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Will Storr on How to Tell a Great Story in 5 Steps

Posted on 28th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

From arthouse movies to page-turning blockbuster novels, stories are the lifeblood of culture and entertainment, and storytelling a complex, important art. Here Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling, provides five key steps to crafting a story from beginning to end.

Everyone can tell a great story. You’re telling one right now. As storytelling animals, humans experience their very existence as an unfolding sequence of dramatic events. Using a series of dazzling tricks, many of which are still not fully understood by scientists, our brains make us feel like the heroes of the story of our lives. In the words of the brilliant neuroscientist Professor Chris Frith, they turn us into the ‘invisible actor at the centre of the world’. The human brain, then, is the original and greatest storyteller. When novelists, screenwriters and playwrights do their work, they’re mimicking its processes. By understanding a little about what these processes are, and how we actually experience ourselves and the ordinary dramas of life, we can all become even better storytellers. 

One essential principle of the science of storytelling is this: that great stories should mimic true conscious experience as far as possible. And, in real life, the most interesting dramas that happen to us tend to be of our own making. The goals that we strive for – the hopes and dreams that become the plots of our lives – are products of who we are as unique individuals. The same is often true for the obstacles we encounter. If we make the same mistakes, again and again, it’s because we’re flawed in particular, idiosyncratic ways.

The stories that we live out day to day, then, are largely a product of who are. This is how great storytellers think of ‘plot’ and ‘character’. They’re not separate things, but indivisible. The best plots emerge not from a checklist or a recipe, but from unique and finely imagined characters. Here’s my quick five-point plan for creating your own story in which plot and character work together. 

STEP ONE: SOMETHING HAPPENS

For you to have a story, something has to happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit of gossip in a tabloid or Anna Karenina, a story is always an account of change. But change alone is not enough. ‘Some paint dried’ is a thing that happened, but it’s hardly a story.

STEP TWO: WHO DOES IT HAPPEN TO?

To become something story-like we need the presence of a person to whom our event is happening. ‘Graham watched some paint dry and reflected upon his life’ might not sound like the stuff of the next JJ Abrams blockbuster, but it does have the minimum requirements for a literary short story. Immediately we can start to picture Graham. It feels as if he’s had a rather sad an uneventful life. He’s middle aged, in a ratty green jumper. The scene suggests Graham is experiencing a moment of change. That drying paint is him, dull and predictable, simply going through its motions from wet to set. Perhaps this realisation, that the paint is him, will trigger Graham to somehow become someone else.

I hope he does. But with the simple addition of Graham something magic has happened.  We have the base elements of a story.

STEP THREE: HOW DO THE EVENT AND THE CHARACTER CONNECT?

Great stories happen when there’s this kind of perfect connection between the dramatic events of a story and the person to whom the events are happening. In less successful stories, dazzling things happen to characters who are rather cut-out-and-keep – beautiful protagonists who do all the right things and yet feel vague and forgettable. Compelling characters often have a flaw that the drama has been specifically designed to examine – just like our sad sack Graham and the sudden moment of maudlin insight he has with the drying paint. In the bestselling novel Jaws, and the iconic film that was based on it, the arrival of the killer Great White happened to not just anyone, but to a police officer responsible for a beachside community who had a deep childhood dread of water. The action happened to just right the person.

STEP FOUR: HOW DOES THE EVENT CHANGE THE CHARACTER?

Literary stories and arthouse films often simply show us characters whose flaws are teased out and tested by dramatic events. They’re investigations into the human condition and ask, who are these people and why do they behave like this? Commercial storytelling – bestsellers and blockbusters – are far more likely to take their characters on a complete journey of change. In the page-turner version of our tale, Graham will be dull and predictable on page one, but by page 351 he’ll have found the life of risk and carefreeness he’s always dreamed of.

STEP FIVE: HOW DOES YOUR STORY END?

No matter what kind of story you’re telling, if you’re going to have a satisfying ending, it’s a good idea to let the reader know how your character has finally been changed by the drama. Hollywood movies often end not with the mayhem and explosions of the denouement but with a scene which shows that the protagonist has been transformed. Just before the credits roll in Jaws, we see the police chief Brody happily paddling back to shore, remarking that his aqua-phobia has been cured.

In literary storytelling, we’re more likely to be left with the understanding that our protagonist has at least learned something about themselves, even if they haven’t completely changed. If these kinds of endings are more like real life, it’s because their authors understand something about human brains: that they’re often stubborn, always flawed and usually pretty hard to fix. When characters, in life and in fiction, truly manage to improve who they are, they’ve truly earned the title ‘hero’.  

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