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A Guide to Storytelling

Alex M Jan 11, 2022 Scroll to read in 10 minutes
Storytelling blog web pic 2

When my son was born, I decided that I would revisit my first creative role as a children's illustrator and make books for him. Getting back into drawing was easy enough; the muscle memory was still there. Storytelling, however, is a struggle. How do I articulate my ideas in words? Who am I creating so that my son can connect and absorbs the messages I'm trying to convey to him. I resolved to follow my true and tested method and go completely over the top, researching and reading every book on storytelling methods that I could get my hand on.

Ahead of you is my attempt to condense what I've learned into small, easily digested scraps so you can get cracking your own story.

It turns out our brains are made to enjoy stories. Have you ever wondered if what you experience as real is, in fact, just a powerful simulation? You may be surprised to learn that it's not just a conspiracy – it's true.

Objective reality is impossible for us to see. The reality we experience is just a story that our brain tells us. You'll have encountered this phenomenon if you've ever mistaken a postbox for a shadowy human figure while walking alone at night. You didn't just think you saw the figure – you saw it for a moment.

Our brain casts us as the hero of the narrative of the reality it creates. To do so, the brain will adapt our past choices to fit our heroic narrative, telling us, for example, that it was okay to steal from big chains because they're an evil corporate empire that is killing independent businesses. Even violent prisoners rate themselves above average for qualities like morality or humanity. 

Our brain also seeks to create a linear plot in our lives, ordering our memories into cause and effect sequences. The story our brain makes includes not just us, the hero, but other characters. Other people surround us, and one of our deepest urges is to understand how their minds work. It's one of the ways our brains seek to control our environment. The reason we are driven to understand other people is rooted in survival. Our species has lived on because of human cooperation, and as we moved into fixed settlements, having social skills for trading and negotiations became an advantage. In humans of all ages, the urge to understand others is so overwhelming that we even project human feelings onto inanimate objects, like the evil potato masher when it jammed the draw and prevented you from getting anything. 
Stories allow us to satisfy our itch to understand the minds of others. And there's a particular type of character we are drawn to – one with imperfections.

Our brains cast us as the heroes of our stories, a narrative in which we're always morally superior. As a result, we often look past our faults. However, as we enter the mind of a flawed character through a story, a safe space is created for exploring our own flaws. Many of our foibles can be traced to early childhood, when our unique vision of how the world works started to form. Cultural influences play a significant role, such as a character growing up in a wealthy Victorian home might learn the values of composure and self-discipline. In contrast, a character who grew up poor during the same era would have been impacted by ideas of disparity and survival. Once these beliefs are solidified, we spend our entire adulthood defending them. Confronting opposing worldviews is so unsettling to us that it feels the same as being physically attacked.

We cling to our flawed belief systems, and characters do as well. The difference is that while your brain blinds you to your own flaws to cast you as a hero, it does not do the same for others, making it easier to see their "mistaken" beliefs. One of the ways character flaws manifest is how they help or hinder characters from achieving their goals. We thrive off meaningful and controllable goals. Just as our own flaws may keep us from achieving our goals, the flaws of a well-built character will inevitably make their journey more difficult. Thus, you find the recipe for a spellbinding story by choosing a character's flaws. 

A good story idea is essential, but a genuinely exciting plot flows from a well-drawn character – a character with flaws, personality quirks, and a unique worldview that will cause them to act in interesting ways taking the plot in an exciting direction. 

When we speak about a flawed character, we mainly refer to the character's flawed theory of control or the way they believe they must act for the world around them to stay stable. A character's control theory is tested when confronted with an unanticipated change in the situation. Beyond the theory of control, personality is another critical element of a well-drawn character. Personality comprises five main categories: conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and extraversion. A character can score anywhere on the spectrum from low to high for each of these traits, and this combination can help determine what kind of choices they will make and how they react to their circumstances. So, no matter what type of story you are trying to tell, if you want to create a realistically flawed character, make sure they are as prone to misunderstanding others as real people are.

We "read" the emotions and thoughts of those closest to us with an accuracy of only 35 per cent! That leads to many mutual misunderstandings – and in fiction, as in real life, those misunderstandings are the source of a lot of drama. A rich plot should make us wonder, "Who is this character, really?"

