The Principles of Storytelling
Why do we write? We write because we have a tale to tell, a story to entertain people or we have something to say. And because writing is a form of expression, a manifestation of creativity, mankind has used this medium to communicate for thousands of years.
But the fundamental reason storytelling has been that way is because of our need to understand the world around us.
Writing isn’t just about writing a blockbusting story. It’s about the need to make sense of things; it’s about understanding the human condition. After all, why do people do the things they do? What makes ordinary people become extraordinary? What drives them to act the way they do? What is it that makes us different to the next person? What makes them who they are?
We have always tried to make sense of things by weaving stories around what knowledge we have of the world. This was common in antiquity, it’s how ancient myths developed. What couldn’t be explained with knowledge could be explained by the divine, and thus many civilisations evolved their own myths full with gods, monsters and heroes in order to make sense of nature and humanity. Epic stories – the likes of Homer’s Odyssey – evolved to teach and inform, as well as to entertain.
From ancient times to the modern era, fictional writing still contains some basic principles that form the backbone of storytelling. They are:
· The understanding human nature
· Providing motivation
· Imparting knowledge or wisdom
· Entertaining the reader
Each of these principles or values, when used together, forms an invisible framework of every story.
A story always revolves around a main character, so it’s about their journey, and what lies behind the decisions they make. It’s about why they are embarking on that journey in the first place, and the outcome they achieve.
Fundamentally, it’s the primitive need to understand how and why. It’s the need to know and understand human nature.
Motivation plays an important role in writing. You might be writing an epic romance story, but the reader still needs to understand why your character does something and how they are affecting the outcome of the story in such a way – what is it about love that affects us so?
The same is true if it’s a horror or crime story. Why is your character acting the way he or she is? What motivates them? How will their decisions affect the outcome? What is it about the dark side of humanity that reviles us? What makes us do bad things? Can we change?
Motivation forms the basic mechanics of how and why. It’s what drives your main character.
When creating a story, we’re not just providing motivation for our characters, we’re also providing answers. We are imparting some form of knowledge or wisdom to the reader.
Knowledge comes in many forms – it could be information about a place, or it might be a period in time, an historic event perhaps, or even an object – they’re all opportunities for the writer to educate or inform the reader of things they may not be aware of (because as a writer you will have done thorough research).
As a storyteller, you are also broadening your reader’s horizons.
There are many stories that endure today because writers aren’t just telling a good story, they are teaching us about human nature and making a social comment. Think Aesop’s fables, think Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
All these stories have a common thread. They’re allegorical in nature; which means they are teaching us something about humanity.
Orwell wasn’t just spinning a yarn about a bunch of farm animals in Animal Farm, but rather he was teaching us about the greed, self indulgence and the destructive nature of humans, cleverly told from the view of farm animals thinking they have the freedom of the farm, except they’re not actually free; they never were.
Dickens captured the dark underbelly of Victorian England, the awful conditions suffered by the poor at that time. He particularly disliked the treatment of children in workhouses – from that we have classics such as Oliver Twist. He was not afraid to show us the darker side of human nature.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is also allegorical. The story of shipwrecked children descending into barbarians highlights what happens when the frail threads of society breaks down. Golding showed us that given the right ingredients and circumstance, we all revert to primitives in the end – it was and still is an important social criticism of the fragility of human nature.
But of course, writers create great stories because they can. They write to entertain the reader, to take them on a journey, to transport them from the normality of life for a short while before releasing them back to reality. We evoke their emotions and make them think. We entertain them.
The fundamental principles of storytelling are aeons old – created to explore and explain humanity, to provide motivation and answers, to teach and inform, and of course, to entertain.
Writers don’t have to make their stories allegorical or overly clever or overcomplicated. They don't have to use these principles, but a good story is a good story, however it is written.
These basic storytelling values are simply there to help writers create better fiction. It's up to the writer to use them.
Next week: Major stumbling blocks to writing