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Elements of Storytelling for Fiction (and Nonfiction)

Updated on January 19, 2017

Late Start

I originally wanted to do this last fall after my second local writers conference. Since I didn’t get a chance to do it between now and then, better late than never. Here’s some writing advice from my Elements of Storytelling class I took last fall, (the 2nd half of it, since I dabbled into another conference class for the first half-hour.)

Check out This book at Your Local Bookstore or Library for Better Storytelling Ideas

Top two Elements in Character Development

Top Two Elements

There’s the top two elements to great storytelling, mainly for fiction, and also for nonfiction. First you should evoke the emotion from the characters from the first sentence with the hook. Use all five senses to get it into the moment. Ask yourself, what’s the purpose of the scene? Chapters should end in cliffhangers with smooth transitions.

Another element is to show and tell. Besides with active voice, you should show more and tell less. Use headings for specific details (as in nonfiction novels.)

As of backstory and flashbacks, don’t use them in the first chapters, unless it’s a prologue. (For example in my eco-thriller Venom, I originally had a flashback scene in my prologue. Due to agent and contest editor feedback last year, I’ve moved it over to chapter six and started chapter two as chapter one.)

Read genres in your writing. You can’t copyright plots and titles.

If your scenes doesn’t move the story, you can cut and paste it. You might have to “kill your darlings” to help out with the pace.

Here's another storytelling arc diagram to use as a template for your writing

Other Elements of Good Storytelling

1. A central premise is the point of the story. The whole everything in the story is to build a case for this point in fact. Characters have their own premises on what they believe in themselves, which might not be true, defined by their beliefs, convictions and wants.
2. Strong 3D characters who change over time. They need to be true to themselves and speak through their actions. Dialogue is no substitute for action. They don't want to hear anything new out-of-the-blue. Main characters should be larger than life, have the strength to take on the quest at any given point. They should grow as they suffered a loss or survived a peril, have a life story (backstory) to given sense for their origins. Events in the past should be used to exhibit certain behavior in the present. They should have a weakness or ghosts in the past which threatens to derail them in their quest.
3. A confined space—often referred to as a crucible. It answers why it's happening with these particular characters. Focus on one overall setting, eliminate extraneous details, and one group of characters who have a good reason for being there.
4. A protagonist who’s on some quest. A protagonist carries audience though story with flaws and problems that gnaw at them constantly. They want object in the quest and willing to work to get it. Mostly ignorant of what lies ahead, they must learn and grow to survive by the end of the quest. They can't be passive or whine and must be active to work to common goal to win in the end.
5. An antagonist of some bent on stopping the hero. An antagonist stands in the way of the hero as the story can't end, until he's defeated by the good guys. They're to prevent success in quest, while both good and bad guy both wish--and their will--to succeed. They must have a reason for being who she or he is, far more convincing with a good reason behind it; and they stand in their way and must want the opposite of what the antagonist wants. They must have soft spot or weakness, grow in the same way as hero--through adversity and struggle.
6. An arch on everything—it’s getting better or worse. Everything and everyone must change.
7. And perhaps the most important—-conflict. Conflict and tension create suspense. Use conflict to give a good reason to say something important, to create opportunities to transcend expectations for them, and your characters to prove something in a tough situation.

The Storytelling arc of a Short Story or Novel

Storytelling Arc

Since I have a drawn storytelling arc from the class, you can follow this diagram of a classic storytelling arc. Here are some pointers on how a short story, novella or novel, fiction and nonfiction, should have with these elements.

1. You start off with the starting point of the first beat: the hook. This establishes the routine for the novel.

2. It leads to the inciting incident when something’s happening. For the second beat, this is when everything changes. Your main character asks who, when, where, how and why. This introduces the problem.

3. There should be obstacles—the internal or external trouble the main character has to overcome. He wants something an not getting it.

4. This leads to rising tension and to the third beat, which is the midpoint, when everything changes with a drastic change, halfway through the novel.

5. Near the end, this is when the 4th beat: the climax. This is when the subject builds drama in the 5th beat, known as the denouement to the end, and a rising close to wrap everything up in the conclusion of the story.


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    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Suzette for your kind words. I hope it is.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      3 years ago from Taos, NM

      This is excellent Kristen. I taught the elements of fiction when I taught and you have covered everything quite well. This is a real help to those beginning to write novels or short stories. Great reference hub.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Hey Jill. I got this info from a conference workshop I took last fall. It came from my notes and worksheets.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      3 years ago from United States

      Hi Kristen!

      I recognize Freytag's plot pyramid, but where did you get the story arc info?

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Marlene for stopping by and commenting as always. I'm glad it's useful and helpful to you. Good luck!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      3 years ago from USA

      This is excellent information. I want to do more fiction writing so I am studying all that I can. The diagrams are extremely helpful visual aids.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      linda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. No worries.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      linda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. No worries.

    • lindacee profile image

      Linda Chechar 

      3 years ago from Arizona

      I have such great admiration for authors of in-depth works. I don't have the attention span for such involved projects, so I'll just stick to short articles. ;)

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Sure Alan. I might have some of those books at home. Thanks for your kind words.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Mind if I add a couple of humble titles to this august forum? Back in the mists of time when I first contemplated putting my thoughts on paper, I bought a few books to help me along the yellow brick road to writing notoriety: 'Teach Yourself - Writing A Novel' was my first step (there's no author listed), ISBN 0-340-86762-0 and William Noble's 'Three Rules For Writing A Novel' published by Paul S Ericksson, Forest Dale, Vermont. 0 000001 017649/CN 101764

      In one word: Handy. I did have another book about creating characters, that went to the British Heart Foundation charity shop in nearby Wanstead along with another title I outlived. Why keep these two titles? I was asked to give talks to budding authors on self-publishing at various libraries, I might be again - or offer to.

      As I said, 'Handy'.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing your notes, Kristen. There are some interesting ideas in this hub!

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Dora, thanks for stopping by and commenting. My pleasure. I'm happy to share what I've learned to you and my fellow hubber friends.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Kristen this is very helpful. So thoughtful of you to share. The point that grabs me most is, "Dialogue is no substitute for action." Simple, but I've never thought it through.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Emge for stopping by and commenting.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh 

      3 years ago from Singapore

      Great post that has so much to relate for a writer

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Jodah, you're always welcome, my friend. My pleasure. I hope it helps your short story writing.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Good, interestingl hub Kristen. I have been trying to explore short fiction writing recently and still have a lot to learn, so this is very helpful. Thank you for sharing what you learned at the writers' conference.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks James! Go for it!

    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 

      3 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Excellent! I'm going to use this.

    • Kristen Howe profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Billy for commenting on my newest hub. I hope my pics come out okay.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      There is a great deal to absorb here, but it is a great compilation of suggestions for anyone considering fiction. Nice job, Kristen!


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