing to be called “a good story.” IMHO.

    — c.

    • @TNT:

      I’m inclined to agree, but wonder as Devil’s Advocate if we can think of good stories where the wants and desires of a character are not clear or made manifest.

      A story’s problem or conflict can stand-in for explicit wants/desires because we as the audience recognize they want to overcome the problem.

      Also, what a character does *not* want can be just as fundamental as what the character wants.

      So, again, that one’s a bit tricky, and it’s why I hesitate to name it as an essential for good storytelling.

      — c.

  • Prepare for groan-inducing punnery: A good story should have … novelty. Duh, it’s right there in the name. A good story should defy the reader’s expectations. A great story should surreptitiously lure the reader to one set of expectations and then defy them. Yes, this quality can be turned into a big steaming pile of lameness, e.g., the surprise out of left field with no underpinning in the story. But still.

    • @Justin:

      Puns are the lowest form of humor, and for them, you will be taken to the town whipping post and be whipped. By a post.

      ;)

      No, but seriously — to play Devil’s Advocate again, I look at your language and see the word “should,” and I do agree.

      But, *must* a story have that as a component to be a good or engaging story? Must every story twist and pivot?

      I don’t know that it must. I mean, looking at film, you might see REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, whose ceaseless march toward the title’s set expectations (death of one’s dreams) is telegraphed perfectly. I don’t know that our expectations are defied there, and in fact, it seems that the compelling part about that story is that we are privy to these expectations coming into brutal truth.

      I tell a lot of stories about my Dad, and sure, a lot of them have that, “I didn’t see that coming!” component, but others, not so much — they’re just simple day-in-the-life stories.

      I think what you’re talking about is preferable, but perhaps not absolutely essential.

      (All of this is, of course, IMHO, YMMV, etc.etc.)

      — c.

  • I’m not sure I agree that all good stories require a conclusion that completes the tale. Sometimes I think a story is actually better if the reader is left hanging. The uncertainty (when done well) continues to engage the imagination. If all the questions have been answered we are ready to move on, but if we care about the characters and there is still some unresolved issue we can look forward to the sequel or carry the narrative on in our own imagination. We are not done with it yet and in a sense it is still alive in us. How can that not be the sign of a good story? We continue to care because we want to know and the story has just teased us without giving us release. If George R. R. Martin ever finishes his Fire and Ice series it will be a climax that many of us have been anticipating for years. And we have continued to care because the story HAS left us hanging. Its a good story not despite the lack of conclusion but maybe partly because of it. The unknown destination continues to engage us. Sometimes at least. I think…..

    • @Carter:

      Sequelizations and continued tales then indicate that the story simply isn’t concluded — but will conclude with continued storytelling. It doesn’t mean that no ending is present; it just means the ending is yet to come.

      Even iterative tales — TV episodes, comic issues, sequels — tend to wrap up in some fashion. Arcs conclude and close down — characters move onto new phases.

      To me, you can’t have a story without an ending same as you can’t have a chair with two legs. (Erm, that’s a metaphor. The first person who links to some architectural marvel of a chair with two legs gets socked in the junk drawer.)

      — c.

  • I think, to also play Devil’s Advocate, that a character’s desires do not need to be made clear/manifest as long as they have them. No where in the quote does it say we have to *know* what the character wants, just what they want. In that regards, wanting something to not happen, is still a want.

    If the character wants something (even if it is just to be left alone, and not killed by the hookman) it will show in how they are portrayed. There will be something underlying their actions that gives reason and a pattern to it that the reader/audience will pick up on, even if they can’t put their finger on it.

    Without that desire, the character becomes worse than a cardboard cutout. I mean, even the people in urban legends have wants and desires. However subtle they may be.

  • About characters.

    I won’t give a fuck about your characters if they don’t feel real to me.

    That doesn’t mean they can’t have superpowers or rocket boots, or be a half-dragon half-vampire or something. I mean they should feel like people. How does having superpower affect someone? Are rocket boots part of the character’s job, or do they go all Peter Parker with a little “CHECK OUT MAH ROCKET BOOTS MOTHERFUCKERS!” Are fucked-up hybrids shunned in society, and if so how realistic is it for that one to be walking around all “FUCK YOU I’M A FANGDRAGON”? No matter the setting, a deeper character with realistic reactions and feelings about themselves and the world around them is going to be a lot more interesting than the most glorious, perfect and powerful sparklepire.

    Shit, there I go again.

  • I would argue that the characters wants/needs/desires have to be manifest for there to be conflict. The definition of conflict is two people struggling over the same goal. Sometimes the desire is as simple as a will to live (Friday the 13th, campfire story) or as complex as wanting to change some fundamental aspect of their character (American Beauty). What a character doesn’t want (to die) translates directly to what they do want (to live) whether or not the motivation comes from within or without.