An elderly man lies on his deathbed, a snow globe in hand. He says a single word, "rosebud," and the snow globe crashes to the floor. Thus begins the classic movie Citizen Kane. Immediately we're drawn in. We ask ourselves – who is this man? A good story should always have us wondering who a character really is. This is the question that keeps us reading or watching, and it's founded in our urge to understand the minds of others. A good way to demonstrate a character's true colours is through unexpected changes that test their core beliefs. This interplay between the surface plot and the "inner plot" of a character's psyche is how we start to see a character change and behave in unexpected ways.

So, you have your character; let's give the brain some space to fill the gaps. There's a reason we remember the small details of stories long after the intricacies of the plot are forgotten. These details feed our naturally curious brains. Our brains want to fill in gaps in information, especially as they gain more knowledge. You can provoke the brain's curiosity by giving away just enough information, a tool you can utilise to keep your reader interested in your plot and characters.

One way to reveal information about a character is through dialogue. Good dialogue works on two levels, offering plot-developing information and telling your audience something about the character's background, personality and emotions. In Steve Jobs, the dialogue between Wozniak and Jobs.

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Woz: You can't write code; you're not an engineer. You can't put hammer to a nail…How come I read 10 times a day that Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?

Steve Jobs: I play the orchestra. And you're a good musician. You sit right there, and you're the best in your row.

"I play the orchestra." That is one character-revealing line that admits he's a control freak with a god complex. Glimpses of characters' environments can also show the difference between how characters present themselves and who they are underneath. A room with a punk band poster tells us something about who our character is outwardly. "Left-behind" items, like receipts for embarrassing purchases, tell us something about who they are inwardly. Offering these scenes without commentary lets viewer make their deductions about the character.

This isn't to say you should shy away from descriptions. Expressive descriptions cause a frenzy of activity in our brains. This is why our experience of something is greatly influenced by how it is described. Metaphors are one of our favourite types of description they can evoke potent associations that create a more vivid experience in our minds.

In the end, most good stories are ultimately about a change in status. The animal world is fueled by status. Chimpanzees keep an eye on their alphas, always looking for signs that they may need to be dethroned and humans are no different. While our ambition to understand other humans reflects our desire to "get along" with others, we have another profoundly ingrained need to achieve status. People's physical and mental well-being seems to depend on the status given to them by others. However, our need for status often clashes with the pressure to act selflessly, creating drama and conflict. Our status-seeking gives us a concrete goal to work toward. If the brain is our narrator, goal direction is what keeps our story's plot moving forward.

Just as we enjoy working towards our own goals, we also like to feel like a participant in a character's struggle toward a goal. This might explain the obsessive nature of many video game players who get lost in the goal-oriented worlds of games like Fortnite. In our goal-based struggle, we all see ourselves as the underdog. Since we identify with those with lower status, we root for them and wish to see those with higher status "put in their place." Change in status can also lead to the breaking down of deeply-held beliefs, which is at the heart of an exciting story. When we think of propaganda, we might think of posters calling for war, but most stories, from children's books to bestselling thrillers, are a form of propaganda. They teach us lessons about the right ways to behave and contain warnings for what happens when we don't. Stories teach us lessons about ways to gain and secure our status as individuals. Religious texts and kids' stories are rife with this.

So, what about when not just our individual status but the status of our groups feel threatened? We resort to stories to tap into the primal urge to maintain it. The infamous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation spread the idea that black Americans posed to the white race. This insidious message resulted in many joining the Ku Klux Klan and increased the violence and hatred experienced by black people.

On the other hand, stories can also give us the ability to empathise with characters; stories are a type of play, allowing us to experience changes in control in a safe environment. We see the consequences of losses in control without having to experience this loss in control for ourselves.

The power of stories lies in these experiences of losing oneself. They become a journey to discover things about ourselves, each other, and the world we share.

Reading and Viewing List

  1.  Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling
  2. The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better by Will Storr
  3. Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results by Rob Biesenbach
  4. The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
  5. Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling by Matthew Dicks
  6. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
  7. Ted Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best Ted Talks by Akash Karia
  8. Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling by Eric Nuzum
  9. The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
  10. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder