The Bare Bones of Storytelling

Here’s an old joke about a boy who didn’t speak for the first five years of his life.  Then, one night at the dinner table, he says, “These mashed potatoes are lumpy.” His parents are amazed. His father says, “Son, you can speak!” The mother says, “Why did it take you so long to say something?” The boy shrugs. “Up until now,” he says, “everything was all right.”

Often, we write because everything isn’t all right. In narratives, something needs to be unstable. That something can provide the center of the storyline while also being the impetus for the narration. Whether we’re talking about fiction, nonfiction, or narrative poetry, we tell stories to try to figure out the mysteries of human behavior. Why do people do the things they do? What does it mean to be alive?

Stories depend on action. It sounds almost too obvious to mention, but the action I’m talking about should be significant to the point that it alters your main character’s world. Action that comes from a character’s choice leads to a sequence of events that changes that character. The action can be small or large as long as it has a lasting effect on your main character’s world. Going for a walk on your lunch hour might not lead to anything significant, but finding a crudely drawn map of the downtown area, as the main character in a Charles Baxter story does, with one building marked with the words, “The next building I plan to bomb,” very well might. Likewise, a trip to the grocery store might just be routine, but a trip to the store where a character overhears a neighbor talking about that character in disparaging terms might be consequential.

Stories also depend on complications. Plots are memorable because of the twists and turns they take. A character does something, thinking a certain result will occur, only to find something completely opposite takes place. Without complications, we only have a sequence of events that leads us nowhere in a very uninteresting way. Complications are necessary to the act of narration. Without them, why tell the story?

The teller of significant stories relies on the art of scenic depiction. We have to immerse our readers in the worlds of our narratives, and that’s where description, details, and dialogue come into play. What are the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and tactile sensations of the moments we’re dramatizing? How can we use them to make the world of the narrative real to the readers? What objects are significant, and what do the characters have to say to one another? Your readers shouldn’t feel like they’re in the audience watching a play on stage. They should instead feel like they’re on the stage along with the characters.

Finally, narratives must move toward some sort of resolution. Maybe they move to a moment of change or understanding, but sometimes they move toward a moment that offers the opportunity for the main character to experience a change only to see the character fail to recognize what the readers know quite well. The important thing is to bring the sequence of events to a climactic moment where your main character makes a final choice and the premise of the narrative resolves.

Action. Complications. Scenic depiction. Resolution. Such are the bare bones of narrative. Of course, there’s so much more to the art of storytelling, but this is a fine place to start.

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