It is hard to measure the art of storytelling, but you know it when you see it. You read a passage of prose and it raises your arm hairs, makes your blood tingle, gets your heart racing; suddenly you’re swept up in the experience of beautiful writing.
Indeed, writers seem to possess a certain magic of storytelling—but anyone can learn the tricks of the trade. From story structures to style advice, this article covers the storytelling techniques that make readers laugh, weep, gasp, and stay up past their bedtimes.
Along the way, we discuss the key elements of storytelling, and we answer the question “Why is storytelling important?” But first, let’s dissect the art of storytelling itself. How do writers tell great stories?
What is storytelling? It depends on whom you ask. A sociologist will tell you it’s mankind’s way of preserving history and identity; an anthropologist will say that it’s what distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Storytelling is the process of weaving language into a concrete narrative, with the purpose of creating rich, believable experiences.
For writers, storytelling is the process of weaving language into a concrete narrative, with the purpose of creating rich, believable experiences. To do this, storytellers tie together character and plot, resulting in stories that act as metaphors for the human experience.
In other words, storytellers don’t just relay facts: they use words in a way that the reader or listener can sit inside the story itself as though they were really there.
This is true regardless of genre—writers of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror create stories just as believable as writers of literary fiction. Nonfiction authors and poets also demonstrate mastery over the art of storytelling, though they may use different storytelling techniques.
The reader can sit inside the story itself as though they were really there.
Story Versus Situation
The magic of storytelling is found in the power of stories themselves. Many writers, however, confuse “story” with “situation,” having not been taught the difference between these two concepts.
Here’s a breakdown of the difference between storytelling and situation-telling, as explained by our instructor Jeff Lyons.
7 Elements of Storytelling
No matter the tale, every work of prose (and many poems) rely on these 7 elements of storytelling.
Plot is the skeleton of storytelling. You can have a gorgeous prose style with deeply relatable characters, but without a logical flow of events, your story will confuse the reader. For a story to emulate real life, it needs to follow a real-life series of plot points.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your story needs to follow chronological order. Many stories experiment with the order of events, or they jump over decades of time, or they weave together the present with the past. There’s no need to stick to one timeline: time is a thread, and can be interwoven to create rich tapestries.
Your characters write your plot; your plot doesn’t write your characters.
Nonetheless, your reader needs to follow the plot to understand your story. And remember: your characters write your plot; your plot doesn’t write your characters.
For more advice on crafting effective plots, take a look at these articles on:
Equally important to the art of storytelling is the characters that populate your work. Every event that takes place in your story is defined by your characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although some plot points are outside of their control, it’s your characters’ responses to conflict that make a story worth reading.
Writers must consider how the reader will connect with the story’s characters. If those characters have depth, understandable motives, and relatable flaws, the reader will feel much more engrossed in the story. Stephen King sums this up nicely when he writes:
“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” —Stephen King
Once we relate to the story’s characters, we care about what happens to them, and we’re willing to follow them along their personal journeys. Each character of your story—including your protagonist, antagonist, secondary and tertiary characters—should feel like real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
For more advice on writing realistic characters, take a look at these articles:
- Character Development Advice
- 10 Character Development Questions to Ask Your Characters
- How to Write Dialogue
You might also benefit from this Character Development PDF.
Point-of-View (POV) defines who is communicating to the reader, and from what vantage point. The story’s narrator influences how the story is told and what information the reader has access to.
Writers have 5 points of view to choose from:
- First Person (“I”): The narrator is the protagonist, and we view the story from their perspective. This is generally the most intimate storytelling POV.
- First Person Peripheral (“I”): The narrator is a close acquaintance of the protagonist, and we view the story from their perspective. An example of this is Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby.
- Second Person (“You”): The narrator casts the reader as the story’s protagonist. This is a way to make the reader intimate with the story’s events, but it’s a hard sell—stories are rarely written in the 2nd person.
- Third Person Limited (“He/She/They”): The narrator tells the story from the vantage point of one or a few protagonists. The narrator only knows what the protagonist also knows.
- Third Person Omniscient (“He/She/They”): The narrator tells the story from multiple vantage points. The narrator knows more than any character in the story knows, and the narrator often weaves this knowledge together to craft a deeper, more holistic story.
A story’s point of view will affect the storytelling techniques and strategies that the author uses. Bear in mind, too, that a story can switch between different POVs. Learn more about POV at our article What is Point of View in Literature?
At its most basic, setting is where your story takes place, but setting can serve many more functions than just this. The relationship that your characters have to their setting influences the story’s pace, plot, conflict, and even its themes.
