A short, pragmatic guide
We tell stories all the time. Unfortunately, that does not mean we know how storytelling functions. (Knowing how to run doesn’t equal knowing how running functions, what muscles and sinews and bones and nerves and blood vessels and other physiognomy must be in place to be able to do it. Fine, you say, but I can run, so why should I care? Because only when you’re conscious about it, you can study and analyze your running, and you can improve it. You’ll become a better runner.)
“Storytelling” has become a huge buzzword on the web. Perhaps rightly so: we’re storytelling animals; a good story spreads like a bushfire and then sticks with us. However, as it usually happens with buzzwords, we’re likely to lose track of what they actually mean and they become a tasteless, watered-down imitation of the original concept.
Clever people have realized that there’s a lot of money in the story. If it appeals to people’s emotions and is connected to a product, it’ll go like hot cakes. Big corporations like Microsoft even have their own storytelling departments. But let’s lay down some foundations.
What is a story?
Crudely said: a story is a design. It is the (more or less carefully crafted) sequence of events in time. Sounds terribly unsexy and obscure? It is. That’s why hardly anyone outside of literary studies talks about those definitions. But a common terminology and language is needed so people outside the humanities’ and writing sphere can comfortably talk about it. Stories belong to everyone, and it’s detrimental to think that only scholars can or should discuss and develop them. Let’s hear some definitions. Getting some common terminology straight will (so I hope) make storytelling more democratic.
Plot vs. Story
A story is the sequence of events in time.
A plot is the causal relationship of those sequences.
In a classic example by E.M. Forster, the story would be: “The king died and then the queen died.” The plot would be: “The king died and then the queen died out of grief.”
This is a much more convenient take on the Aristotelian plot, but one that encompasses a wide variety and will serve our needs just fine.
The structure of a story is very similar to what a designer or an engineer would think of as structure. It’s the map that intentionally transports your reader/viewer/listener towards a desired effect. Philosophically, the gestalt: the sum of the relationships of various parts to each other, to the whole. That may be sentences, paragraphs, statements, or arguments, as well as what we understand as beginning–middle–end.
Where and when the story takes place. Time of year, time of day, weather, light, location, surroundings: the sum of everything related to the environment outside of the characters.
Point-of-view, or also “viewpoint”, sometimes referred to as “narrator” or “persona”. Note (even people who study literature get this wrong very often): in a (fictional) story, a narrator is not the author, even if she sounds like it. The viewpoint is the “position of the narrator in relation to his story”.
We distinguish three basic variations, although many different ones are possible:
The omniscient narrator moves between characters, places—she knows all about the characters’ feelings and thoughts.
The third person narrator chooses a character inside the story and assumes the limited viewpoint of that character. He usually knows everything about the character’s inner and outer life.
Lastly, in the first person point of view, a story is told through the eyes of one of the characters.
Those various positions the narrator can assume makes for very different effects of immediacy and emotional relationship to the characters and the people who experience the story.
Hook, hold, payoff
Narratives seem to be most successful when they follow the “Hook-Hold-Payoff” model. First, the author tries to hook the reader on something. A classic example would be an underdog getting bullied at school, but resolving to strike back: that appeals to the reader’s sense of justice, she wants to know how the underdog will get her revenge. (Injustice is a pretty good hook.)
Then, suspense is built up by the underdog fighting for attention or plotting her comeback. The reader wants to know if she can make it. That’s the hold.
The payoff would then be restored order, in the form of the bullies getting what they deserve. A cathartic effect seizes the reader in the ideal case.
That is, very basically, how most stories function, in endless variations. A story may not be the most innovative thing on earth, but it could very well be the most successful.
Have a look at this beautiful example of the hook–hold–payoff model.
Some Specifics for the Web
Good stories work no matter where and when. There are some specifics for the web that should be kept in mind, though. We all know about the short attention span and the infamous alleged Ur-distractedness of web users, in contrast to the abundance of possibilities the web offers. So it’s a good idea to get to the point quickly. This is especially true if you want to sell a product or a service. (The longer a story, the more diabolically well it must be written to keep the reader reading.)
Along these lines, think about simplicity of plot and language, about sequence and causality. Think about how quickly readers can identify with the story, and if possible, how much time is needed to immerse oneself in it. Think about how closely related to the story a narrator should be, and if you have strong hook with sufficient payoff.
Also, think about readability, format, supporting media, animation. But the representation of a story is another thing.
Let’s talk about that soon.