What are the elements that make a story great? Recently, I sat down and decided to write the core elements that I feel make a story great, and I came up with seven.
Writing a great story naturally involves great writing. This is why I put this as the very first element. If you’re thinking about having a career in writing, your writing must be good – a base level of proficiency should consist of:
- Proper spelling and grammar
- Expansive vocabulary
- Appropriate word choice
- Logical coherence
The good news is that almost anyone can reach this level with practice, which is actually encouraging. Unlike other disciplines such as singing or playing in the NBA, writing well has less to do with natural talent or physical attributes, it’s just a matter of putting in the effort. Stephen King wrote in his book ‘On Writing’, “the first million words are practice,” and I believe this to be more or less true. If you put in the work and show up every day, your writing will eventually improve.
Your idea or story has to be somewhat original and interesting. I say ‘somewhat original’ because it’s very difficult to come up with a completely original and interesting idea. Most great storytellers borrow ideas from others. It’s okay to be inspired by others and borrow ideas – I borrow ideas all the time, but I make reference of them to give credit where it’s due. In my Prodigy book, I use themes from Plato’s Republic, but I make sure to reference them to let the reader know that I’m not trying to steal Plato’s ideas and pass them off as my own. Instead, I’m paying homage to something that inspired me.
To improve originality, it’s important to be well-rounded in terms of your interests and your scope of knowledge. So try to be very broad with your understanding of things, especially areas where you have relatively no knowledge, whether it’s science, religion, cultures, economics, history, geography… It’s also helpful to be:
- World travelled
- Read books
- Hang out with different types of people
- Listen to podcasts
- Watch documentaries
- Challenge your opinions and assumptions – be critical and objective about your thoughts
- Be observant about the world
- Develop a new hobby such as archery, yoga, ballet, rock climbing…
Over time, you will uncover things, learn new truths, and develop original thinking in areas where you would otherwise not have gone down if you just stayed in this narrow lane of topics that interest you.
Your characters have to be well-defined and relatable. Part of having well-defined characters means they should each have their own distinct voice and unique set of characteristics that separate them from other characters in your story. Here are some things to consider:
- Your characters shouldn’t all sound alike
- Each character should have their own point of view
- Your reader should be able to tell who’s talking without you telling them
- Your characters should generally behave in a consistent manner
One method I use, and a lot of other writers use, is character profiles. These are simply one or two page summaries of each of your main characters. Start by selecting an image of what your character looks like (you can draw it if you like or find an image online). Next, write down the answers to the following questions:
- What are their beliefs or values?
- What is their background?
- What motivates them?
- What are their goals?
- What are their interests or hobbies?
- What are their opinions?
You can then have a few quotables, something like, “I’m working part-time and going to school to become a doctor,” “My girlfriend is a painter,” “I really don’t like how lazy I am, I want to change.” This will help cement the idea of their true nature in your head.
When you take the time to write character profiles, you can put your characters in any situation and have very good understanding of what they would do and how they would behave in that situation.
The pacing of your story has to be such that the reader does not get bored easily. Make them want to keep reading. I often use the metaphor of a monkey swinging from vine to vine – when it swings from one vine, and that vine has reached its maximum extension, there should be another vine within reach, ready to be grabbed and allow the monkey to carry its momentum forward.
So if you have a really lengthy and verbose opening that describes the house the person grew up in, the colour of the carpet, their lovely neighbours… and you go on and on and on about minutia, then it’s going to be boring for many readers – it’d be like starting a race with your feet in mud. Why have your readers slog through mud at all. They should be able to take off with your story and maintain that momentum (or have the momentum increase) until the very last page.
If you want your book to hit with a lot of people, you need to hook them in immediately and maintain a steady pace. This may not come easy to you in the first draft, but it can be done in the editing process. For instance, maybe in the revision you decide that the first three chapters can be combined into one chapter, or better yet, one paragraph. This gets the story started as deep into the story as possible.
