How do you tell a story? We all tell stories, whether it is giving a persuasive speech, wooing a new client, launching an ad campaign, or writing an actual fictional account. It is a part of the human experience, but just like so many things that are common such as interacting with other human beings in a courteous way, learning to fold clothes properly, and how to feed oneself beyond grabbing the nearest junk food, it needs to be taught.
I have been meeting weekly with some of the Afghan children from our group of Afghan Christians who escaped to Pakistan after 2021. The kids have been out of school since the pandemic began and completely isolated in their apartment since arriving in Islamabad (Pakistan is a very hostile place for Afghans). I roped a few friends who are actual educators into helping me and so the children could have more class time and a structured curriculum (one of our AUJ contributors, my Hebrew teacher, and a friend of a friend from the MAA), but most of the time when I meet with them, they read to me and then talk about the words they aren’t familiar with.
This last week was a little different. I decided they could tell me a story. I chose some pictures from a Google image search and we played “tell me a story.” Their assignment for next week is to write a short story based on one of the images. We’ll see how it goes.
The following overview on how to tell a story is part of what I shared in the class chat.
How to Tell a Simple Story
Parts of a Story: the Plot
All stories follow a similar pattern and one of the easiest ways to create a plot for your story is to break it into into three parts or “acts” (like in a play).
The first third of the story is essentially introducing the reader to the created world of the story (whether actual, completely imaginary, or a combination of the two), the characters, and an idea of the problem that needs to be solved.
- Exposition (an explanation of what is going on).
- Introduction of the main character or characters.
- An “inciting incident” or a problem that needs to be resolved.
In a well-crafted story, the opening paragraph, and hopefully the first sentence, will illuminate all of Act I in a momentary flash. It should communicate in a few words a mental picture that you will spend the rest of Act I explaining. If people don’t care about your character and the problem they are facing in the first few paragraphs, they will likely not be interested in reading more.
Act II is the one where there is a lot of “doing.” Different plot structure guides will recommend different plot points in this act, but the overall content is:
- Confrontation: the characters decide what they will do about the problem and begin.
- Another problem or issue appears
Act III is about the overcoming, resolution, and a “then what.”
Resolution: things start to come together, but just as things start looking better, another problem comes through, but the character persevere and come through. And then then conclusion, a resolution and a finishing.
Elements of a Simple Story
This is the basic structure of a plot of a story. The other elements of a story are:
Characters: The characters: this is the “who” in the story. Characters are usually people, but a character could also be animals, or even things. Who is “doing” in the story?
The main character is called the protagonist.
Setting: where does the story take place?
Theme: this is the “why” of the story. You can also think of it as what is the main thing or message you want the person to come away from your story with? Things like the importance of standing against evil, the value of friendship, the grace of redemption, the importance of hope, etc.
Tone: How does the story -feel-. Is it scary, tense, soothing, happy? The tone is set by not only the setting of the story and actions of the characters, but the words used and the rhythm of the sentences. Some words may have the same dictionary meaning (denotation), but the tone, the feeling, they give is different (connotation).
Point of View: A point of view is the persepctive from which the story is told.
- First person point of view uses first person pronouns (I, me, mine, myself, we, our, ours). The person telling the story, the narrator, is usually the protagonist, but not always.
- Third person limited tells the story from the perspective of one character using third person pronouns (he/she, him/her, his/hers, they, their, theirs).
- Third person omniscient (which means all-knowing) tells the story from a narrator’s perspective that knows the perspective of all the characters.
First person point of view is telling the story through the perspective of one person — it is a story told from the inside out.
Third person, whether limited or omniscient, is a story told from the outside in.
Conflict: The other main element of a story is the conflict. The conflict is one of the main elements of a plot structure. It is what makes a story interesting.
What is the problem that needs to be resolved or the challenge to be overcome?
There are different types of conflict, and multiple types of conflict can be used in the same story.
- Man versus himself (overcoming anger, fear, resentment, bitterness, etc)
- Man versus man
- Man versus society
- Man versus nature
- Man versus technology
- Man versus the supernatural or divine
- Man versus fate
Notice some of these conflicts are personal, meaning the conflict opposing the characters is done with intent against them, while others are impersonal, life just is, it happens and we have to face it.
I mentioned that there can be multiple conflicts in the same story. There are many books written only about getting victory in a conflict against other people or a thing. But every good story includes a conflict of Man versus himself.
A character should not be the same at the end of the story as they were in the beginning. For the trial to have value and purpose, it must bring about a change in the character. There should be a realization and overcoming that the character has come to at the end of the story
This is easier on standalone stories. If there is a series of novels, this becomes more difficult. This is why long unending series like some of our Westerns or the Wheel of Time series get tedious, the characters are just going through circumstances, they rarely continue to develop.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling developed the plot for the entire seven book series before she began writing the first book. Her writing improved from the first book to the last … how she told the story got better … but she knew where she would end from the very beginning.
The main character or protagonist, Harry Potter, goes through different types of conflicts through the seven books — man vs man, man vs the supernatural, man vs technology (which is essentially the “magic” in the stories), man vs society — but there is an overall and ongoing conflict and resolution of Harry against himself.
The series begins with a unloved and unwanted boy, bitter and resentful, who is unable to trust and ends in book seven with a boy who is in community and fellowship with others, while fully recognizing their shortcomings. He has overcome his fears, recognized and accepted who he is, as well as what he is not, and is at peace with his purpose.
The other conflicts, the action, grabs people’s attention and interest, but it is the man vs himself conflict that changes people’s hearts
- Nine-Box Method of Planning a Novel: This is a nine box grid that simplifies planning a plot structure. It is designed for writing a novel, but it can be used for amost anything. I use this when planning scripts for book trailers or video ads.
- 9 Stry Structures to Plot Your Next Novel: An article with an overview of a few more plot structures. Some great visualizations are included.
- Reading to Write: A video I did with tips on how to read strategically for future writing. This can be either fiction or nonfiction.
- Tips for Writing: A video with tips for writers