How narrative structure turns a story into an emotional experience with a happy end.
Beemgee is increasingly involved with charities and non-profit organisations, supporting them in their efforts to tell their stories. Storytelling is uniquely suited to the communications of organisations that help people in need or seek to raise awareness for social injustices. This post was originally conceived as an introduction to the principles of storytelling for people working in non-profits. It has been adapted from a post we provided to FundraisingBox (German language).
Image: Comfreak, Pixabay
Storytelling is a bit of an overused buzzword. While we are all – by dint of being human – storytellers, how aware are you of the principles of dramaturgy? What exactly constitutes a story, in comparison to, say, a report or an anecdote?
And just to be clear, the following is not a story. It’s an how-to article.
Whatever the medium – film or text, online or offline –, storytelling has something to do with emotionally engaging an audience, that much seems clear. So is a picture of a cute puppy a story? Hardly.
Stories exist in order to create a difference in their audience. Stories always address problems and tend to convey the benefits of co-operative behaviour.
While there simply is no blueprint to how stories work, let’s examine the elements that recur in stories and try to find some patterns.
Who is the story about?
All stories are about someone. That someone does not have to be a person, it can be an animal (Bambi) or a robot (Wall-e). But a story needs a character. In fact, all stories have more than one character, with virtually no exceptions. This is because the interaction between several characters provides motivation, conflict and action.
Moreover, stories usually have a main character, the figure that the story seems to be principally about – the protagonist. It is not always obvious why one character is the protagonist rather than another. Is she simply the most heroic? Is she the one that develops most? Or does she just have the most scenes?(more…)
Antje Tresp-Welte is the winner of the Your Perfect Plot challenge set by BoD and Beemgee.
In her guest blog post, she gives frank insight into her writing process and her experiences with Beemgee.
Short stories were child’s play
When something intrigues me, I spin a story out of it. Until a few years ago I wrote mostly fairy tales, short stories for adults, poetry and stories for younger children, some of which were published in magazines. My story about a bad-tempered spectacled snake was published as a little book, “Charlotte and the Blue Lurker”. For all these stories I only sketched a few thoughts as planning and then wrote them down relatively quickly.
By now, book projects fascinate me too. Currently they are crime novels and fantasy for children from 8 or 10 years.
Long takes longer …
During a holiday at the North Sea I had the idea for my first crime novel. In it, the protagonist, an eleven-year-old very imaginative boy with a penchant for drawing, not only saves his grandma’s tea room from demolition, but is also involved in a mysterious story about a pirate who died long ago. I developed the original idea into a plot at a seminar for authors. I found the topic so great that I couldn’t wait to start writing it. Beforehand, I made notes on the individual characters and considered important cornerstones of the plot with the help of the hero’s journey. I started off with a great momentum and was soon able to read the first chapters to my son. Unfortunately his comment was, “Mama, that is much too long!”
… not to be longwinded
My two test readers came to a similar conclusion and I too had noticed that it somehow “grated”. I wasn’t really getting to the point. Was it due to my preliminary planning? Was it not detailed enough? I dived into the text, shortened passages, removed individual characters and worked out others more precisely. This changed entire storylines. At the same time my story gained more (narrative) speed and I found the tone for the language. (more…)
The logline is probably the hardest sentence to write.
The logline sums up a story in one sentence. This sentence should be memorable and clear, which means it is unlikely to be much longer than thirty words or to have complex syntax.
Once your reader has read your logline – or your listener heard it –, they will ideally know the following about your story:
- who it is about
- what the central conflict or main problem is
- what the most important characters do in the story
- why they do it, i.e. what their motivations are
- how they do it
- where all this happens, i.e. what the setting is
- when it happens, i.e. what the period is
The first of these points even counts double – since usually the logline should convey not only who the main protagonist is, but also what antagonism she faces.
What’s the logline for?
The purpose of the logline is to pitch your story.(more…)
The protagonist is the main character or hero of the story.
Photo by Jack Moreh on Freerange
But “hero” is a word with adventurous connotations, so we’ll stick to the term protagonist to signify the main character around whom the story is built. Sometimes it is not so easy to know which is your main character.
Generally speaking, the protagonist is the character whom the reader or audience accompanies for the greater part of the narrative. So usually this character is the one with most screen or page time. Often the protagonist is the character who exhibits the most profound change or transformation by the end of the story.
Furthermore, the protagonist – and in particular what the protagonist learns – embodies the story’s theme.
For simplicity’s sake, let us say for the moment that in ensemble pieces with several main characters, each of them is the protagonist of his or her own story, or rather storyline. Since the protagonist is on the whole a pretty important figure in a story, there is a fair bit to say about this archetype, so this post is going to be quite long.
In it we’ll answer some questions:
- Is the protagonist the most interesting character in the story?
