The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling (That Writers Forget All the Time)
K. M Weiland
I’m having a harder and harder time getting excited about stories these days. Not because I don’t love stories, but because I do lovee them—and because it’s ever-increasingly difficult to find truly great ones that employ all the secrets of good storytelling.
By “great stories,” I mean stories that are put together with intelligence, understanding, passion, and vision, so that we, as viewers and readers, have the opportunity to react to characters and plots that both emotionally engage us andintellectually stimulate us. I bet I can count on my fingers and toes the number of stories—both books and movies—that have given me that experience in the last 5 years (and maybe longer).
Part of the reason for this is a corporate mindset (particularly in Hollywood) that hedges its bets with spectacle, instead of risking any chips on meaty storytelling. This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle in which new authors and filmmakers feel this is “the way to do it” and instinctively mimic these patterns. Much of the problem is simply a lack of understanding in those telling the stories.
I’ll admit upfront this post was inspired by Star Wars: The Last Jedi—which I thought was an unmitigated mess. Do I believe director Rian Johnson and others involved in its production were copping out to sheer spectacle just to chase the money? No, I don’t. I think these people love Star Wars as much as I do and sincerely wanted to tell a story that was, in every way, as great as the original trilogy.
Unfortunately, however, they missed the mark on several fundamental levels of good storytelling—as do so many high-profile stories these days.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, as writers ourselves, we have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to learn from these highly visible mistakes and use them to create better stories in the next five years and beyond.
The 5 Secrets of Good Storytelling
Today, I want to talk about five principles of good storytelling. By “principles,” I mean basic storytelling truths that ring true in every story. If you want to write a good book or screenplay, these principles aren’t optional. There are more than just these five, of course, but these are arguably the most basic, and therefore the most important. They are also, unfortunately, the five principles I see neglected most often in well-meaning fiction that wants to hit the mark but lacks the grounding in strong story theoryand application to make it happen.
All of these problems are blatantly on display in The Last Jedi. However, I’m not going to use direct examples from the movie—mostly because I don’t want to argue every point with viewers who were able to get past its problems and enjoy it. At the end of the day, viewer/reader enjoyment trumps any logical argument. If you enjoyed this movie, I’m happy for you. I wish I had too! I’m not trying to take away from that enjoyment.
But I would also encourage that you can and should be writing better stories than this. You can do that by starting with these five important not-so-secret secrets of good storytelling.
1. Every Piece Must Contribute to the Plot
Story is a unit. In order to be a unit, it must be cohesive. This is true most obviously on the level of plot and structure. Every piece—every scene—must link together, like a circle of dominoes, to create a unified chain of cause and effect. Any extraneous scene or plot twist will, at the least, be a speed bump in your readers’ journey through your story.
This is true of more than just scenes and structure. It applies to every element in your plot.
I’m always looking for ways to repeat motifs, pay off even the slightest bit of foreshadowing, and reuse settings and props in thematically meaningful ways. Most stories can support a few loose ends, but a good motto for any writer is: Everything matters.
This is nowhere more true than of your characters. Characters are the drivers of your plot, but more than that, they are the symbolic and archetypal representation of your theme (something Joseph Campbell helped George Lucas implement brilliantly in the original Star Wars trilogy).
As a result, every character needs to matter. You can’t just dream up a cool character, stick him in the story for a few scenes, then write him out or kill him off. That kind of character is like the nice guy who helps you jumpstart your car and then walks out of your life forever; his contribution to your story makes no lasting impression and his role could just as easily have been played by any other of a million passing strangers.
Structure gives you an easy way to determine whether you’ve added an integral story element or an extraneous one. The defining moment in any story’s structure is the Climactic Moment, which definitively ends the conflict.
Everything builds up to this. If you can delete a character, scene, or plot device and still get to your Climactic Moment in good shape—then you don’t need that character, scene, or plot device. However cool it may seem or however much fun it may be to write, it is dead weight in your story.
2. Plot Must Contribute to Theme
Writing a cohesive plot is a major step toward writing a story that can at least keep its feet under itself. Many fun “situation” stories never go farther than that. But if you cango farther, if you can take your story to another level, then why wouldn’t you?
That’s where theme comes in. Truly great stories aren’t just entertaining; they are emotional journeys that leave their viewers/readers changed in some way, however large or small. In order to accomplish this, the plot must be engineered to contribute organically and integrally to a theme.
These days, however, theme is the orphaned child of the storytelling world. Everybody tries to be kind to it, but because nobody knows quite what to do with it, it mostly just ends up sitting in the corner playing by itself. It kinda/sorta seems like it’s in sync with the rest of the big, boisterous family, but all their attempts to truly accept and include it are just… awkward.
Just as your Climactic Moment should be the light at the end of the tunnel that guides your every decision about what plot elements to include, your theme should be the lighthouse that guides the plot itself to a meaningful and resonant destination.
Usually, plot comes first in stories, and because the storytellers have no idea how to mine that plot for a pertinent theme, they end up, at best, with a scattered mess that fails to offer any important commentary on either the characters’ struggles or, as a result, the viewers/readers’ own lives.
This gets even more complex when you realize the more characters and plot lines you’re including, the more important it is to weave all this stuff together to reach onemeaningful thematic ending for all of it.