Your characters will, in some way or another, be defined by their setting. The personality of someone from Cheyenne, Wyoming will differ greatly from a character who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, and both of these people will experience the world differently than someone who grew up in Seoul, South Korea. Setting implies culture, worldview, and language, even if your character tries to push back against their upbringing.
Your characters will, in some way or another, be defined by their setting.
Setting also influences dialogue and action. An argument at the dinner table will (probably) sound different than an argument in a restaurant; a fist fight in a parking lot will go a different route than a fist fight in an office.
Finally, setting can build symbolism. If your protagonist lives in a rundown, ramshackle house, this house can represent his ramshackle life; a character that lives in a gentrified apartment building in an otherwise poor neighborhood might be equally ritzy and oblivious to the world around her.
Just be careful not to stereotype—setting is just one of many influences on a character’s psyche and worldview. For more advice on writing setting, take a look at our article What is the Setting of a Story?
5. Style & Word Choice
One of the more intangible elements of storytelling, style refers to the unique way that an author tells their story.
Style occurs at both a line-level and a global level. At the line-level, style is influenced by a story’s word choice, syntax, sentence structure, sentence length, and the observational details that the author includes.
At the global level, style is influenced by the story’s pacing, the way the story presents information, the length of scenes and chapters, and the author’s own literary influences.
All of these things culminate in the author’s thumbprint. There’s no singular reason why a novel by Haruki Murakami is so vividly distinct from a novel by Margaret Atwood. All of the aforementioned elements coalesce into something unique and intangible, but nonetheless present in the atmosphere of the author’s work.
Style isn’t forced: it develops naturally as the author grows into their storytelling role. For advice on honing your style, read our articles:
- The Importance of Word Choice in Writing
- How to Write a Compelling Story
- What is Tone in Literature?
- How to Avoid Cliches in Writing
Every story has conflict. Conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling: without it, your characters don’t undergo any growth or finish any journey.
Conflict can manifest itself in many ways. The protagonist wants something, but has to overcome certain obstacles to get it; or they want something, but an antagonist stands in the way; or an antagonist uproots the protagonist’s life; or the protagonist seeks a life of their own, but doesn’t know how to build one.
The road to resolving conflict is never easy, but that’s what makes great stories!
In any case, conflict has to do with the protagonist having certain needs, desires, or struggles. Great stories involve the protagonist having to undergo personal journeys in order to get what they need. The road to resolving conflict is never easy, but that’s what makes great stories!
For more on conflict, take a look at our article What Does Your Character Want? Conflict is closely related to theme, which we discuss below.
The aforementioned elements of storytelling culminate in theme. At its simplest, theme answers the question “What is this story about?”
The story’s plot, characters, and conflicts revolve around certain abstract issues. Romeo & Juliet, for example, revolves around the themes of love, fate, and family; A Tale of Two Cities has themes of war, revolution, justice, and power & corruption.
In other words, theme describes the central ideas that a piece of writing explores. And, because a story is propelled by conflict, theme and conflict are closely intertwined. If the protagonist’s needs are jeopardized because of the government, the theme might be “justice” or “power & corruption.” Or, if the protagonist’s needs aren’t being met because they’ve just survived an apocalypse, the theme might be “the environment” or “man vs. nature.”
The job of the storyteller isn’t to resolve those themes: themes should be open-ended, debatable, and thought-provoking. Two readers may have vastly different, yet equally defensible, interpretations of a theme. Rather, the storyteller’s job is to present clear conflicts, flawed characters, and navigable plots; theme, often, follows on its own accord.
To learn more about theme and read some theme examples, read our article What is Theme?
In addition to these elements of storytelling, writers use the following storytelling techniques to craft engaging, compelling stories.
The elements of storytelling answer what storytellers do at a global level. But when it comes to actually crafting the story—stringing one word after another to move the reader along—what do storytellers do?
Below are some tried-and-true methods of telling engaging stories. Note that this list is not exhaustive: us writers have been refining the art of storytelling for millennia, and this is just a sample of the many tools at our disposal.
20 Storytelling Techniques
Backstory describes the history of a character or setting. By providing relevant historical detail, the author gives contexts for certain conflicts and relationships that exist within the main narrative.
The relationship between backstory and narration can be difficult to refine, because too much backstory will slow down the pace of the work at large. Like most storytelling techniques, be economical—you shouldn’t provide more backstory than necessary.
That said, backstory can span chapters of the text, if needed. By providing valuable insight into a character’s psyche and motives, backstory helps the reader understand the decisions that character makes and the problems they face.
