Remember these four elements of good storytelling

Pick up any two guides to writing, or check out any number of blogs and you’ll see ‘the X elements of good story telling’. These range from three to twelve or more. And all of them are different. Hum. It’s almost as though storytelling is a subjective art…

I spend a lot of time picking apart my favourite stories. Even during movies, something which makes me very unpopular with friends and family. So I agree, there are common elements among all stories. But does that mean that if we hit all four, seven or twelve, we’re guaranteed a good story? If only it were that simple.

So here are the four elements of good storytelling that I’ve come across and are important to think about in your own work.

  1. Premise: the core dramatic issue at the heart of a story’s promise.
  2. Character: the players in your story.
  3. Conflict: the obstacle or impediment to the resolution.
  4. Resolution: the ending.

You may notice a few things missing from this list, like setting, protagonist, antagonist, dialogue, etc. However, that was completely intentional. Obviously, if you’re writing a 50,000-word novel, you’re going to need a strong protagonist and a setting. But doesn’t mean it’s true across the board in telling a good story. The setting for the famous play ‘Waiting for Godot’ is merely described as ‘A country road. A tree’ and arguably has no antagonist. In modern stories, the line between hero and villain are often blurred, probably best shown in ‘American Psycho’.

If you have any Irish relations in your family, you may well have been treated to a good story or four. Not to make a sweeping generalisation, but the Irish know how to weave a good yarn. Here’s a great one I heard from Conor Montague on the amazing course he ran at the City Lit, “Write a Short Story in a Weekend”.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • premise:  My friend died recently of liver failure and we were all back in Dublin for the wake.
  • character: He was a great bear of a man and everyone always wanted to drink with him. So we were remembering him and telling stories and I told about the time he drank thirty pints at one sitting.
  • conflict: A friend of mine, who was at the wake, went back to Ireland and saw the dead man’s sister and told her what I had said. She’s a great woman, but terrifying and used to scare all the boys and still scares me today.
  • resolution: so my friend told her that I had told everyone he had drunk thirty pints in one sitting and she said, “when you see him again, you tell him from me, it was thirty-six.”

Your story doesn’t have to be sent across the expansive world of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. And it doesn’t need to have villains with twirly moustaches and damsels in distress. Some stories require these things, some don’t, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a story which doesn’t need these four elements.

Do you agree? I argue that setting is not inextricably linked to a good story, but do you disagree? Can you think of any stories which defy these elements? I’d love you hear your comments!

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