    Without the initial desire to enter the fray, the conflict never occurs. I suppose it could be argued that a story could be fashioned about some listless soul flopping on the couch night after night, never desiring anything, but it would be a very dull story indeed.

  • I’m going to jump on the band-wagon here a bit and quibble with the ‘A story should never start at point A, then end at point A.’ statement as well, there are plenty of good stories where the whole point is that they come back to point A, either the whole point of the story is that things don’t change, my vague recollection of Animal Farm is that one of the characters even points out that nothing has really changed (I could be muddling it with something else) or the story is of the ‘how we got here’ variety (Fight Club does that), but I think the keywords in my argument there are ‘come back to’ to use your travel metaphor, there’s nothing wrong with a journey that ends with you getting back home, just as long as you’ve been somewhere else in between.

    Incidentally you can also do that with characters, one of the commentaries for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie points out that at the beginning of the film Captain Jack Sparrow has lost the Black Pearl and is trying to get it back and that at the end of the movie he’s lost the Black Pearl (again) and is trying to get it back, anyone who argues that that makes him an uninteresting character is going to be arguing against one heck of a lot of fans.

    Actually, I think I’m going to go further and say that it’s, if not essential, then at least highly desirable that by the end of the story there is SOMETHING that hasn’t changed, I think humans are fascinated with changelessness as much as they are change, isn’t that part of the fascination with vampires and other immortal character types? that they remain (relatively) unchanged while the world around them does, isn’t it part of the beauty of stars and mountains and whatever the fact that they’re more or less eternal and will be there long after whatever troubles you’re currently facing are long gone? I could be wrong but I think that it’s possible that Sparrow is an interesting character not in spite of being essentially unchanged, but BECAUSE he’s unchanged, that that element of almost mythic unalterableness is part of his appeal. I think there’s a couple of things at work with that, partly it’s a comfort thing, we want to be reassured that there are things that will always be there, that can be relied on, and partly it feeds into curiosity, the desire to see more than can be experienced in a single lifetime.

    Either way, I’m not arguing with the concept that something has to change somewhere along the line.

    Oh, also I don’t know if it’s of any help to anyone else as a metaphor, but I think of the changes of pace in a story as it’s heartbeat, like a natural rhythm that is not just part of how the story is told, but part of the story itself.

    • @TNT:

      No, no worries, you’re onto something. Besides, no right or wrong answers here — but it’s good we’re talking and thinking through these things.

      I’d take issue a little with your definition of “conflict,” which is a bit limited and ignores other definitions.

      However, one of those other definitions supports your thesis: a conflict is something that opposes wants or needs.

      — c.

  • I’m not saying that every story must pivot–certainly not as to plot–but that it must defy the reader’s expectations. If I’m going to play … hmmm … Devil’s Prosecutor, I respond by boldly claiming that stories that proceed inexorably toward the destination, when handled well (such as Requiem, great example), do indeed defy our expectations for precisely that reason. The viewer has an expectation that some sliver of goodness will take hold because that’s the way most stories go.

    But you’d be hard-pressed to have any fundamental that’s truly absolute. Because a good story will use the absence of that fundamental, which the reader expects, as the basis for the art.

  • I’m going to take a different tack and advocate for a story’s sense of place. Not just because setting is how we ground character and conflict, but because we take pleasure in the exotic and words that show us the prosaic as strange.

    How many of us, as readers, are propelled from story to story and from old author to new because we’ve become genre junkies jonesing for another dose of a setting that does it for us? If stories were just about characters and conflict, then genre wouldn’t matter.

    There are only so many different stories to tell, but time, place, work, culture, resources, make tales both fresh and unique.

    And yeah, if it’s missing, if the setting feels too generic or too overdone, I won’t care.

    • @Shullamuth —

      Sure, I think in terms of writing fiction, that’s perhaps a reasonable consideration. But it is not explicitly necessary in terms of overall storytelling, is it? Again, the difference between “preference” and “critical component.” Unless you’re arguing that all stories must feature that for all tellers and listeners?

      — c.

  • Hey Chuck, I would still say that a conclusion that ends the story isn’t always necessary. For instance, what keeps me entertained by a story like that of the film Inception is that we just don’t know. Is he still dreaming or not? And since that is the biggest question of the film its hard to say the story requires a conclusion that spells it out. Not knowing is the spice. A sequel that answered this would be irrelevant to it being a good story and maybe even disappointing. Or like in the film Lost in Translation the two characters walk away after something having been whispered and we have no idea what it was. Knowing would either be a letdown or fulfill our expectations. Keeping it a mystery is what keeps us engaged. Doesn’t that make it much more interesting?

