If you've ever sought out articles or information about storytelling, you've probably landed on several excellent pieces by various writers who delve into specific aspects of story, like this article from Nspirement that discusses 9 Aspects of Good Storytelling or this story from NPR about How to Tell a Captivating Story.
Rarely, however, does a single article review how to approach storytelling as a whole. If you're new to writing stories, even if you're an avid reader, and want to know some basics before going whole-hog on the writing, this article is for you.
Common writerly fears when settling in for a writing session include, "How will I know what to write?" and "How will I know the right order to put stuff in?"
While some stubborn writers will vehemently deny that there is a right answer to this question, I'm here to tell you there is a right answer if you want to meet reader, editor, and publisher expectations.
The right answer comes down to story structure.
Readers today, like their counterparts from thousands of years ago, have expectations when it comes to information delivery. That is, readers want to see certain pieces of information before others. And getting the information-delivery system right for your readers means having a general understanding of the necessary structural supports that carry your story from beginning to end and span narrative arcs. Because whether you choose to write within the three-act structure, the 7-point system, the hero's journey, or something else, these basic parts of story supersede all other structural designs.
In essence, you can break down storytelling into four distinct parts, including three transitions between those parts.
So, what do each of these parts do and how do they function? Let's walk through them one by one.
Set Status Quo
When setting the status quo, the function of this part of the story is to establish the stakes for what's to come for your protagonist. And in order to establish the stakes, you'll need to introduce your protagonist and show readers what's going on in their life. In essence, this is a "before" snapshot of who and where your protag is before the story gets going. You'll hook the reader by inviting them into the protag's life, share a hint of the overall theme, and set up the plot.
At the end of Set Status Quo, you'll arrive at your first transition, in which you will introduce your reader to the antagonist or the antagonistic force that will become the primary conflict for your protag. You may also know this as the inciting incident, the big action or decision that affects change for your protag.
The Hero Responds
And after your protag's action or decision, you'll show how your protag reacts to the antagonist or antagonistic force. Your protag has been introduced to a new person or situation and will officially launch them into the story. Your protag may run and hide, observe and analyze, recalculate, plan, or whatever else they have to do before moving forward.
Reveal New Information
After your protag has been running and hiding, or observing and analyzing or whatnot, you're going to apply pressure by revealing new information, something that pinches your protag, creates a sense of urgency or tension in achievement of their new goal. And the new information will change the context of your protag's experience.
The Hero Attacks
After receiving new information, your protag will feel empowered to stop responding to and start being more proactive about their situation. Your protag will attempt to fix things, right the wrongs, catch the criminals, or what have you. At the same time, the protag will begin to conquer some inner demons or at least to understand what may be in their way. But your protag will also realize they need something more, something extra, to defeat the antagonist or antagonistic force.
Uncover Last Secrets
The first time you apply pressure to your protag's situation, it's to deliver some new information that changes their context. Now, it's time to reveal a bigger secret, something that changes the game completely and allows your protag a renewed understanding of what is needed to accomplish their goals and defeat the antagonist or antagonistic force.
And finally, after the protag has been shaken to their core, presented with a variety of obstacles, both internal and external, and all secrets are revealed, it's time for them to step up and take the lead. To do this, your protag will demonstrate that they've overcome those pesky inner demons and understand the story's theme, such that they are empowered to make a decision for the better. Here, your protag earns the title of "hero."
Already finished your draft manuscript and want to apply storytelling basics during your self-edit? Check out this article from my colleague, Kristin Noland: Reverse Outlining isn't Sexy, but It Works.
Have something burning to say about story structure or storytelling? Add to the conversation and help your fellow writers by leaving a comment below.
Happy editing and writing!