I used to ask what made a great storytelling photograph. Now I ask a similar question about written stories, and the answer keeps coming back with 4 Cs: Concept, Characters, Conflict and Context. I’ve heard a lot of broad arguments for what makes a great story, what makes it real and relatable, but for me these 4 elements, applied in just the right proportions make a story cook. Note that these elements will at times overlap and intertwine as they should in order to formulate a cohesive story.
Show me what idea or concept makes this story worth reading
Concept is that umbrella element that lends the story something unusual and makes the reader take notice. In Hunger Games, the concept comes through these, well, games where young people face each other to the death for the good of their districts. In the Da Vinci Code, ancient secrets that could re-write the underpinnings of the Christian faith drive the interest level in the story. In hunt for Red October, a submarine can go undetected when it engages its caterpillar drive.
The danger with Concept comes when you lean too heavily on it, thinking you have such a strong idea that you can more or less carry the entire tale on its back without minding other story elements. Of the examples I gave, I’ll let you decide which falls into that trap.
Give me characters struggling to make their way
Characters provide the critical, indispensable human element that helps the reader relate to the story. Furthermore, the challenges (see Conflict) our characters face and how they decide to meet them supply the engine to drive the story forward. Understanding what our characters fear, love and disdain, what drives them, what motivates them, among other things, must justify what happens in the story.
How characters interact with one another, opposing or helping, upholding or undermining, also moves the story forward. In my writing I like to make sure that nothing in the story can happen unless it makes sense in terms of what my characters would do or how they would deal with a situation. Well, almost nothing. As in real life, circumstances beyond a person’s control can flare up, and in those cases, resolution of the difficulties that come from those uncontrolled events must find its foundation in who the characters are.
Finally, characters provide what I like to think of as “the verbal mood” for the story. Some call this “voice,” and I try for the most part to get out of the way, set aside my own voice, and let my characters infuse the story with how they sound, both in external and internal dialog.
Show me what’s happening with action that heightens tension
Conflict can arise within a character, can happen between characters, or can derive from external circumstances that arise from the Concept and/or the Context. Whatever is happening, though, the stakes must be high for our characters. Conflict advancement and resolution must make sense in light of how our characters would deal with the challenges they face based on who they are and how they interact with the world. For me this Conflict-Character interaction powers the center of the story. It’s what drives that famous “plot arc” I tend to set aside in my thinking because I’ve found that if I get my elements right and if they intersect at the conflict point in the right way, plot takes care itself — it happens naturally. As I’ve written before, I believe that conflict must escalate as the story progresses until it can do so no longer, at which point I can say I’m close to the ending.
Show me where and when the story happens
Context comes through the succinct and efficient description of time and space, or to bring it more down to earth, the time period and location where the story takes place. This setting helps ground the story and situates the reader so she can appreciate the full implications of the Concept, the world in which our Characters reside and the Conflicts they face. Personally, I don’t enjoy reading long exposition about setting, preferring to-the-point, interaction-based descriptions of the world the story’s Characters inhabit. As I write, I let Context arise naturally, when needed, and with as short a bit of prose as I can manage. Yet I know I must include it because it holds up and supports, much as a foundation would a house, what happens in the story.
There you have it, then: my 4 Cs for story-telling. Does this fully account for all that makes for a great story? I’m sure the answer wants to be no. Storytelling resists formulaic treatments. It does not follow — regardless of all the books written on the subject — any N-step program. We do benefit, however, from a framework we can keep in mind, a cross-check we can apply as we write or interact with our stories. The 4 Cs provide me with that framework as I envision and write my stories.