"The Basics of Storytelling"
by William F. Nolan
As a storyteller, you must begin by creating a protagonist who is real, three dimensional, with genuine emotions that play out over the course of your narrative. Your range is unlimited; anything can happen to your protagonist in any period of history or in any locale in which you choose to place him or her. Past or future, a real world, or a wholly imagined one.
The basics of storytelling are timeless. From taletellers on the streets of ancient Baghdad to the modern-day TV episode, the basic structure remains unchanged.
You begin with your protagonist. Hero or villain. Male or female. Young or old. Your protagonist wants something and he or she is on a quest to find that particular “something” be it the holy grail or a racing trophy… a way to survive a serious illness, or to pay off a gambling debt… to capture a wild stallion or win the heart of a potential lover… to find a hidden treasure, or to conquer the world.
That which your protagonist is seeking can be monumental or trivial, but it forms the heart of your story; it launches the action, sets the narrative in motion.
What happens during this quest, the trials and conflicts that your protagonist faces and either overcomes or fails to overcome (your protagonist need not always win!), these elements form the structure of your story. A weak man wants to become strong. A coward wants to become heroic. A lonely woman seeks a mate to end her loneliness.
There are countless goals that can motivate your characters.
In detective fiction, the goal becomes the solving of the mystery.
In science fiction it may involve reaching a distant galaxy.
In fantasy, it could center on the slaying of a dragon.
Your imagination sets the boundaries.
In my best-known novel, “Logan’s Run,” my protagonist is a future policeman active in an over-populated world – a “sandman” programmed to hunt down and terminate any citizen who runs from a state-decreed death at 21. When Logan himself turns 21 he elects to run. His eventual goal: to reach a legendary place, Sanctuary, where people are allowed to live, grow old, have a family. The conflict in my story occurs as Logan, in company with a female runner he learns to love, faces the multiple trials and dangers of my future world. Thus, the novel is totally goal-oriented.
As I have stated, the protagonist does not always win. In Hemingway’s, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his protagonist, Robert Jordan, comes to Spain to blow up an enemy bridge. However, he dies at the end, holding off advancing enemy troops so that his new love, Maria, can escape capture. Jordan’s basic quest has led to his death.
In Melville’s, “Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab’s quest involves running down the great white whale. As portrayed in the story, Ahab is a madman, darkly obsessed with his hunt for this massive creature of the sea. What happens along the way forms the story of Moby Dick.
Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel, “The Great Gatsby,” centers on the protagonist’s quest for the lost love of his life, the elusive Daisy, his golden girl. The goal is never reached as he too, like Robert Jordan, dies at the climax.
Sometimes, several characters can have the same goal-as in Hammett’s, “Maltese Falcon.” Both the villains and the protagonist, Sam Spade, share the same quest for a jeweled black bird. The fact that the statue turns out to be worthless by the story’s climax has not affected the conflicts the characters faced throughout the narrative. The basic structure remained intact.
The format of storytelling is fixed – the protagonist, the quest, the trials, and the resolution, positive or negative. Any number of variations are possible within this format, but the basic structure remains.
We can all relate to a story which takes us on this journey toward triumph or defeat. You, as the storyteller, must function as the guide, leading us to the dramatic climax.
Now, there are several additional elements that are essential in telling a story – such as the proper use of dialogue, atmosphere, and locale, as well as the realistic creation of other characters who relate, in one way or another, to your protagonist. Also, your background must be convincing, whether it be another planet, a small sleepy town in the Midwest, or a vast metropolis such as New York or London, humming with life. The rendering must be real. (In Logan’s Run I was very careful to create my future world on a wholly realistic level; I dealt with all aspects of this future culture to achieve a three dimensional reality.)
Each story, long or short, must contain what I call “the arc of drama.” This arc begins at the point when your protagonist sets out to pursue his or her goal, builds steadily to a mid-point when the protagonist is dealing with conflict, and descends to the climax when his or her goal is realized or thwarted.
Along the way, if you are employing physical conflict, your protagonist may end up badly wounded (the bruised and battered private eye) or deceased (as in Hemingway and Fitzgerald) with the quest fulfilled or unfulfilled. (King Arthur never found the Holy Grail, but he gave it a helluva try!)
It’s all up to you, to how you choose to tell your story. Does your protagonist win or lose? In either case, the battle must be fought for the arc of drama to pay off.
Of course, you may with to create mental conflict rather than physical. Your protagonist can suffer emotional wounds in overcoming the trials he or she must face to reach a particular goal.
Also, the quest must have changed your protagonist in some manner or degree.
The trials he or she have undergone must affect your character by story’s end. Win or lose, the protagonist is altered by the conflicts faced within the body of your story.
In Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” the protagonist, Montag, is changed from book burner to book lover by story’s end. The quest and the change become one.
In Max Brand’s classic western, “Destry Rides Again,” the protagonist sets out to extract revenge on the men who sent him to prison. By the end, he has been changed, from a character who considers himself to be invincible to one who realizes he is indeed fallible and can be defeated by another, by a better man. This causes him to put away his guns in order to play a non-violent role in society.
In “Shane,” the gunman-hero fulfills his quest by killing the chief bad guy, but is wounded in body and soul; he can never return to the peaceful life he craves.
Changed, each of them. In one way or another.
I would strongly suggest, to the beginning storyteller, that he or she visit a local library and sift carefully through a dozen or so volumes of stories by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, or any professional author of like caliber. (Stephen King has much to teach about the art of storytelling.)
Analyze each story in these collections. Break down the basic structure. Find out how the writer created a real protagonist. Note the goal of each character and be aware of the conflicts facing him or her and just how they are resolved by the close of the narrative. Study dialogue and locale. See how the other characters relate to the protagonist.
In doing this, you will be charting the blueprint for your own stories. You will become aware of how the various elements of a story are brought together to form the arc of drama.
Simply because you can write a fine letter to your grandma does not mean you can tell a proper story. Telling a story is not an easy task, even if one adheres to the basics I’ve laid out in these pages. Hard work and relentless practice are required – but the final results are well worthwhile.
And write, write, write.
- William F. Nolan