0 – The Basics

The Basics of Storytelling

By William F. Nolan

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


How to Tell a Story

By Mark O’Bannon

Mark O'Bannon

NOTE: This is an article on Basic Storytelling.  These techniques are good to learn for beginners, and are useful to gain a general understanding of storytelling.  However,  some of these techniques (namely, the Three Act Structure), are obsolete for Advanced Storytelling.

To learn advanced storytelling techniques read the book, “The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby.  Visit his website www.truby.com.


Storytelling is one of the oldest pastimes.

Everyone loves a great story, but it is often difficult to find someone that is good at telling one.

The best way to learn how to tell a story is to read books on the subject, such as “How to Tell a Story” by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, or any other book published by Writers Digest Books. Most people, unfortunately never take the time to learn basic story-telling techniques, and when they try to tell a tale, they find themselves losing their audience.

Others refuse to study storytelling techniques because they fear they will lose their creativity by following formulaic story structures.

However, like building a house, there are definite things that you need to know in order to tell a story.  Learning how to read blueprints, how to swing a hammer, and how to install a roof are as essential to a carpenter as learning how to set up a story, how to write a basic plot outline and how to write a scene are to the storyteller.

So here is a quick primer on how to tell a story.  Hopefully, those reading it will be able to gain some insight into the subject, to the pleasure of their future audiences.

Stories consist of three parts:
The beginning, the middle, and the end.  Traditionally, this is why stories are broken down into three Sections.

There are six parts of a story contained within these three segments:

Section I
1.  Introduction.
2.  Rising Action.

Section II
3.  Complications.
4.  Crisis.

Section III
5.  Climax.
6.  Resolution.

The beginning (Section I) has three goals:

The first goal is to get the ball rolling by introducing the main characters, and the setting they are in.

The second goal is to hook your audience with something that is exciting and interesting.

The third goal in the start of a story is to introduce the villain and the main story goal.

All three goals should be accomplished very quickly, often in the first scene.

Choosing a setting depends of the kind of story that is being told, and the desires of the storyteller.  For instance, a Gothic adventure could take place in Hungary or Transylvania, and could be set in the 15th or 16th century.  Arthurian tales would take place in England, in an earlier time period.  The setting will have a large affect on the way the story is told.

The characters will often take up a large part of the opening of a story, and this can slow things down considerably.  Care should be taken to avoid lengthy character introductions, as it can kill a story before it has begun.

However, you must show the character’s weakness/need at the start of the story.  The weakness/need is something that is hurting the character (and other people), along with what the character needs to learn in order to have a better life.

Characters are defined by what they do, not by who they appear to be. A person’s actions speak louder than everything else.  Many people begin describing a character by their appearance, but in reality these physical traits are the least important things about a person.
Characters should enter a story doing something.

Good characters will have an inner need, such as a need to fall in love, and this internal goal will influence all of the character’s  actions.  Characters also need to have a main character flaw, such as a distrust of the opposite sex.  Characters may have many flaws, but one will override the others, and it will block the character’s inner need, preventing the character from getting what he truly wants.  Character flaws can be such things as a quick temper, a desire to become rich and powerful, cowardice, etc.

It has been said that a story is not what happens, but who it happens to. A story is about how a character changes by the events in the plot, or said another way; a story is about how a character overcomes his failings.

Many have argued over which aspect of a story is more important, the plot or the characters.  In a good story, they will both support each other.

The plot consists of the events that take place in the story.  The plot directs what happens in the outer story.  It is often called the spine of the story.

The characters control what happens in the inner story, by how they react to events of the plot.  This part of the tale is also called the heart of the story.

In this way, a good story will consist of two stories being told at once, in parallel to each other.

A good character will always have some level of internal conflict.
Inner conflict is created by the character’s inner need rubbing against a main character flaw

To put it another way, the character’s weakness/need creates the internal conflict as the character progresses through the story.

This conflict can often be expressed as two emotions fighting against each other.  For instance, a character may be greedy, but will also have a need for people to trust him.  In a treasure hunting story, the character could be confronted with a situation where his greed will come in direct conflict with his need to be trusted.  A good storyteller will  design his plots to affect the characters internal conflicts, so that the characters will be able to overcome their flaws.

The opponent is the person best able to attack the character’s weakness/need.

The opponent will drive the character towards the Self-Revelation at the end of the story (which takes place at the end of the Battle), resulting in Character Development (often called Character Change or a Character Arc).

Stories are about how a character changes over time by the events in the plot.

The second goal in the start of the story is to hook your audience with an interesting event.  This event is often called the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is an event that drastically alters the character’s reality, propelling them into the story.  The event must be something that will practically force the characters into the story.  Some examples could include the destruction of the character’s town by a marauding army or an angry dragon, the kidnapping of the characters girlfriend by a band of vikings, the murder of the character’s family, etc.  Inciting incidents will affect how the story is told, and will provide the characters with motivation to pursue the goal of the story.

Character motivation is one of the most important aspects of a story.  The inciting incident must be compelling enough to give the characters a strong desire to do something.  Once the characters become emotionally involved in the story, then they will pursue the story goal without feeling like they were forced into it.  For instance, imagine a story where the characters are hired to do a job.  Then compare it to a story where their sister is kidnapped by an evil necromancer.  Which story would motivate them more?

