This Is Me: What I Mean When I Say ‘Good Storytelling’ in Fiction
Countless writing classes will tell us that a story, stripped back to its basics, is essentially made up of three parts: the Setup (Act 1), Confrontation (Act 2), and Resolution (Act 3). Not necessarily in that order, and usually buffed up with other elements that make the journey from one point to another even more satisfying. But at its core, these three Acts are what makes up a story, and a good one at that.
Something that I’m quite passionate about, both as a writer and as a daily consumer of stories, is good storytelling in fiction.
Based on my own personal preference, what I mean by “good storytelling” is the creative way writers take its readers or viewers from one Act to another. Not necessarily in a linear fashion where a story is told by the chronological order of events. It’s how all the elements of a story — characters, relationships, setting, dialogue, politics, the world, magic systems (if any), and more — play into this journey and amplify the experience towards a gratifying end.
Ultimately, it’s how a story makes you feel throughout the reading or viewing experience.
I believe good storytelling moves people with emotions — moves them to tears, laughter, anger, and the urge to ask questions about their own life, and the world they currently live in. More than that, good storytelling entrances and captivates those who consume it. So much so that it blurs the line between reality and fantasy, leaving readers, viewers, or listeners in somewhat of a limbo where realizations and truths from fictional stories are explored and questioned in light of the real world.
It’s an intoxicating feeling, to be lost in a good story, and eventually emerge with lessons, joys, and sorrows that we take with us to our day to day lives.
Here are a few of my favorite elements and plot devices used in a fiction story that embody what I look for in “good storytelling”:
A Clear Goal
This one’s an essential element in storytelling.
Any effective story starts with a clear identification of what we’re in for. Romance stories gravitate around the coupling of two individuals; mysteries explore possibilities to find that one answer to the overarching question; thriller narratives usually build up around central mysteries and horrors, and generally involve characters discovering harsh truths or escaping horrific conditions; contemporary stories usually follow the life of a main character up until their death, or the fulfillment of an obligation — and so on.
This allows readers and viewers to know what to expect, and build up anticipation for the latter parts of the story where this goal will ultimately be fulfilled, or tragically failed.
A Play in Time
Oh, I’m a suuucker for time-bending stories. I absolutely love it when a good series, movie, or book plays with a timeline by giving us glimpses of the past or future throughout the story, and then seeing how that knowledge affects how we take in the course of events at the present time. Isn’t there just something thrilling about knowing what will happen in the future, and trying to figure out what went wrong in the current timeline?
I’d say that I find successful stories that have done this more in the format of a TV series, with more flexible narratives. Some examples are Dark (Netflix series), and Reply 1997 (K-Drama, Netflix and Viu).
Having a clear picture of the important events that transpired before the happenings of the current book or series is an integral part of story building, especially when it paints the world’s present social and political climate. This is particularly important in fantasy stories that are set in fictional worlds, especially with plot lines that involve saving its whole existence. This forges an even deeper understanding of a fictional world’s culture and personality, and in turn, how that affects the people residing in it.
A few of my favorite titles that have achieved this exceptionally well are the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir, and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
History Between Characters
At the same time, a character having friends he or she has known for so long also gives readers a more holistic view of who our protagonist is. If you want to insert a bit of drama there, characters who have mysterious connections or past important interactions with strangers are also some of my favorite tropes – just because it makes for some juicy reunion scenes, hehe.
Some narratives that I think do this really well are Young Adult Fantasy books like An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir (obviously one of my faves), and A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas.
For those who prefer watching a full TV series, usually any K-Drama by Shin Won-ho always has strong family or friendship elements that make for some really good storytelling: Prison Playbook (Netflix), Reply anthology (Netflix, Viu), and Hospital Playlist (Netflix).
Of course, I’d just like to point out that these are all purely my personal preference, and in no way a universal rule! I’m interested to explore other titles that prove to be exemptions to my own “rules,” though — that’s always something I’m intrigued by. I want to try to like a book that doesn’t hit at least one of those points!
Let me know:
- What do you think make up a good story?
- Have you read or watched any of the stories on the list?
- Give me recommendations! What titles do you think I would like?