Learn Core Art of Storytelling in These Simple Steps
Our ability to communicate (as humans) makes us storytellers—regardless of our being writers or not.
We tell stories when we converse with one another. We talk about what happened in class earlier; how the driver almost crashed into the pavement while staring at some voluptuous blonde; how you can’t wait to land a publishing deal with Farafina; and maybe what craze you intend to adopt after your dream trip to Gangnam.
Anyway, you’re telling a story.
But there is a relevant question “How do I begin?”
For this, you may want to try out the Five W’s: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and WHY.
These questions guide your story and build the structure for everything contained in it.
First question: WHO?
1. Who are your characters?
2. Who is your narrator?
Second Question: WHAT?
1. Just what happens in your story?
2. What do you want your readers to know?
3. What effect do you intend to achieve?
4. What feelings do you intend to create in your readers?
From here, I’ll move on quickly since we are pretty familiar with these ideas.
Third question: WHERE?
This question explores the idea of SETTING. You should plan beforehand what major geographical setting you want for your story. Would you prefer a foreign geography or a very familiar one within your country or state?
This is not the only important question in this category. There’s also the question of ‘How important is the setting to the plot? The setting should create an identifiable image, such that the reader is transported (via the imagery) to the scene being described, and have no problem experiencing that new world.
Things Fall Apart, for instance, has a traditional setting, and Chinua Achebe did well enough to relate it to the historical frame of the plot. The setting served an important role in engaging the 21st century reader in a travel back in time to the early 20th century, and making them experience all that would go on to happen.
J R R Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is much unique. The author created a totally unfamiliar world (just like most sci-fi stories do), called Middle world, where various creatures exist, such as Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and the Hobbits.
He ensured the reader was able to relate with the world he created, and tried (successfully) to make that setting affect the experience of the reader as against any other setting in the human world.
The strange world in the Lord of The Rings helped to put the reader in an unusual environment where since they (the readers) aren’t sure of what could happen next, they have to just trust the narrator as he leads them down the journey to the unknown. This is also a way of creating suspense.
Fourth Question: WHEN?
Against the setting, this can raise the question of when the events occured. Present or past?
If it’s the present, you should use the present tense marker. And if it’s the past, you should write in the past tense.
Naturally, the present tense helps to create suspense the more, since even the narrator doesn’t know what happens the next minute. So there’s a sense of immediacy and unawareness prominent in their voice.
Fifth Question: WHY?
This particular question may relate better to the characters. And we may have a range of questions like
1. Why does your character do what they do?
Before making a character do anything significant, ensure you know why they would do that thing.
Here, it’s important to note that you can’t always and totally understand your character. They grow as the story edges to the end. And you keep getting to know them better as you write them. But you should know their motivations. If you make them do anything without having them possess a unique motivation, it may crash back on you later on and make you create an inconsistent character. Readers easily spot these flaws.
2. Why is something happening?
Something leads to something. But there’s a major trigger. Is it the antagonist’s desires? The protagonist’s? Or is it just a natural phenomenon? There about be reason and you should have that planned out (mentally or practically).
NB: While the concept of Five W’s may be typical of plotting/outlining, you (if you are a pantser; that is, you don’t plan thoroughly before you write) may decide to stick only with the questions of narrative techniques, tenses, and characterisation. It would make your writing journey more interesting and give your story more life and fun, since you’re on a totally unfamiliar journey.
I AM NOW READY TO START, BUT THE DAMN SCREEN IS BLANK! WHAT DO I DO FIRST?
● You’re a newbie writer, ready to pen down your first draft.
● You’re a veteran writer ready to scribble yet another idea into life.
Either of these, you’re both facing a blank space. And even if you have your outline ready or not, you still have a blank page/screen before you.
So what do you do?
See yourself as an advertiser, looking to gather attention and, ultimately, satisfaction.
Try to hook your reader.
Give ’em something to trap that curiosity that invited them to your story.
In Randy Ingermanson’s words, “Whenever a reader decides to read a story, they are ‘desperately’ in need of something: a POWERFUL EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE.”
Readers don’t want to read about the protagonist’s experiences; they want to become that character, at least throughout the period it takes to reach the last word. Hence, the importance of “emotion.”
You may want to ask: why does emotions matter so much?
So, know that a typical story either ENTERTAINS or EDUCATES.
If it’s entertainment driven, it’s not necessarily creating a boisterous feeling in you; it can stun you, make you horrified, make you love and lust, keep you on your toes, keep your heart racing, make you travel back in time and into the future.
Via all these, the story is doing it’s best to entertain you by tugging at your emotions.
As you go on, try to frustrate your characters. Make things go the other way for them. They stake a lot of money expecting to win back a fortune so they can settle their daughter’s chemotherapy bill; let them lose terribly. They secure a strong evidence to be used against the culprit; let the court reject it as inadmissible.
Go any length to frustrate them, to make them so wedged in a ring such that your readers keep utilising a lot of emotions just to stick with them and see them through their struggles.
A great story is one that capitalises on the many conflicts to keep reader interest.
Randy Ingermanson maps out a simple yet effective strategy to creating a powerful story.
This strategy revolves round the CHARACTER.
(Note that all we’ve been discussing still boils down to the character figure; virtually nothing happens without the character in view. Take them out and you have an empty shell of a story.)
Now, the formula says:
CONFLICT + CHANGE = STORY
A quick one.
Let’s take, again, Things Fall Apart, for example.
Main Character, Okonkwo, wants a change in his society: he wants to stamp out the white people and their ways. This provokes the conflict that would drive him down a path to frustration, murder, then suicide.
Change is what stems from a character’s motivation.
A character may want to change something about themself.
They may want to change something about their society/world.
They may want to change something about others.
Anyways, they are all trying to change something.
In A Woman in Her Pride, the protagonist strives to change something about her infertility.
In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo sets out to save his world, MiddleEarth.
In The Lord of the Flies, Ralph struggles to escape tyranny.
In The Blood of the Stranger, the Hero strives to defeat the whiteman and deliver his land from corruption.
In Davinci Code, the Protagonist seeks to crack a mystery and strip himself of the murderer tag.
All of these shows that the characters are bent in changing a situation or the other. But it doesn’t just work out that way.
The moment your character tries to change something, conflict sets in. And this is where it gets interesting.
The change merges with the emerging conflict and creates, gradually, an immersive experience for the reader, and ultimately, a great story.
Hence, this change determines to a great extent, how great your story will be. If the change the characters seek poses conflicts after conflicts, the readers get more engaged and more eager to follow to the end.