The third goal in the start of a story is to introduce the villain and the story goal. Villains are often introduced secretly in the start of a story without anyone realizing that they are the main antagonist.  These kinds of stores are often mysteries, but they can also be stories where the storyteller wishes the villain to remain secret.  In any event, the villain must always be introduced, even if they are simply appearing on stage just to say hello.  Often they are brought into a story discretely, simply appearing in the background.

In other cases, a villain may be shown as the obvious antagonist in the story.  Sometimes the best way to motivate a character is to have the villain appear, take something valuable from the character and then leave.  This can be tricky, since the characters should not be rendered completely helpless by the villain.  If this approach is taken, it can show the characters that they need to acquire some kind of object or artifact in order to overcome the villain.

The main story goal should be obvious to everyone.  It should be clear enough so that the characters will understand what to do.

Stories are about characters that are trying to solve a problem.

There will always be something blocking the solution to the problem, creating conflict.  For instance, if the characters are trying to pass through a gateway, it could be guarded by the villain’s henchmen.

Every scene should have an obvious goal, and something that interferes with the accomplishment of that goal.

Stories could have many goals, but one goal will be the overriding concern.

Minor goals could include subplots such as love stories or minor intrigues between characters.

The beginning (Section I) will consist of two parts:
The Introduction, and Rising Action.

The Introduction will introduce the characters, the setting, the goal of the story, and the main villain, or antagonist.

Rising Action is the second part of the story, and it will be a set of scenes that get the characters moving in the direction of the story goal.

Often a mentor will be introduced to help the character learn some truth that they will need to accomplish the goal or to give the characters some kind of aid.

Usually there will be some sort of conflict in the early stages of a story as the characters pursue the story.  Threshold guardians are sentinels that guard some kind of doorway into a deeper level of the story.

In the early stages of a story, the conflict will slowly rise, creating a greater sense of urgency.  The stakes should become greater, further motivating the characters.  Every storyteller should ask himself, “what’s at stake here?” in every scene.

Section I could consist of a single scene, or it could be two or more scenes in length, depending on how much time the storyteller wants to spend on the story, and the desired pace (how quickly the story progresses).

The middle of the story (Section II) is the largest part of the story, taking up about 50% of its time.  The function of this part is to develop the characters and the conflict.

Tests or challenges will often confront the characters in this section. Each of these small goals could provide an element that is needed to defeat the villain or an object to complete the quest.

Allies are new characters that are introduced to aid the characters in their quest.

New enemies are also introduced in this section of the story, as the plot becomes more complicated.

Section II consists of two parts:
Complications and the Crisis.

Complications in the story make things more interesting for the characters.  Often a major plot twist is introduced here which will force the main character to change, becoming fully committed, strengthening or clarifying his motivation.  This will often be a point of no return.

The Crisis is the lowest point in the story, where everything looks hopeless.  This will force the characters to make a crucial decision, leading to the climax of the story.

The end of the story (Section III) is where the main villain is finally overcome and the quest is completed.

The final climax of the story is a scene that everything in the story has been pointing towards.  It can be a surprise, but is should be a logical progression of the events in the past.  Sometimes in a short story, the climax will be the first (and perhaps the only) scene.  The most important parts of a story are the first scene, where the villain and goal are introduced, and the climax.

There are many ways to end a story, but the end of a story will be of two main kinds.

An open ended story is where the quest has been completed, but not everything has been finished, leaving the audience to imagine their own ending.

A closed story is where everything has been completed, leaving an obvious ending for the audience.

Characters should be presented with some kind of moral choice at the end of a story, which forces them to finally overcome their character flaw.

This will create a fundamental change in the nature of the character.

After the villain is defeated and the character has changed, the story will be over.

Section III will consist of two parts:
The climax, and the resolution.

The climax is a final scene that will often take place in the villain’s home, but it could be anywhere else.  This scene is where the characters fight and defeat the villain, and obtain the goal of their quest.

The resolution, also called the denouement, is a final scene that shows the outcome of the events of the story.  This is where the storyteller shows the consequences of the actions taken in the story.

In some myth stories, there will often be some kind of elixir that is given to the society at large, brought back by the characters, which will change their world forever.  The item brought back will put everything back into balance that was thrown out of whack by the inciting incident.

A simple example could be a quest for fire.  In the start of the story, the primitive town has lost their fire. The characters could go on a quest to “steal fire from the gods,” returning with the object of their quest (fire), which will restore the balance of their world.

This part of the story is also where the character is shown to have overcome their main character flaw, often expressed by the accomplishment of a simple task that was impossible before.  Their inner need will then be satisfied.

Hopefully, you will have enjoyed this short treatise on How to Tell a Story.

The Best Books on Storytelling are:

“The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby.

“Zen and the Art of Writing,” by Ray Bradbury.

“How to Write a Breakout Novel,” by Donald Maass.

“The Power of Point of View,” by Alicia Rasley.

Also, read any book by Writers Digest Books.

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