Deus Ex Machina
Deus Ex Machina is a plot device where something outside of the protagonist’s control interferes with the story, usually resolving the story’s conflict. This term comes from the Latin for “God from the machine,” and it refers to a convention of Ancient Greek plays in which an actor, playing as a god, was mechanically lowered onto the stage.
Deus Ex Machina can take many forms. Perhaps a natural disaster kills the antagonist, or two friends discover they’re actually long lost sisters, or an actual god intervenes on the protagonist’s behalf. In any case, Deus Ex Machinas never occur by the protagonist’s own volition.
Generally, Deus Ex Machina is frowned upon as an easy way out of conflict. Rather than giving the protagonist agency, the author has decided to interrupt the protagonist’s journey and personal growth. At the same time, Deus Ex Machina can create new artistic possibilities, especially if the author is writing in genres like absurdism, surrealism, or magical realism.
Ethos, pathos, and logos are three storytelling strategies often associated with rhetoric, but they apply just as readily to the art of storytelling.
In creative writing, Ethos describes the author’s credibility as a storyteller. Ethos is built from both the author’s reputation and from their ability to relay facts accurately, without harmful bias or intentionally misleading the reader.
Now, authors need to have a credible ethos, but narrators don’t. Remember that Point of View is one of the essential elements of storytelling. One way that writers can twist Ethos is by writing an unreliable narrator—someone who distorts facts, misleads the reader, and creates their own reality. Pulling off an effective unreliable narrator can prove difficult, but it can also create some very entertaining twists in the story.
Foreshadowing refers to moments in the story that predict later events. When the narrator foreshadows, they usually hint at the story’s climax, but any future plot point is fair game for foreshadowing.
The best foreshadowing is memorable, but subtle enough that you don’t realize it’s foreshadowing until later. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the drunk Miss Baedeker foreshadows Gatsby’s death when she complains of getting her “head stuck in a pool.”
A more ostensible example is Gatsby’s relationship to the green light on Daisy’s property. He reaches out to the green light but can never hold it, much like he reaches out to Daisy but can never hold her. You may note that this is also an example of symbolism, and indeed, foreshadowing can coincide with many other literary devices.
In Media Res
*Record Scratch* “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
In Media Res (Latin: in the middle of things) is a plot device in which the story begins in the middle, rather than at the beginning. By doing this, the author throws the reader directly into the story’s conflict. Eventually, the inciting incident and character backstories are provided.
The In Media Res strategy helps generate intrigue for the story, its plot, and its characters. Rather than set up the conflict in chapters of exposition, we are launched directly into the drama.
Some famous stories that begin In Media Res include The Odyssey by Homer, The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
Literary devices are methods of creating deeper meanings within a text. By harnessing the power of comparison, connection, and sound, writers use literary devices to take their work beyond a literal meaning. Literary devices create nuance and depth, making them essential to the art of storytelling.
Try your hand at different literary devices from this article.
Logos is the use of logic and reasoning to persuade the reader. While Logos most commonly presents itself in rhetorical essays and arguments, it also has its place in creative writing.
Authors will most often use logos in relation to the story’s themes. For example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is about racial justice in the United States. When lawyer Atticus Finch defends the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson, he uses logos to appeal to the courts that Tom is innocent.
But Atticus’ logical appeal isn’t just to the courts, it’s to the readers themselves. When Tom is convicted anyway and later killed, the reader understands exactly how society disregards Logos when it comes to the plight of black men. Through these plot points, the novel intricately examines its themes of justice, and how justice is not evenly distributed in American society.
A MacGuffin describes a character’s motives. Every character is chasing something in particular, whether that be a physical object or an abstract concept. Items like The Holy Grail or the Rings of Power are MacGuffins, and so are ideas like love, revenge, and stability.
MacGuffins are one of the most open-ended storytelling techniques, because a character’s motives can be virtually anything. Additionally, a MacGuffin can be both openly stated or obscure. In Pulp Fiction, for example, the movie’s MacGuffin is a briefcase, but the contents of that briefcase are never revealed, highlighting the movie’s senseless violence in the pursuit of nothing.
If the story’s MacGuffin is a physical object, that object often symbolizes something deeper for the main characters. Nonetheless, your characters can pursue whatever they want, just as people in real life pursue their own mysterious MacGuffins.
Mythology provides a powerful reservoir of storytelling for modern day authors. By “mythology,” we’re referring to any set of stories, narratives, folklore, poems, and epics particular to a certain culture, with the intent of relating that culture’s religious and moral beliefs.
References to ancient myth abound in both classic and contemporary literature. This is for three reasons:
- First, mythologies are commonly read stories. You can connect with the reader using myth as a stepping stone, especially if that myth is widely familiar.