    All I’m saying is that a conclusion may be expected in many stories, and good ones make good stories even better, but that a lack of conclusion can also be an advantage if handled correctly. Stories that don’t have a transparent destination are not necessarily partial stories. If we care enough we don’t necessarily want the story to end, and if the writer can help it stay alive this seems like a good thing.

    • @Carter:

      In part, I agree — but I think where my opinion diverges is that in all those instances, the stories still end. They conclude, wrap up, reach a point of completion. Just because they leave some questions open doesn’t mean they don’t end — nearly all stories leave doors open. No story gives us 100% summation.

      — c.

  • @Chuck I think I am going to argue that conveying a sense of place is as important to non-fiction storytelling.

    Thinking about the brilliant opening scene in Mary Roach’s Stiff, it’s all those heads in turkey pans that hooked me into the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and kept me turning pages even though those pages were turning my stomach.

    In the best informal around-the-camp-fire-oral-tradition, my mother-in-law tells a story about how one uncle almost stabbed another after watching a scary movie, and a fair amount of scene setting goes into it, functioning as both logistical info and tension builder.

    Naturally, there are differences of degree, and balance is necessary. Waxing all Tolkien at the fire pit is likely to get the speaker pelted with beer cans, but I can’t really imagine enjoying a story that wasn’t rooted in a sense of time and place.

  • I know this is going to sound like a nit-pick, but bear with me. A story has — absolutely has — to be comprehensible to the listener.

    In terms of writing, ‘cos that’s where I’m coming from, it means that the language and sentence structure has to be something that the reader can deal with. Sheer illiteracy will kill a story stone dead. At the other end of the scale, some writers — often new ones, with a natty turn of phrase — are so damn set on writing something ‘beautiful’ that they forget to check it actually makes sense to anyone. Cram three metaphors, an allusion and six adverbs into a description of a glass of wine, and no-one is going to make it to the end of the paragraph. At a camp-fire level, the parallel would be someone with a really thick accent you just couldn’t make out.

    The thing is, presentation is not external to a story. We’re not talking about a nice extra, like that sprig of parseley on top of your bowl of soup. It’s part of the thing itself. Presentation _is_ the story, unless you’re living it first-hand. It’s easy to forget.

  • What really gets me is stilted dialogue. If a character says something that doesn’t sound like a real person would say it, I immediately lose immersion. I don’t care if it’s a wizard, a dragon, or a teenager in Biology class, if the dialogue doesn’t flow, I can barely read it.

  • I’ve been thinking about the time/place issue and I think I agree with Shullamuth, as far as it being a necessary part of a story – but I don’t agree that it needs to be conveyed… or maybe not consciously conveyed. If I tell a story: “Mary got held up at gunpoint…” You’ll likely assume that Mary works somewhere with a cash drawer, which is where the story takes place. Simply saying “held up” instead of “robbed” gives the story a sense of location. Where no more information exists, the storyee will generate a mental setting. So I think the time/place is necessary to a degree, but I think it’s kind of built-in.

    As for stories needing a conclusion… I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I don’t like stories that unceremoniously stop in the middle. But I do like stories that leave you hanging a bit. It’s sort of like choose-your-own-adventure. They need to end, but if a story ends with a character who is near death reaching his goal/failing to reach his goal/changing as a person, etc., and then you don’t find out if he lives or dies, the ending relies on the listeners’ experience… but it still exists, so maybe it’s a similar to the setting thing.

  • You need to get right on that TV stuff, Chuck. That break room dialogue was hilarious.

    I think there was only ever one book I genuinely had to slog through, and it was an omnibus. 700 pages about (sure you’re aware of them) Space Marines, but even worse, “super” Space Marines called the Grey Knights.

    The protagonist was, in essence, practically invisible. He had zero personality, and there was never any conflict about his identity as a living weapon. His squad-mates? Two-dimensional. And oh, no – he might just be a little more morally independent than his zealotic friends!

    Bad narrative, for me, has a few warning signs. One, the protagonist is so, so likeable you can’t stand to see the words “he smiled” post-speech after the first ten pages. Two, the setting is generic – an abandoned town/spaceship/house. Three? The protagonist is vanilla, and has a few friends – namely a big, stupid, muscular friend, an angry, man-hating (but secretly lusting after the protagonist) woman with close combat skills, and a villain who’s evil, but good inside. No, really, he’s a great guy. You’ve just got to get to know him a bit better, and the decapitation won’t get to you at all, any more.

    Some writing works, some doesn’t. I also think it’s a valid point that the writing style HAS to fit the genre. J.K. Rowling could never write a crime thriller, not with that voice, and I can’t see Pratchett writing a social drama set in Pompeii.

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