Storytelling Basics

The fundamentals of storytelling including plot, people and places.

In this lecture, I discuss storytelling basics. So, what are the basics of storytelling? Well, you only have a few basic building blocks with which to work. The first of these building blocks is the plot or what happens. The second is the people or those to whom the plot happens. The final building block is the place, or where the people carry out what happens. Finally, your chosen mix of these elements, or your recipe, must be constrained by the need to conform to genre expectations. Let's see how this all fits together by looking first at the plot.

So what is the plot? The plot defines the events that make up the story. You can divide the plot into three significant sections. There's an introduction, a prologue or the beginning of the story, which introduces the setting and the characters. A section containing conflict usually follows. This conflict builds until it finally comes to a dramatic climax. In the good old days, Disney resolved most conflicts for the better. In the current days of George R. R. Martin, the outcome isn't always guaranteed to be rosy.

Let's look at the next building block: character. What is character? Characters tell the story of the emotional journey. Characters should grow during the story. There's nothing worse than a character that doesn't learn from their mistake. During the story, characters can become stagnant. They'd become cliché, especially during a series. Your characters need to feel natural to the reader by facing familiar dilemmas and doing what the reader would do. Relationships, history, patterns of speech all serve to build your characters. Ambition, personal flaws and envy affect us all to different degrees and define our characters.

Now, what's this third element called place. Place is the environment, both physical and emotional, in which the story takes place. It's the time of the year in which you set your story. When it comes to place, the more research you do the more realism you're going to be able to put in your story. The more realism you include the more you're going to draw the people into your place. The best way to describe place is to work it into the plot and establish it as part of your story rather than having long sections of expletive. See if you can develop place along with the character and the plot since all three of these need to move hand in hand.

Figure 1. Genre Expectation Venn Diagram

A venn diagram showing genre expecations.

Now, I warned you earlier the use of these building blocks would be constrained by genre. So, we have the great genre Ven diagram. Don't snicker, it took me a lot of time to put this together. Up at the top of the diagram we have plot, to the left we have people and on the right we have place. In plot is the thriller. If you're writing a thriller. you'd better have a killer plot, because that's going to be the essential element in what you're writing. Character is more of a romance story element. Place is very much science fiction. What you're aiming for, I think, is the sweet spot, the area in the middle where you deftly blend plot, character and place.