What is your story trying to say?
And, trust me, every story is saying something. There’s no such thing as “just a story.” Frankly, that is a naïve and irresponsible cop-out.
The real question is whether you will dig down into the hearts of your characters, be brave enough and disciplined enough to figure out what it is you’re really trying to say, and then do the often messy and difficult legwork of creating a character arc and plot that serves the theme—rather than the other way around.
In his essay in Light the Dark, Jonathan Franzen offers a challenge to every writer:
I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.
3. Stuff Can’t Happen Just to Have Stuff Happen
Storytellers notoriously get sidetracked by shiny baubles.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read the transcripts from the story planning sessions in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan met to discuss Raiders of the Lost Ark. I get an endless kick over how Lucas and Kasdan are calmly working their way through ideas and plots to arrive at the story basically as we know it—and all the while, Spielberg just keeps on throwing in all these wild and crazy ideas, like a little kid having the best time playing make-believe: “Oh, and then you know what would be really cool? We should have a giant boulder come out and squish this guy!”
It’s hilarious mostly because it’s so relatable. We’re all Spielberg. Not only do we want our stories to be as cool as possible for our readers, we’re also just really excited about the cool possibilities for ourselves.
But beware of cool. Cool is seductive and can lead far too easily to stories that are chock full of stuff—but stuff that doesn’t matter. And without meaning, cool really isn’t that cool.
This temptation is especially dangerous for speculative writers. The endless possibilities of science fiction and fantasy provide us the opportunity to throw in all kinds of cool stuff just because it’s cool. But as another Spielberg character says in Jurassic Park:
They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Why are you adding that gnarly new character? Why did you characters travel to that exotic new setting? Why have you included that funny little subplot? If your primary answer is Because… it’s cool?, stop and take a second look.
There’s no reason you can’t include all that cool stuff, but first you’ve got to make it matter to the story. It’s got to be so integral to the plot that if you yanked it, meaning would be lost. Even better, it needs to resonate on a thematic level. It needs to offer more than coolness; it needs to either ask questions or provide answers.
There’s nothing I love more than long, complex books or movies… when they work. When all that complexity comes together to create the warp and weft of a magical whole, it’s too delicious for words. But there’s also nothing I hate more than long, messy books or movies that drag me through the authors’ self-indulgent refusal to recognize and discard meaningless elements. This is even true of stories in which the pieces are great but ultimately detract from what might otherwise have been an even better whole.
4. Characters Must Change
Okay, I’m harping a lot on meaning. Stories have to have meaning. But sometimes that seems like a pretty vague directive. Authors are so deep in their own stories it’s often hard for them to know how to look for objective meaning. After all, the very fact that we are writing this thing means it’s already pretty darn meaningful to us.
The single easiest way to determine whether your story as a whole has meaning, or whether any particular element of your story contributes to that meaning, is to look for the arc of change within your story.
Story events that matter create change, either in your protagonist or the world around her. Lots of stuff can happen in a story, but if it doesn’t affect important and lasting change, then it’s just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Compare the beginning and ending of your story. What’s different? Which of your characters’ beliefs about the world have changed? How has this created change in their external actions? How have their external actions created change in the world around them? How have they changed physically? How has the world around them changed physically?
In answering these questions, look past the surface clutter. Maybe your characters fought an epic battle and a bunch of them died. At first glance, that seems like change. But unless that battle has changed your characters’ goals or proximity to those goals, nothing has changed.
This is often a particular challenge in series, since authors need to find a way to bring protagonist and antagonist into a climactic encounter in every story—without actually ending the conflict until the final installment. But the conflict must be advanced in each encounter; otherwise that particular installment is meaningless within the series.
5. Realistic Cause and Effect Must Arise From Character Motivation
Particularly in a plot-driven story, it can be easy to get so caught up in the external action that you fail to create meaningful character-driven reasons for those actions. You can’t have a solid plot without solid character motivations; it simply doesn’t work.
Characters can’t be at war just because, hey, wars are dramatic and interesting. Characters can’t recklessly dive into conflict just because, hey, reckless heroes are awesome. Characters can’t fall in love just because, hey, they’re both adorable, so why wouldn’t they fall in love? The more intelligent and experienced your characters are supposed to be, the more and more important this becomes.
If your Climactic Moment is the guiding light at the end of the story, then your characters’ motivations are the catalyst that sends them in search of that light. Those motivations need to be checked and double-checked in every scene you write. Are you characters making these decisions and executing these actions because they are in total alignment with their mission statements—their motivations—or are they deciding and acting like that just because it’s convenient for the plot and will let you stick in some cool “stuff”?
It is the author’s foremost (and arguably only) job to serve the story. That starts and ends with crafting meaningful character motivations and then adhering to them with honesty and conviction at every step.
Good storytelling should be hard—not because it’s impossible, but because it is a high-level skill that requires understanding, insight, energetically clear thinking, and absolute discipline when it comes to choosing elements that will support a worthwhile vision while rejecting those that detract.
Storytellers like you have the ability to rise above mediocrity, step into an understanding of the larger world of storytelling, and write the kind of stories that will save the galaxy. You’re our new hope.