Elements of Storytelling: Fundamentals

Picture by Tristan Schmurr (cropped)

Picture by Tristan Schmurr (cropped)

Why do we tell stories? All humans seem to tell stories throughout their lives. Gossiping, reporting and structured storytelling all appear to address the same needs and impulses. From the campfire tales, to paintings, writing, theatre, music and films, we tell stories. Are we doing so to better understand each other? Or do we tell stories to rationalise our feelings? Media corporations invest vast amounts of time, energy and resources to entertain and convince us. When we share a story, do we seek affirmation? Are we trying to heal ourselves? Do we search the immortality of our ideas? We cannot deny that stories are everywhere and they are an essential component of our social fabric.

Let us have a look at the short animation below, the Heider and Simmel Movie. Watch it and describe (to yourself) what you have seen.

I could argue that all you have seen in the video above is a bunch of shapes and lines moving on  a screen. You would probably argue that there was a clear story unfolding under your eyes. We see stories even when they are not there. We must be wired to interpret our world through stories. We break them down in the main components. (click for more)

These main components, a premise, a setting, characters, plot, action and conflict, backstory and details, seem to be present across mediums in many if not all forms of storytelling.

The central premise is the purpose of the story. Robert McKee would define it as “the daydreamy hypothetical that floats through the mind, opening the door to the imagination where everything and anything is possible”. Why are you telling the story? What is it all about? Can you summarise the premise of your story in one sentence?

The setting can setup expectations. Did it all happen “once upon a time”? Or maybe it is set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.” We would not expect similar stories if one was set in a romantic restaurant and the other in an abandoned factory. The setting provides part of the context. It is the “when and where” that will shape and frame the story. Can you summarise your setting in a sentence or less?

The characters are the social and human link to the stories. They are the force that drives them. They are also the force that creates obstacles in our quests. They sometime guide us, support us or tempt us. Their interactions contain the ‘social information’ we seem to crave. The same types, or archetypes, of characters seem to manifest themselves in our stories over and over again. Some would say that they are representatives of our ego, our soul or our self. Can you briefly give your characters names, functions and goals?

The plot is the way in which we present our story to the audience. At its simplest, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. In most cases we will setup expectations. We will then build up through action and conflict.  Finally, we will pay off the patience of our audience usually seeking to underline the premise. Can you summarise your plot in one to three sentences?

Without action there cannot be a reaction, and therefore there cannot be a conflict. If you pay close attention to all form of storytelling, from gossip to film, conflicts are key elements of our stories. They can be conflict of humans against humans , of humans against nature or of humans against  themselves. Throughout stories we have battled society, God and the machine. At times, we were simply caught in the middle of another conflict, but the conflict was always part of our stories. Can you identify the conflict of your story in one sentence?

The backstory supports and informs the story. It pulls the audience closer to the justifications for the actions and conflicts within the story. The backstory provides the context and perspective required to steer the understanding of the audience closer to the character. What happened to your characters before the beginning of the plot? Can you summarise the most important aspect of your backstory in a sentence?

Last comes details, and when summarising it should always be kept last. If you have been able to answer effectively to all the questions above… Well done! You are probably ready to pitch/tell your story. Beware of the details when attempting to convince someone that your story is worth being told. Detail is a very important part of the fabric of the story. It gives it depth and life, when used in the right doses at the right moments. When summarising or pitching, details are best kept to a minimum. But, the question is: should you try to sell your story, or should you find a way to ‘tell’ it?

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