- Second, myths act as their own symbols. If you reference the story of Icarus, your reader will know you are referencing the tragedy of Hubris.
- Third, mythology allows the reader to create relevant cultural contexts. Haruki Murakami often incorporates Japanese folklore into his work, and the novel Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan relies heavily on Indonesian mythology.
Pathos is an appeal to the reader’s emotions. Because the experience of reading relies so much on the reader’s own empathy, harnessing the power of pathos is key to the art of storytelling.
Storytellers generate pathos simply by writing relatable characters. When the reader connects with a character as if they were a real human being, the reader also feels that character’s pain, struggles, and triumphs. Always assume that your reader wants to connect with your characters, that they want to feel your story pour salt in the wound. This is equally true for your antagonist, assuming that antagonist is also a human being.
Think about the things that everyday, ordinary people yearn for. Maybe it’s stability, love, a sense of belonging; maybe they relate to stories of natural disaster, unrequited love, or being a misfit. Consider your reader and what they might connect with, and make Pathos your doorway into the reader’s heart.
A quibble is a technicality that, though minor, often resolves the plot in a major way.
Let’s say your protagonist makes a bet with someone, and they lose that bet. The price they pay for that bet is death. Your protagonist may save their own life by arguing that the bet should follow the exact verbal agreement that they made—and by invoking this technicality, your protagonist manages to evade death entirely.
Of course, quibbles can go against the protagonist’s wishes, too. In Macbeth, the Three Witches tell Macbeth that “none of woman born” can kill him. Macbeth assumes this to mean he is invincible, but he is later killed by Macduff, who was C-sectioned rather than “born from” a woman.
If written haphazardly, a quibble can be just as convenient as a Deus Ex Machina. Nonetheless, quibbles often surprise the reader, as they chip at the seeming absoluteness of fate.
In both rhetoric and literature, a red herring is something that distracts the reader. You will most often see red herrings in mystery novels, as the novelist is trying to prevent the reader from solving the mystery until the very end.
Red herrings are one of the more versatile storytelling techniques, as they take many different forms. A red herring can be a clue falsely pinned to an innocent person; it can be a forced confession, or an unreliable narrator falsifying the past, or even a coincidence that the writer didn’t intend.
Although red herrings are a fun twist to the art of storytelling, use them sparingly. As an author, you have an implicit contract with the reader to tell your story faithfully; too many distractions and misleading elements will make the reader lose faith in your storytelling.
A rhetorical question is a question that’s posed for the sake of asking, rather than the sake of being answered. In other words, it’s a question meant to provoke the reader.
Rhetorical questions are often open-ended. While a narrator can pose rhetorical questions, they usually come from a character in the story.
A famous example of this is in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Caesar asks Brutus “Et tu, Brute?” This question has no answer—after all, Caesar is about to die—but it prompts the reader to think about Brutus’ betrayal of trust and friendship.
In everyday speech, we use rhetorical questions all the time. Who knows? Why not? Is the sky blue? Rhetorical questions can help make your dialogue seem more human, and it can also provoke your reader’s thoughts and emotions.
Rule of Threes
The Rule of Threes states that readers best respond to information that’s presented in lists of three. This applies to everything, from basic descriptions to global, structural elements in a story.
The Rule of Threes happens at the line level, especially with description. If I tell you my cat is “young, fluffy, and orange,” those three images give you a solid description. If I tell you my cat is “young, fluffy, loud, stubborn, fast, destructive, capricious, and orange,” I’ve overloaded my description with adjectives, and you won’t know what part of that information is essential.
The Rule of Threes also applies to story structures. Many stories have, at most, three main characters. Many plots have three main events: an inciting incident, a climax, and a falling action (or response to the climax). If a novel has sections, it often has three sections; if a style has multiple settings, it usually has three main ones.
This is not a hard and fast rule—in fact, most rules in writing are suggestions. Nonetheless, your writing will lose the reader’s attention and brainspace if it presents too much information. The Rule of Threes is not immutable, and you don’t need 3 of everything.
But, when it comes to the central elements of your work, try to keep it to three discrete items. Otherwise, you might lose your grip on the magic of storytelling.
Show, Don’t Tell
What is storytelling without the show, don’t tell rule? “Show, don’t tell” is a way of using imagery to relay an experience to the reader, rather than spoon feeding that experience through literal description. The effect is that your reader becomes immersed in the story, perceiving everything that your characters perceive as though they were really there.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov
To master the show, don’t tell rule, read through our in-depth article.
