Writing a plot is one thing, but writing a good story that connects with its intended audience is a big challenge. Technically speaking, is there a recipe for winning at storytelling every time? Explore the four elements of a good story to make your next project the most compelling one yet!
A good story engages the audience and makes them feel connected to it. When someone finishes a book or TV show feeling that something was interesting, important, or enthralling about it, it means the writer's done something, if not many things, right.
All stories are different, whether it be their plots, genres, or characters. Readers have different preferences and opinions, and there isn't a single element on its own that makes a great narrative. The key is that almost any compelling story arc will feature at least four key elements, which can be applied to all storytelling mediums.
4 Key Elements of a Universally Good Story
Sound structure means that the plot has a clear and natural progression. Stories must move fluidly from beat to beat. The structure should flow and make sense without taking too much work to understand on the audience's part. From rising action to climax to falling action, every plot element should feel logical.
All stories should have compelling and memorable characters, like people with flaws, characters with unique traits, and characters with interesting goals and motivations. What makes these characters captivating is that they feel like ordinary people. Real people are complicated, contradictory, and often surprising. Crafting your characters to be as multifaceted as people in real life builds promise that they'll make a lasting impact on your reader.
Powerful dramatic content
Good stories need dramatic content that offers enough tension to drive the narrative arc. The dramatic developments should feel like they have real consequences and ramifications for your characters. Conflict is the heart of a story. Don't cheat it by undermining your chances to create drama. Real-life has its fair share of dramatic moments, so your audience expects your tale to mirror that.
A theme that connects
When I think of recent Disney movies like "Encanto," written by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush, or "Luca," written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, I'm struck by how powerful the themes are. Themes of family dynamics, generational trauma, identity, and acceptance are apparent. These are all very powerful because they're universal. They connect with audiences because everyone can relate to them somehow and remember a time when they felt or dealt with something similar.
A good story takes time to develop its themes, but it doesn't overwork it. Audiences don't need to be beaten over the head with a theme.
Elements of Great Storytelling by Medium
In addition to the four elements of great storytelling that I've detailed above, different mediums also have their specific best practices. For example, writing a great screenplay is different from writing a novel that readers can't put down.
What makes a great screenplay?
- A relatable protagonist
Great movies have main characters that draw the audience in and make them want to root for them throughout the film. They should be relatable and fallible but able to overcome their shortcomings and do what's right in the end.
- A villain that rises to meet the protagonist
A great movie needs a well-written antagonist to foil the protagonist. A memorable story has a villain that feels equally as developed as the protagonist. The Joker and Batman in "The Dark Knight," written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David S. Goyer, feel like equal and opposite forces that have inevitably come together in conflict. Through the Joker, we learn more about Batman. We learn about his morals and what lines he won't cross. These two characters bring out the most dramatic version of one another, which is compelling to watch.
What makes a great television show?
- Characters who grow and change
TV shows must take the time to plot out characters' arcs. A well-thought-out character arc gives the impression that this character is going through something and changing in response. Walter White's evolution throughout "Breaking Bad," created by Vince Gilligan, is an excellent example of a well-crafted character whose arc feels earned.
- Plan with legs
Great television shows often have plots that were clearly mapped out in advance. During season one, the writers knew where things would be headed by seasons three or four. A television show with a good plot isn't enough to make it great. It has to have ongoing things that change and drive the plot in believable ways for multiple seasons
What makes a great novel?
- Strong opening
A great novel immediately hooks the reader on the first page. Having a strong opening is essential for both fiction and nonfiction books. You don't want to give the reader an excuse to put your book down. A novel should immerse the reader in its world within the first couple of pages.
- Strong narrative voice
Great literature should have a distinctive narrative voice that gives you the impression that you know who's telling the story. No matter the perspective, the narrative voice should be consistent and strong throughout.
What makes a great children's story?
- Treats kids with respect
A great children's story shouldn't talk down to its audience. Children's stories need to respect that children are young humans and present them with a story that doesn't sugarcoat reality. When it comes to themes and subjects that kids actually deal with, children's stories should approach them with honesty and candidness.
Great children's stories should have plots, themes, vocabulary, and concepts that expand children's thinking. They should ignite children's imaginations and get them to explore ideas that they never thought of before.
Many elements go into making good stories, and they can be further broken down based on the medium. Hopefully, this blog provided you with elements to consider working on your own projects! Happy writing!