The Basics of Storytelling

Telling a story, at a most basic level, is done by simply combining character, setting, and plot.

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Writing, like any creative endeavour, relies on inspiration. If ideas are not forthcoming, how can a writer write? The concept of storytelling is a simple one: character in a setting undertaking a plot. By breaking it down into these three elements, new stories begin to appear.


Creating a good character is not always easy, as writers tend to use elements of themselves in their protagonists. How many times can you write yourself without it becoming repetitive? Instead, try someone completely different. A good character can appear from a look, or a feeling, or a trait that is intriguing. For example, let’s start with stubbornness. Whilst this element does not make a personality, it can conceive one. Why are they stubborn? Were they, perhaps, moved from one school to another as a child, and as a result dislike change? Did their grades suffer as a result, leading them to believe they are undervalued? Have they grown up struggling to fulfil their potential, and now work in a job less adequate then they feel suitable for? Do their relationships fail as the stubbornness ingrained in them grows with every alteration to their lives? Has a basic stubborn attitude become the overwhelming focus of their mindset? Then, fill in the blanks: gender, race, location, age, class, and so on.


Putting your character in a place and time sounds simple enough, but do they fit? Characters who are at odds with their surroundings always make good stories, but so too can those who blend in. If your stubborn character is a police officer, would they work better in a futuristic London or 1970s New York? Perhaps they instead could be a Sheriff in 15th Century Lancashire, or Hong Kong in the 1930s? What about on a completely different planet, or a parallel fantasy world much like our own but inspired by our history, or even a nondescript wasteland after some kind of apocalypse? Putting them in the right setting—one that is as visceral and real as they are—will bring them to life, as they no longer exist in a vacuum.


The most basic plot motivation is a quest: the character has to achieve something. Whether they want to or not, choose to or simply find themselves carrying it out, and if they are after a physical object or an emotional or spiritual connection or revelation, or something else entirely, they will be on some kind of quest. The stubborn police officer, crossing the desert after the world has fallen, could begin seeking revenge for an act against him or his loved ones so heinous he cannot speak of it. As he pursues his journey he loses himself, and becomes something more primal. From the word stubbornness we arrive at Mad Max. Perhaps, instead, this police officer is in a future city of neon lights and androids, and his task is to eliminate one of these before they cause any more carnage or embarrassment to their manufacturer, as in Blade Runner. By playing with the base motivation, the story can evolve in its own way and bring about something strikingly different as it grows.


Storytelling is a simple process, yet one which writers often overcomplicate. Ultimately, by putting a character in a setting and giving them a plot, the beginnings of the tale will emerge. Instead of worrying about all the details, or facing the crushing sense of failure that accompanies a lack of inspiration, it is worth simply looking at the simplest parts of a story and throwing them together.

Character + Setting + Plot = Story

It is that simple.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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