- What are the most important aspects of the protagonist for the author to convey?
- What about the transformation or learning curve?
How Interesting Must The Protagonist Be?
Some say the protagonist should be the most interesting character in the story, and the one whose fate you care about most.
But while that is often the case, it does not necessarily have to be true.
Action is character.
So the old storytelling adage. What does that mean, exactly?
In this post, we’ll consider:
- The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
- Actions – what the character does
- Character and Archetype
The central or pivotal action – the midpoint
More or less explicitly, the main character of a story is likely to have some sort of task to complete. The task is generally the verb to the noun of the goal – rescue the princess, steal the diamond. The character thinks that by achieving the goal, he or she will get what they want, which is typically a state free of a problem the character is posed at the beginning of the story.
The action is what, specifically, the character does in order to achieve the goal: rescue the princess, steal the diamond. In many cases, this action takes place in a central scene. Central not only in importance, but central in the sense of being in the middle.
Let’s look at some examples. (more…)
If there is one thing that ALL stories have in common, it is change.
A story, pretty much by definition, describes a change. Indeed, every single scene does.
The most fundamental change that stories tend to describe is one of recognition of truth. What is not known at the beginning of the story is recognised and thus becomes known at the end. This is obvious in crime stories, but holds true for almost all other stories too. The story therefore amounts to an act of learning. Often the learning curve is observable in the protagonist, who tends to be wiser at the end than at the beginning. But the point is really that the recipient, the reader or viewer, is actually the one doing the learning – through experiencing the story.
So within a story, what changes?
At the very least,
- one of the characters, usually the protagonist
- often other characters too
- sometimes the whole story-world
Archetypes in stories express patterns.
While plots may be “archetypal” when they exhibit certain forms, in this post we are concerned with character archetypes.
In modern storytelling, to consider them as archetypes might suggest a bit of a corset, perhaps even a straightjacket for the characters. For today’s author, to present a character as an archetype does not seem conducive to achieving psychological verisimilitude.
But an archetype is not the same as a stereotype. An advisor or mentor does not need to be a wise old man like Obi-Wan Kenobi. And an antagonist does not need to be a baddy.
Consider archetypes as powers within a story. Like planets in a solar system, they have gravity and they therefore exert force as they move.
Archetypes denote certain general roles or functions for characters within the system of the story. There is ample room for variation within each role or function. Boundaries between one archetype and another may be fuzzy. And it is possible for one character to stand for more than one archetype.
Archetypes Through The Ages
More than any other part of a story, the beginning has to grab the audience’ or reader’s attention.
In the beginning, before audience or readers are emotionally involved and concerned about the fates of the characters, the danger of them turning away from the story is greatest.
Now, there’s more to a beginning than the kick-off event. While being an attention grabber, the entire first section of a story also has to establish the following:
- Who the story is about
- What the story is about
- Where the story takes place
That sounds self-evident, but all the elements needed to answer those three points amount to an awful lot of information. And at this stage, the audience or readers are not yet patient or forgiving, because they are not yet emotionally hooked.
In this post we will:
- look at the who/what/where
- determine the two key events that the first section of a story must include
- provide a checklist of all the elements the first part of a story requires
Stories are about people. Even the ones about robots, or rabbits, or whatever.
If you’re thinking about composing a story, you will probably have some characters in mind that will be performing the action of the story. In stories, action and actors (in the sense of someone who does something) are pretty much the same thing looked at from two differing perspectives, as we have noted in our post Plot vs. Character.
The most obvious difference between characters in stories and people in real life is that story characters tend to be driven. Narratives tend to be more compelling when the characters they describe are highly motivated. Rarely in life are our wants, goals, and perceived needs as clear and powerful as for characters in stories. Our real lives tend to drift rather than head in a specific direction; it is often in retrospect that we ascribe direction when we try to understand our lives by putting them into narratives. Historical personages who seem to demonstrate drive and direction (and have perhaps become historical personages because they had these qualities) make for more interesting biographies than people whose motivations were less strong.
Another aspect that sets characters in fiction apart from people in life is that characters tend to fulfil narrative functions in their story. People, on the other hand, live their lives by acting naturally according to the dictates of their personality. A story is a more or less enclosed unity, while an individual’s life is part of a greater whole. Only in retrospect do we sometimes overlay a narrative onto the biography of an individual – because we tend to feel happier when we perceive structure or direction in the lives of others or indeed our own. We can extract more meaning out of a life that can be told with structure and direction. In fact, there is no way of recounting a person’s biography without making choices concerning structure. If we’re honest, even the choice of which events to relate and how to relate them injects a fair amount of fiction into the story of a life, especially when that life is our own as we tell it to others or ourselves.
Many stories focus primarily on one protagonist. In fiction at least, the protagonist is often wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning. The(more…)