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Elements of Storytelling for Fiction (and Nonfiction)

Kristen Howe knows about the elements of storytelling for writing fiction or nonfiction with these tips.

Late Start

I originally wanted to write this hub in fall 2016 after my second local writers conference. Since I didn’t get a chance to do it back then, better late than never. Here are some writing advice from my "Elements of Storytelling" class I took that fall, (the 2nd half of it, since I dabbled into another class for the first half-hour.)

Top Two Elements in Character Development

There are the top two elements to great storytelling, mainly for fiction, and also for nonfiction. First, you should evoke the emotion from the characters from the first sentence with the hook. Use all five senses to get it into the moment. Ask yourself, what’s the purpose of the scene? Chapters should end in cliffhangers with smooth transitions.

Another element is to show and tell. Besides with active voice, you should show more and tell less. Use headings for specific details (as in nonfiction novels.)

As of backstory and flashbacks, don’t use them in the first chapter, unless it’s a prologue. (For example in my eco-thriller Venom, I originally had a flashback scene in my prologue. Due to agent and contest editor feedback a decade ago, I’ve moved it over to chapter six, and started chapter two as chapter one.)

Read genres in your writing. You can’t copyright plots and titles.

If your scenes doesn’t move the story, you can cut and paste it. You might have to “kill your darlings” to help out with the pace.

Here's Another Storytelling Arc Diagram to Use as a Template for Your Writing


Other Elements of Good Storytelling

1. A central premise is the point of the story. The whole everything in the story is to build a case for this point in fact. Characters have their own premises on what they believe in themselves, which might not be true, defined by their beliefs, convictions and wants.
2. Strong 3D characters who change over time. They need to be true to themselves and speak through their actions. Dialogue is no substitute for action. They don't want to hear anything new out-of-the-blue. Main characters should be larger than life, have the strength to take on the quest at any given point. They should grow as they suffered a loss or survived a peril, have a life story (backstory) to given sense for their origins. Events in the past should be used to exhibit certain behavior in the present. They should have a weakness or ghosts in the past which threatens to derail them in their quest.
3. A confined space—often referred to as a crucible. It answers why it's happening with these particular characters. Focus on one overall setting, eliminate extraneous details, and one group of characters who have a good reason for being there.
4. A protagonist who’s on some quest. A protagonist carries audience though story with flaws and problems that gnaw at them constantly. They want object in the quest and willing to work to get it. Mostly ignorant of what lies ahead, they must learn and grow to survive by the end of the quest. They can't be passive or whine and must be active to work to common goal to win in the end.
5. An antagonist of some bent on stopping the hero. An antagonist stands in the way of the hero as the story can't end, until he's defeated by the good guys. They're to prevent success in quest, while both good and bad guy both wish--and their will--to succeed. They must have a reason for being who she or he is, far more convincing with a good reason behind it; and they stand in their way and must want the opposite of what the antagonist wants. They must have soft spot or weakness, grow in the same way as hero--through adversity and struggle.
6. An arch on everything—it’s getting better or worse. Everything and everyone must change.
7. And perhaps the most important—-conflict. Conflict and tension create suspense. Use conflict to give a good reason to say something important, to create opportunities to transcend expectations for them, and your characters to prove something in a tough situation.

The Storytelling Arc of a Short Story or Novel


Storytelling Arc

Since I have a drawn storytelling arc from the class, you can follow this diagram of a classic storytelling arc. Here are some pointers on how a short story, novella or novel, fiction and nonfiction, should have with these elements.

1. You start off with the starting point of the first beat: the hook. This establishes the routine for the novel.

2. It leads to the inciting incident when something’s happening. For the second beat, this is when everything changes. Your main character asks who, when, where, how and why. This introduces the problem.

3. There should be obstacles—the internal or external trouble the main character has to overcome. He wants something an not getting it.

4. This leads to rising tension and to the third beat, which is the midpoint, when everything changes with a drastic change, halfway through the novel.

5. Near the end, this is when the 4th beat: the climax. This is when the subject builds drama in the 5th beat, known as the denouement to the end, and a rising close to wrap everything up in the conclusion of the story.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Kristen Howe


Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on October 01, 2016:

Thanks Suzette for your kind words. I hope it is.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 30, 2016:

This is excellent Kristen. I taught the elements of fiction when I taught and you have covered everything quite well. This is a real help to those beginning to write novels or short stories. Great reference hub.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on September 30, 2016:

Hey Jill. I got this info from a conference workshop I took last fall. It came from my notes and worksheets.

Jill Spencer from United States on September 30, 2016:

Hi Kristen!

I recognize Freytag's plot pyramid, but where did you get the story arc info?

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on September 29, 2016:

Scroll to Continue

Thanks Marlene for stopping by and commenting as always. I'm glad it's useful and helpful to you. Good luck!

Marlene Bertrand from USA on September 29, 2016:

This is excellent information. I want to do more fiction writing so I am studying all that I can. The diagrams are extremely helpful visual aids.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on March 14, 2016:

linda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. No worries.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on March 14, 2016:

linda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. No worries.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on March 13, 2016:

I have such great admiration for authors of in-depth works. I don't have the attention span for such involved projects, so I'll just stick to short articles. ;)

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 23, 2016:

Sure Alan. I might have some of those books at home. Thanks for your kind words.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on February 23, 2016:

Mind if I add a couple of humble titles to this august forum? Back in the mists of time when I first contemplated putting my thoughts on paper, I bought a few books to help me along the yellow brick road to writing notoriety: 'Teach Yourself - Writing A Novel' was my first step (there's no author listed), ISBN 0-340-86762-0 and William Noble's 'Three Rules For Writing A Novel' published by Paul S Ericksson, Forest Dale, Vermont. 0 000001 017649/CN 101764

In one word: Handy. I did have another book about creating characters, that went to the British Heart Foundation charity shop in nearby Wanstead along with another title I outlived. Why keep these two titles? I was asked to give talks to budding authors on self-publishing at various libraries, I might be again - or offer to.

As I said, 'Handy'.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 23, 2016:

My pleasure Alicia!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 22, 2016:

Thank you for sharing your notes, Kristen. There are some interesting ideas in this hub!

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 22, 2016:

Dora, thanks for stopping by and commenting. My pleasure. I'm happy to share what I've learned to you and my fellow hubber friends.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 22, 2016:

Kristen this is very helpful. So thoughtful of you to share. The point that grabs me most is, "Dialogue is no substitute for action." Simple, but I've never thought it through.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 21, 2016:

Thanks Emge for stopping by and commenting.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 21, 2016:

Great post that has so much to relate for a writer

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 21, 2016:

Jodah, you're always welcome, my friend. My pleasure. I hope it helps your short story writing.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on February 20, 2016:

Good, interestingl hub Kristen. I have been trying to explore short fiction writing recently and still have a lot to learn, so this is very helpful. Thank you for sharing what you learned at the writers' conference.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 20, 2016:

Thanks James! Go for it!

James Slaven from Indiana, USA on February 20, 2016:

Excellent! I'm going to use this.

Kristen Howe (author) from Northeast Ohio on February 20, 2016:

Thanks Billy for commenting on my newest hub. I hope my pics come out okay.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 20, 2016:

There is a great deal to absorb here, but it is a great compilation of suggestions for anyone considering fiction. Nice job, Kristen!

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