Basic elements of a good story


Any listener, reader or audience is thinking at the beginning of any story, “Please make me care.” As a storyteller you need a strong foundation for the story to evolve and that comes with compelling characters. You have to craft unique, well rounded characters with specific goals and strong motivations. The main character will be your protagonist. And then throw this character against strong opposition, obstacles, and/or into conflicts, that may come in the form of another character, a villain or situations. This framework makes the foundation for great drama through a plot. So basically, we will have the who, the what, the why, and the why not.

Character (The who)

In developing the character you answer the question – who is the story about? You need to create compelling characters that will drive the story forward. Remember that your audience is supposed to empathize with your main character from the moment he/she enters the story. From the beginning, this protagonist should draw the audience in without wasting time. The audience should want to become involved in the character’s struggle to achieve a specific goal, while understanding why that character is motivated to achieve that goal. If plotted right, all the obstacles and conflicts confronting the character should worry the audience.

Goal (The what)

A goal is the desired result, a purpose, or an objective that your character wants to achieve. It is the destination to which the story is headed and the audience wants to see the character overcome all the obstacles and get there. They would want to live vicariously through the character in your story, feeling all ups and downs, feeling every conflict, and get the satisfaction of accomplishment when the character finally reaches the goal. The best goals should be important and have a sense of urgency. It should be important enough for the character to act against his or her own best interest and to endure hardship if necessary. A sense if urgency hooks the audience into the story. Urgency need not be a time constraint. It could simply be something that needs immediate attention.

Multi-layered characters have both internal and external goals. The large central goal of a character is often accompanied by a series of smaller goals which drives the action in the story. Character goals may change over the course of the story. In other words, goals should feel as crucial and add tension to the story and it will push the plot forward. Every decision or action the character takes towards the goal will create the plot for the story

Motivation (The why)

Motivation is what drives the character to his/her goal. It is why your character wants to get to the goal. It is reasoning for why your character wants something. The character might land into impossible situations by making choices driven by their motivations. But since the audience understands the motivations they will empathize with the character. Motivations can never be too strong. The motivations, like the goal should be appropriate for the character and his/her background. Internal motivation will create emotions within the character. Do not confuse coincidence with motivation. Sometimes multiple motivations work together to keep your character on task. As one motivation weakens another one might strengthen.

Conflict (The why not)

Conflict is the obstacle or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his/her goal. It could be a struggle against someone or something; it could be bad things happening to good people; it could be bad things happening to bad people; it could be friction, tension, opposition. Conflict causes disruption and the audience wants to anticipate that disruption, causing them to hang on till they know what happens. Always clearly define the conflict. Characters may have multiple conflicts like goals and motivations. Conflicts test the character and the result is growth. Internal conflict is emotional conflict that usually adds subtext and extra meaning to the external conflict. Conflicts typically produce a winner and a loser, unless there is compromise reached.

Conflict needs constant attention. A strong, well developed character heightens the conflict to serve as the focal point. The climax of a story is frequently referred to as the “big black moment” or crisis. How your character resolves the conflict should have the biggest emotional impact (on your audience). Make sure that your character grows from the experience. The outer conflicts usually reveals or causes the big black moment, but it is the character’s internal goals, motivations and conflicts which will resolve the big black moments. Reveal the crisis and make the character choose.

Each character in your story is in his or her own journey, dealing with external plot concerns and emotional issues. Make it a rich and emotionally moving experience for the audience.

Plot (The sequence of events)

Plot is a sequence of events that shows the actions that leads to the protagonist’s change or explain why a change is not impossible. Each of these events is causally connected to each other and is essential. Each event or action is proportional in its length and pacing. The amount of plotting seems to come naturally from the protagonist rather than being imposed on the characters by the writer of the story. Imposed events in the plot will fall flat and will drain the momentum of the story.

Plot that comes naturally from the protagonist is always appropriate for the character’s desire and ability to plan and act. The sequence of events in the plot has a unity and totality of effect. Plot is something you design, pulling actions and events out of thin air, and then connect them all in some order to form the structure of the story.

Scene (The action)

Fictional stories rely heavily on the scene to move the story forward. A scene happens. It is action. It is a “…unit of conflict, of struggle lived through by the character and the audience,” as defined by Dwight Swain. A scene needs to push your character forward, while dragging the audience along. So the audience must also experience the conflict, which means you have to bring the scene to life. A scene must accomplish one of the following: 1) Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes the character’s goal. 2) Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces. 3) Provide a character with an experience that strengthens or changes his/her motivations. Have three reasons for every scene, one of which should the goal, motivation or conflict.

With these basic elements in place you can craft the story. Go back and deepen the goals, motivations and conflicts of the characters. Look for new opportunities to add exquisite storytelling ideas into the plot. Sharpen the scenes to focus on your character’s progress toward the goal. Stories rely heavily also on the goals, motivations and conflicts of the characters. Narrative, exposition, and internal monologue, while it may be necessary sometimes, cannot replace scenes.

A great story keeps on affecting the audience long after the first telling is over. It keeps on telling itself. It forms an emotional connection with the individuals in the audience, who might be moved enough to make an emotional commitment to the cause of the story. They become a changed person. This never ending story happens when special storytelling structures and techniques are embedded into the story. A great story well told, always ends by signaling to the audience to go back to the beginning and experience it again.

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