Mix these three ingredients to produce a chemical reaction in your stories.
My definition of storytelling is loose: the recounting of events in which a central character travels through time and space.
Intentionally broad, somewhat boring, but definitely a solid truth to any story that gets told.
I find other definitions of storytelling are cop outs for the most part, defining storytelling as “the telling of stories.” Or that it’s just something that we’ve evolved with. Eye roll. So what is meant by a “story?” It’s usually defined by a collection of elements including but not limited to: characters, plot, narrative arc, theme, point of view, conflict, the list goes on.
To me, defining a story in this way muddles different planes and perspectives on a story. What elements truly exist in the story? What decisions does the storyteller make? How does the audience interpret the story?
For example, the storyteller creates the character and the environment they’re in; that’s what they’re in charge of and have control over. But a well written character becomes real. They have values and influences in their (make believe) life that drives them to take action in their environment. This just naturally creates the narrative arc of a story. To me, a narrative arc is an outcome of a combination of character, space, and time.
Ingredients of a Story
We’re not going to get into Einstein’s theories so done @ me. For the sake of storytelling, time is constantly moving forward. In every story, time is a factor. We’re getting closer to the inevitable event the main character attempting to influence. We’re watching two characters come closer together as they get to know each other. We’re reading about friends who lose touch as they grow up. Everything else may be static but the constant progress of time means there will be change.
A central character, sometimes referred to as the protagonist. The experience of this character is what generates the majority of the information passed from storyteller to audience; the values they have, the way they interpret their environment, how they handle obstacles. We experience the story from one or many perspectives but it always includes the main character’s perspective.
The setting or environment, whether it’s a single place or multiple. Think about Emma Donaghue’s novel Room, taking place in a single room. Or Forrest Gump from 1994 where the viewer is transported through the main character’s life, a new space in almost every scene. Not to mention quite significant movement through time too.
You can’t have a story without time moving forward, or a central character, or a lack of environment. Two of these elements may remain stagnant as the other changes; that still makes for a great story.
Using pop culture references, here are some examples of how these elements combine:
The Heart Grows Fonder
Same place, same characters. Only time moves forward.
Time is the main agent of change. This is where you find your coming-of-age stories where the belief systems of the main characters clash with each other and the environment around them.
Shawshank Redemption, Lion King, Good Will Hunting, Rear Window, The Breakfast Club, Truman Show.
The Hero and Protector
Time moving forward. New characters. Same place.
The drama in these stories is based on new characters unexpectedly entering a seemingly “safe” environment. Hans Gruber crashes a christmas party. Norman Bates’ alter ego as his mother is an unexpected revelation.
Parasite, Die Hard, Psycho
Time moving forward. Same characters. New places.
These are the stories where you’re most likely to fall in love with the characters. You care about them because you’re watching the same character navigate new places, overcome challenges and achieve their goal.
Thelma and Louise, Up, Almost Famous, Saving Private Ryan, When Harry Met Sally, Back to the Future, 1917.
Time moving forward. New characters, New places: Toy Story, Indiana Jones series, Star Wars series,
Your adventure stories where everything is changing. New characters enter the fray and create obstacles, new places offer unforeseen challenges, and the element of time almost always factors in. These are the stories you get sucked into and forget yourself for hours on end.
The Change Up
New characters. New places. Playing with time.
My personal favourites. These stories present themselves as a more traditional structure however they manipulate the one thing we, as the audience, expect to be constant: time. The story presents pieces of information in a very specific sequence so as to create a new type of drama we weren’t expecting. I love this combination because it forces the audience to re-evaluate their assumptions they were making throughout the story. While the aha moment only happens once, you can experience these stories 100 times and still say “I can’t believe I missed that.”
Memento, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Groundhog Day
A story is an outcome of the interaction between your character, their environment, and time. Inevitably, the storyteller makes a decision about what they want their story to highlight. Maybe it’s a specific event, or they want the audience to walk away with a specific feeling.
Either way, it’s just about combining the constant of time along with characters and environment. Only through this chemical reaction do we get the outcome: a narrative arc and a theme.
Next time you’re thinking about constructing a story, fictional or non-fictional, think about how time, character and setting interact. Your narrative and theme will follow naturally as you create deeper characters and more imaginative settings. When your characters have to make decisions based on the environment they’re in, the audience exercises empathy, putting themselves in the shoes of the character they’re watching or reading about, and immediately adopting your perspective as the storyteller.