Friday, 24 October 2014

Ten essential building stones for a good story

Last night, I was woken up by my cat mewing loudly. Turns out she left a dead mouse on the bathroom floor.

Did I just tell you a story? No. I told you an anecdote. Anecdotes lack the power of true storytelling: to make people care for what the story is about. I will explain how you can turn your anecdotes into successful stories by providing you with a checklist of ten building stones for successful storytelling: six character roles and four plot phases.

Six roles

A story is always about how a main character reaches their aim (or not - after all, not all stories have happy ends). I could tell, for instance, about my poor cat not getting any attention for an entire day and then decides to take matters into her own paws. Now there’s a main character, my cat, with an aim: to get her owner’s attention. I cannot stress enough how important a clear aim is. Without it, the audience won’t care for the main character and their story.

To make your story really enticing, you need to add four more roles besides the main character and their aim. Friction makes your story exciting, so we need some opponents – and some helpers, of course. And then, we need a reason: who tells the main character that the aim is desirable? This person we call the manipulator. And, finally, there is someone who benefits from achieving the aim: the beneficiary. In a classic fairy tale, for instance, the prince (main character) may be told by the king (the manipulator) that he has to get the magic sword (the aim). The sword is guarded by a dragon (opponent), but luckily there are dwarfs who will help beat the dragon (helpers). The prince takes possession of the sword and hands it over to the king (beneficiary).

As we can see already in this simple example, you don’t need as many characters as there are roles: the king is both manipulator and beneficiary. In a really interesting story, one character could be both helper and opponent! We could even think of stories in which all roles are occupied by one single person: stories about psychological struggles – e.g. overcoming a depression – often take this form. The same person is his or her own manipulator, helper, opponent (a person at war with themselves - this makes for good storytelling!), beneficiary. In a story where the main character strives to get to know themselves better, a person can even be their own aim! In any case, it always helps if you draw a map in which you fill in which role is fulfilled by which character while you're working on your story (see the picture above). This makes it clear where your story’s friction can be found, where the drama is, and what or who motivates your main character.

Four phases

One of the defining elements of a story is that is has a plot. A story is about a main character and how they achieve – or don’t achieve – their aim and the plot of the story explains how this happened by making four things clear: (1) why did the main character want to achieve his or her aim? (2) how has he or she gathered the means to achieve this aim? (3) in which way is the aim achieved – or not? and (4) what are the consequences of this all?

These are the four phases every story must have, which are called (1) Desire; (2) Ability; (3) Action; and (4) Evaluation. During Desire, the manipulator tells the main character what he or she must do. Think of the classic James Bond movies, where M tells 007 what his assignment is. During Ability, the main character gathers any tool, trick or personal strength necessary to achieve the aim. Again, in James Bond this is where Q provides the spy with his gadgets. Then there is Action: the main character achieves his or her aim – or not. James Bond defeats te bad guys. It is during Ability and Action that helpers and opponents play their role in the story. Finally, during Evaluation, the benefiter receives the results of the action and rewards – or punishes – the main character: James Bond retrieves the stolen plans and hands them over to M – once again he has saved the free world.  

A narrative is not complete if the plot doesn’t contain each of these four phases. Sometimes they’re very short: Bond’s visit to Q does not take a lot of time, so the Ability phase is only a few minutes. Sometimes they’re very long: in a story about someone’s depression, it’s all about the Ability phase: just getting out of bed may take several days! And, of course, even though Desire always precedes Ability, which comes before Action and every story finishes with Evaluation, you don’t have to tell them chronologically. You may start in the Action or Ability phase, or even with the Evaluation – but at the end of your storytelling, each phase must be clear to the reader.

So now we have a simple check list you can use to see if your story contains the ten necessary building stones needed for successful storytelling: is there a main character, an aim, a manipulator, a beneficiary, helpers and opponents? Does the plot contain Desire, Ability, Action and Evaluation? If you can answer all these questions with yes,  you can truly say you are storytelling, and not just spreading anecdotes!

This is the second post in a series of seven articles about storytelling.

Read the other articles here: 
1. The Four Elements of Successful Storytelling 
2. Ten Essential Building Stones for a Good Story
3. Telling Your Story With the Right Voice 
4. Guide Your Audience! 
5. Telling Your Story With the Right Point of View
6. Why Your Story Needs a Moral Dilemma    
7. The Fifth Element of Storytelling