Azumanga Daioh, Beowulf, character, Gilgamesh, Good Will Hunting, Lord of the Rings, plot, Sense and Sensibility, setting, Shakespeare, Steel Magnolias, the Bible, The Iliad, The Odyssey, theory, Tolkien
So let’s talk about actually telling a story. I think Ann and I have been writing so far under the assumption that everyone who reads this blog is a practiced, experienced storyteller. That might be the case, but we’d also like to be accessible to newcomers as well. And those of you who are seasoned storytellers might still find something interesting. :)
As a quick definition, pretty much every story needs these three elements: character, plot, setting. I’ll talk about all of these in greater detail (especially characters) in later posts. For now, though, let’s talk about stories that focus on each of these elements.
Character-focused stories generally take an ensemble cast with a variety of personalities and put them all together into a situation that allows them to interact. The plot is usually relatively simple and exists mostly to give the characters something to talk about. In many, the setting is minimal.
These kinds of stories rely on well-rounded, complicated, believable characters. They should have the same kind of beautiful fallacies, imperfections, contradictions, and hypocrisies that real people do. The real challenge when focusing on such flawed characters is to assemble and present them in such a way that the audience cares about them. Or at least most of them.
Stories about the interactions of people, often done in a way to draw out strong emotions, as well as those that tell the life story of a single person (fictional or real), are hallmarks of character-focused stories. Sitcoms and slice-of-life entertainments (which only occasionally are actually stories) also fall under this broad heading. Examples include stories from such different eras and media as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility; the manga and anime Azumanga Daioh (and its myriad imitators); many of Shakespeare’s romances; or movies like Good Will Hunting and Steel Magnolias.
Probably the simplest of the three story foci are plot-focused stories. Genre and speculative fiction rely heavily on this kind of story, as do many of the old epics that form the backbone of human literature. A plot-focused story needs a strong (often familiar) plot, a number of characters to make it happen, and just enough setting to make the audience care about the stakes of the story.
These kinds of stories can be pretty epic (saving the world!), but you can also tell more intimate stories as well (such as a locked-room murder mystery). Your plot can be extremely complicated, with multiple twists and turns and surprises to keep your audience guessing, or it can be extremely straightforward and linear. There are benefits to each, but also some serious drawbacks, so unless you’re a practiced hand at one extreme or the other I recommend moderation. If your story is too complex, you will lose your audience and it will cease to care. If your story is too simple, you will bore your audience and it will cease to care. Once your audience stops caring your story is over.
Fortunately, though, plot-focused stories are pretty easy to do and you have a lot of examples to choose from. Most popular and famous stories focus on plot. Where do I even begin? Well, how about the beginning? Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Iliad, the stories of The Bible–pretty much all of humanity’s first several millennia of myths, legends, and literature focus pretty heavily on what happens in the story (myths do so for reasons other than mere entertainment, as Geoff talks about here). More modern examples are no less abundant, and include summer blockbusters out of Hollywood as well as almost every fantasy, science-fiction, horror, mystery, or action/adventure book, game, television program, or movie. They are everywhere, and we love them.
More travelogues than anything else, setting-focused stories go into great detail about the world in which the story takes place, with the plot and characters there merely to guide the reader. Probably the most famous example of a setting-focused story is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don’t really have a good feel for how popular or common these kinds of stories are anymore, but my guess would be “not very.”
Honestly, if you’re heavily invested in a world of your own creation, I recommend that you tell your stories of it through interactive means. Introduce your world to others via games and actual character- or plot-focused stories, then provide additional background information to those who want it.
Here’s a challenge for you: Next time you finish a story you enjoy (in any medium) take a moment to think about the story’s focus and how you could rewrite the story (with the same characters, basic plot, and setting) to focus on the elements the storyteller did not.