Stream of Consciousness
Stream of Consciousness is a writing technique in which a character’s thoughts are written directly onto the page, without any filter or editing. The author, assuming the persona of their character, observes their thoughts and impartially transcribes those thoughts into narration and internal dialogue.
Because stream of consciousness attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of human thought, the prose itself can be difficult to follow. Authors may write using free association, frequent repetition, disjointed imagery, and a keen focus on senses and emotions. The prose often follows a nonlinear fashion, it may use punctuation frenetically, and it certainly won’t have the polished, edited feel of a typical manuscript.
To be clear: this is perhaps the most difficult of storytelling techniques to master. If you want to write stream of consciousness, start by simply keeping a personal journal, observing the nature of your own thoughts as they flow onto the page. It’s also worth reading the masters of the technique, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf.
Even characters in sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller novels have quotidian, everyday lives. Providing a glimpse into their everyday lives helps make the story more accessible to the reader.
What do those everyday details look like? A daily commute, a morning shower, a stop at the grocery store after work. It can also be everyday annoyances: swatting at mosquitoes in the evening, holding your breath when you walk past a sewer grate, forgetting not to scratch at the rash on your wrist, etc.
What do these boring, everyday tasks do? One, they humanize your characters, giving them relatable behaviors that act as windows to their worlds. Two, these tasks show the reader what everyday life looks like before the inciting incident. Once the protagonist’s life becomes upended by something major, we now relate to the character on a personal level and want them to succeed on their journey.
Just be careful not to provide too many everyday details that your story loses sight of its plot. The reader doesn’t need to see every moment in a typical day of your protagonist’s life—and, unless it’s extremely relevant, don’t start your story with your protagonist waking up, as this is an overdone cliché.
A trope is a theme or archetype that shows up regularly in a genre of work. Tropes give structure to a story, providing a kind of scaffolding that the author can manipulate and build from, creating a story both fresh and readable. In genre fiction, tropes are essential to the art of storytelling.
Tropes are commonly misconstrued as clichés, but that’s not the case. For example, a trope in the romance genre is the “meet-cute,” where two soon-to-be-lovers meet each other in a unique and adorable situation. While this trope recurs throughout romance fiction, writers are free to experiment with the meet-cute in their own original ways.
If you intend to write genre fiction, or even to pull from different genres in your own literary work, it’s important to familiarize yourself with that genre’s tropes. The wiki TV Tropes is a fantastic resource for this, covering tropes in both film and literature.
Vernacular refers to regional dialects. Like “the everyday,” vernacular helps humanize your characters, while also establishing a sense of place in your story.
If your characters are strongly immersed in the culture of their upbringing, do some research on the vernacular of that place. For example, a character who grew up in Wisconsin should say “bubbler,” not “water fountain.”
Language, and even just the English language, is fantastically diverse. Using vernacular in your characters’ dialogue makes them feel more flesh-and-blood, and it also provides some entertaining moments in language and storytelling.
Wordplay makes for enjoyable, engaging storytelling. Twists of phrase create memorable moments of narration and dialogue, keeping the reader glued to the page.
Wordplay comes in many different forms. Puns, malapropisms, neologisms, oxymorons, kennings, onomatopoeias, portmanteaus, zeugmas, and contronyms are just some of the ways that writers have fun with language.
Additionally, sound devices like alliteration and rhyme also create memorable, meaningful moments in language.
Way before the printing press and the invention of modern prose, storytellers told their tales orally and entirely in verse. The epic poem was a way of sharing stories, and because pencil and paper were scarce in antiquity, storytellers had to memorize their work. These wordplay devices were ways of memorizing stories, allowing the storyteller to move through the plot while keeping the listener entertained.
Thus, these tools are freely at the writer’s disposal, and storytellers are encouraged to use them. Wordplay is essential to the magic of storytelling, so harness the magic of words!
Why is Storytelling Important?
The above elements and techniques coalesce into the power of storytelling. But, why is storytelling important?
In short, storytelling is the closest that writers come to creating real worlds, characters, and events. When a story is told well and meaningfully, the reader is transported into a world of the writer’s own making—a world with its own rules, laws, physics, relationships, and ideas. In this world, the writer can twist emotions, make powerful statements, and entertain the reader in beautiful ways.
But for the reader to access this world, the writer needs to use storytelling techniques. Storytelling is a portal into a different dimension, or a doorway into an unexplored house, or a bridge across a river, or a rocketship to different planets.
You must transport your reader if you want to persuade, inspire, or provoke them.
Whatever the metaphor, you must transport your reader if you want to persuade, inspire, or provoke them. This is what makes writers both fantastically powerful and fantastically human.
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