What are the components & elements of good storytelling?
Don't let your amazing tale be thwarted by bad storytelling
We at Prezly love a good story. It's kind of our whole thing. In fact, most of our meetings begin with one (or all) of us regaling a silly, serious, or otherwise entertaining story about our lives. The middles of our meetings also include many stories, and sometimes we wrap up a meeting with a cheeky story. As you can see, productive meetings may not be our thing, but storytelling? Yeah, that's our wheelhouse for sure.
One of the unintended side-effects of being in the storytelling software business is that we see a lot of really lovely tales told in really interesting and unique ways by brands, creatives, agencies, artists, bloggers, and the like. But storytelling can be a tricky business, especially in the attention economy where it feels like you're competing with 7billion other stories all at once.
So, what differentiates a meh story from an amazing story?
When it comes to the art of storytelling, it's easy to overthink it. Some people say that a story needs X number of characters or Y plot elements to be a bona fide story. But those people are wrong.
A story is literally a telling of events. Don't believe me? Let's ask my best friend, Oxford:
So, to make a story, you just need to tell how something happened. It is as specific and as vague as that. But telling a good story? Yeah, that takes a little more effort.
So, what do you need to make a good story? These are the key elements, absolute essentials, to quality storytelling. In no particular order.
Without tension, your story is just… a pile of facts. While compared to a regular pile, a fact pile is relatively interesting, facts do not an intriguing story make. Tension adds flavor and structure to a tale.
At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core every story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails ultimately in her quest to do so), the story is over. If readers don’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.
As storytellers we have to make all of that clear: desire, struggle, consequences, discovery.
In real life we avoid crisis events.
In fiction we seek them out.
In business storytelling, tension is the problem you want to solve with your goods and/or services. If the protagonist represents the audience in your marketing story, then the tension is the problem that needs solving in order for that audience to get what they want (wealth, power, riches, love!), and the resolution is them getting your product and living happily ever after and then telling all their friends about said product on TikTok.
To make an engaging story, you need a character or characters that people care about. Your audience can only invest in a story as much as they can invest in the characters. You could have the most interesting plot in the world, but if the protagonist is a dull wet blanket, or the rag-tag group of heroes are weird and boring, nobody will care about your story.
So, ensure your character is fully developed, and their desires are clearcut. Even if your character isn't particularly likable, you can still make a really great story (think A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis). An audience doesn't have to like the protagonist to want to know what happens to them. They just have to care.
Many stories take place in the same world that we're sitting in right now, so the world-building is effectively done before the first word is even uttered. We're all playing by the same physical and scientific rules: the sky is blue, and the grass is green.
But there's nothing more disorienting (and dare I say, annoying) than finding out halfway through the story that it is actually set in a parallel universe with no gravity or pineapples. These are things the audience needs to know upfront so they can mentally prepare themselves for the lack of pineapples, otherwise they will feel cheated. Give your audience everything they need to feel oriented to your world.
Narrative is how you tell a story. You can choose the type of narrative you'd like to use, but then you pretty much have to stick with it during the course of your story. Few storytellers can get away with switching out the medium from paperback novel to video game halfway through. In the same way, changing from first-person narrative to third-person narrative is technically possible, but annoying as all hell and largely inadvisable.
Indie author Stephen King shares his thoughts on the importance of narrative over plot:
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).
A plot may naturally develop over the course of a story, but a good narrative device is crucial to telling a great story.
Have you ever been at a party or gathering and telling a group of people what you thought was an interesting, hilarious story, but through the course of the tale you start to recognize that their eyes are all glazing over, they're checking watches they aren't even wearing, and the whole thing starts petering out into horrific awkwardness? No, just me?
Often this happens because your story lacks focus. Sure, it may sound interesting in your head, but you're not explaining it in a way that hooks other people. There's no escalating tension, no drama, nothing to keep people locked into what you're saying.
A phenomenon happens when you step in front of a group of listeners, something few speakers recognize and use to their advantage. When you step up, you have the undivided attention of your audience … for a few seconds. This is because you are the most active thing in the room.
Let me emphasize this. You have their full attention for a few seconds, and no more. In that length of time, the audience will subconsciously make a snap judgment about how pleased they are that you are standing in front of them. If you don’t seize this moment, their minds will conclude they have more important things to think about.
Oh, you can regain their attention, but it is not easy. It is far better to seize it while it is being offered and not let it go. In those beginning seconds, know exactly what you are going to say … and say it.
Another common storytelling mistake is burying the interesting part within a bunch of facts.
Take these two examples:
I was walking to the store. I needed to pick up a few items, like milk, cheese, butter, and my lactose intolerance prescription. After a few blocks, I saw a car. The car seemed like it was packed, but only after it drove for another block, maybe block-and-a-half, did it stop and 14 or 15 clowns got out of the car. The clowns were dripping wet as if they had all fallen into a lake and immediately gotten into the car.
I just saw the weirdest thing. I was walking to the store, and a car screeched to a halt right in front of me and out poured wet clowns. A ton of sopping clowns. Like, the wettest clowns you've ever seen in your life. There were over a dozen of them and they all started running and then I started running in the opposite direction because if life has taught me anything, it's not to trust a bunch of wet, running clowns.
Which is a better story hook? They're both objectively interesting because some completely bonkers stuff happened, but if you include too many details and you don't get to the action fast enough, your audience will think it's a lame, plodding story and not a cool clown story.
The most famous authors in the world have a team of editors to ensure they didn't miss a punctuation rule or two. And this is because often good storytellers are not necessarily good grammar people. One is an art, one is a science, and many of us are neither exceptionally artistic nor scientistic without a bit of help.
There's no shame in asking a friend or colleague to once-over your prose before putting it out into the world.
Not every story needs to have a purpose. Sometimes stories exist just to entertain and distract and that's okay, because the point of entertaining stories is to entertain. An entertaining story is not an aimless one.
However, when it comes to storytelling with a purpose, as in storytelling for business or telling a brand story, we really have to make sure there is a point to what we're doing. Why are we telling this story? Who cares?
Reframe the idea to relate it to your readers. Why does it matter to them? What's in it for them? Why should they care? What's the clear lesson or message you want them to take away? What value do you offer them? What questions might they have? What advice or help can you provide?
My friend Tim Washer of Cisco refers to this reframing as giving your audience a gift: how can you best serve them, with a mind-set of generosity and giving?
To get to the heart of this reframing, I ask: so what? And then answer, because. Repeat the so what/because query and response string as many times as necessary, until you've exhausted any ability to come up with an answer. Or until you're questioning things best left to the philosophers.
If you want your story to stand out amongst the millions and millions of stories out there, you need to make sure that your story is one worth hearing. How does it enrich the reader? How does it make their life better? If your story is about you or your brand but it is meant to engage strangers, it needs to be clear why they would care.
Often the mark of a bad story is that it just doesn't really matter. It's not that the story is poorly told or that the storyteller lacks the language to tell an interesting story. The problem isn't technical or grammatical. The problem is that life is short, and many stories are boring.
Want to see if Prezly might help you tell your totally not-boring story? Why not try a free, 14-day trial?
Published September 2022