5. Story Arc
The story arc must be suspenseful. By nature, human beings are really attracted to suspense. In most stories, the hero always wins, and yet despite knowing this, we still love watching movies and reading books. That’s because it’s not necessarily the payoff at the end that we live for, even though that is satisfying. What we truly crave is the uncertainly of the drama.
In his book called, ‘The Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama’, David Mamet talks about this hypothetically perfect ball game in which he does a very good job of describing the kind of natural tension that we love.
He says, “The perfect ball game – what do we wish for in the perfect ball game? Do we wish for our team to take the field in thrash the opposition from the first moment to the final gun? No, we wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen retroactively to always tend toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion. We wish, in effect, for a three act structure.
“In act one, our team takes the field and indeed prevails over its opponents, and we, its participants feel pride. But before the pride can mature into arrogance, this new thing occurs – our team makes an error. The other side is inspired and pushes forward with previously unsuspected strength and imagination. Our team weakens and retreats.
“In act two of this perfect game, our team is shaken and confused. They forget the rudiments of cohesion and strategy and address that made them strong. They fall deeper and deeper into a slew of despond. All contrary efforts seem naught and just when we think that the tide may have turned back the other way, a penalty or adverse decision is rendered, nullifying their gains. What could be worse?
“But wait. Just when all else seems irredeemably lost, help comes, which is act three. A player, previously believe to be second rate, emerges with a block, a throw, a run, and offers a glimmer of that possibility of victory. Yes, only a glimmer. But it is sufficient to rouse the team to something approaching its best efforts and the team indeed rallies. Our team brings the score back even and makes the play that would put them ahead, only to have it called back yet again by fate, or by its lieutenant, a wrong-headed, ignorant or malicious official.
“But see, the lessons of the second act were not lost on our team. People might say that it’s too late or the clock is too far run down, our heroes are too tired… yet they rouse themselves for one last effort, one last try, and do they prevail? Do they triumph with scant seconds left on the clock? Oh, they do. They all but prevail. As the final seconds of the play, the outcome rests on the lone warrior – that hero, that champion, that person upon whom in the final moment all our hopes devolve. That final play, run, pass, penalty kick. But wait. That hero that would have been chosen for the task, that champion is injured. No one is left on the bench…”
There is the perfect game as described by David Mamet. It’s very interesting and obviously points to these kinds of ebbs and flows, this tide, this yin this yang, this push pull tension where they’re up, they’re down, they’re up again, they’re down again. And just when it appears there is no hope, somehow by all odds stacked against them, they come back and become triumphant in the most unsuspecting way in the final seconds of the game. So if you can, your story could follow a similar arc as well.
Your story must have a satisfying ending, which is indeed difficult. When I write, a lot of times I don’t know how the story will end. I may have an idea, but I usually discover it when I get there. I just wing it and hope for the best. It’s difficult to have a satisfying, original, and unpredictable ending that pays off for the reader. If you build up the story adequately, the ending must deliver so that the previous efforts are not lost. You want your reader to finish the book with a smile, unable to contain their joy – they can’t wait to tell their friends, read the sequel, learn everything they can about you… A good ending can also save, or make up for a lackluster climax. An average story with an amazing twist ending can bolster the story in ways that no other part of the book can.
7. *Bonus* — Timing
If you incorporate the first six elements of storytelling into your book, you may come close to creating a masterpiece. However, I think one bonus element could be included in the list that may elevate a great book to a nearly perfect book – and that is well-timed comedy or drama in appropriate places. By this I mean, if you’re writing a really dramatic scene with lots of tension, a great way to keep the reader engaged is to inject some comedic relief (or if your book is funny, inject some drama in certain places). Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is an excellent example of this. And if done well, it could really take your book to the next level.
So there they are, the 7 elements of great storytelling. If you have any other insights or feel I missed some, please let me know in the comments below.