It’s an accepted truism that anybody can write or tell a story. However, not everybody can tell a good story, one that engages the listener (or reader) and makes us want to know more. Writing a good story requires at the very least a basic understanding of a few simple rules and guidelines for constructing a story, as well as an imaginative and interesting subject for that story. In the case of the latter (the subject) there aren’t really any hard and fast rules and every writer will have their own approach to generating the ideas for their stories. However, the technical aspects of storytelling are fairly straightforward, even if they can take a lifetime to master.
In this article I want to take a look at the basic building blocks of a story’s structure, the essential elements that are the basis of almost every short story or novel you will ever read and which will form the foundation on which you will later build your narrative structure.
Generally speaking all good stories follow the same basic structure in their construction. This structure can be broken down into four parts: Opening, Complication, Crisis and Resolution.
The opening of a story, also referred to as the introduction, is where we introduce the primary character(s) of the story, the time and place that the story is set, and if applicable some particulars about what has gone before. Essentially we are using the opening to set the scene, to give the reader a sense of where, when, who, what and why.
The specific information you provide in the opening of a story will depend on a number of factors, though as a general rule of thumb only include information that is essential to the telling of the story, and ideally only include that which is absolutely necessary to setting the scene. When writing the opening of a story there is often a risk of what is known as info-dumping, where the writer provides all of the information at once and leaves nothing hidden. Sometimes this can be useful but generally speaking it is better to drip feed the reader with information, only giving what is needed at each individual stage of the story so that the reader’s understanding of the characters,setting and events grows with the narrative.
The complication section of a story, also sometimes referred to as the conflict stage is usually the longest part of the story. This is where most of the action takes place, where the protagonist is challenged and forced to overcome progressively greater trials. In the case of a short story there may only be one or two such complications, whereas in a longer novel the protagonist may have to overcome several challenges on her way to her final goal. Whatever the case, it is common for each challenge to be harder or more dangerous than the previous one, exposing the hero to greater risks along the way.
The specific complications don’t necessarily have to be physical challenges. They may be emotional challenges (the protagonist has to overcome the loss of a loved one) or mental challenges (the protagonist must solve some form of puzzle in order to move forward). They may also be ideological, where the protagonist is forced to question and possibly even change her own system of beliefs before she can continue on her journey. Whatever form the challenges take, they should always leave the protagonist changed, affected in some profound way by what she has had to face. It may even transpire that the protagonist fails to overcome all of the challenges she faces, especially when those challenges take the form of an either/or choice (save the love interest and let hundreds of innocents die, or save the innocents but lose the love interest); in situations like this even the failures will help the character grow and teach the reader a little more about the sort of person the protagonist is.
The crisis, or climax of a story is where the protagonist reaches her final goal, the destination at the end of her journey. This is usually the last complication she needs to face, where it all comes down to the hero versus the villain, the central character facing up to all her flaws and weaknesses. By this point in the story the protagonist has usually reached her lowest point, is at the final crossroads and knows that either she’s going to prevail and win the day, or fail and lose everything. This is the last test, and the part of the story that everything up to this point has been leading towards. After this point, everything else is just filling in the gaps.
Depending on the type of story you’re telling, the crisis can go one of two ways; either the protagonist can win through, in which case the ending will be upbeat and positive, or the protagonist will lose and the story will end on a negative note. This leads us neatly into the final section of the story, the denouement.
The denouement, or ending of the story, is were generally speaking all the loose ends are tied up. The protagonist has faced her final challenge and has either overcome her challenges or has fallen by the wayside. The story is all but over, and all that is left is for the writer to fill in the last few blanks.
If the story is part of a series then an otherwise negative ending can now be turned around with a suggestion of hope; the protagonist may have failed to beat the bad guy this time, but thanks to whatever wonderful macguffin the writer introduces in the denouement the reader is left with a sense of hope that the protagonist may yet still win through in the next story. On the other hand, a positive ending can just as easily be turned upside down by introducing an even bigger, badder antagonist for the protagonist to face off against in the next installment.
Generally, whether you’re writing a stand alone story or part of a series, you will try and tie up all the loose ends in the denouement, though this isn’t always necessary. Even in a standalone story there may often be questions the writer chooses to leave unanswered. This technique will leave us with what’s commonly known as an open ending, one where the reader has to provide the answers themselves rather than relying on the storyteller to do all the work. This type of ending is particularly effective when used for horror stories or thrillers, where the antagonist or the competing agent is unknown.
And there you have it, the four basic components of any story, whether it be a short piece of only a couple of thousand words or a longer novel of a thousand pages. In most cases, by sticking to this basic structure you should be able to build up a relatively engaging story that leads the reader from one conflict to the next and eventually culminating in a climax that ties it all up (or leaves it open for the next installment if you’re writing a series).
In the next Art of Writing article I’ll be taking a look at how to use these four components as a foundation from which you can build a more detailed outline for your story.