Elements of a Great Story

Herman Melville, master of the great story

Herman Melville is the author of the great story of Moby Dick

Well-crafted writing occurs when the writer is able to integrate narrative elements so that each element functions perfectly, and in its place, to produce the symphony that constitutes a great story.

True geniuses, as opposed to talented writers, do so spontaneously without continuously having to think about the inherited machinery of their craft since their work so often breaks the mold, forming a new blueprint from which additional instances are generated.

In his influential 1962 Writer’s Digest article, Are Writers Born or Made, Jack Kerouac writes:

“Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.”

The good news is that once we have mastered the techniques, once those neuron pathways have become entrenched through practice, we too can fulfill the requirements needed for a great story.

The truth is that for most writers the fluency and depth that are the hallmarks of a great story stem from the countless of hours spent cultivating their craft.

Elements of a Great Story

Take the relationship between the protagonist’s weakest trait and the climax of the story, for example. Could you tell me what that relationship is? And could you use that understanding to write a well-crafted ending worthy of being called the climax of the story?

Asking these questions might lead you to say that since your protagonist’s weakness is that he suffers from arachnophobia, it might be best to have him face his antagonist in a chamber filled with spiders, an antagonist, who, by the way, happens to love spiders – breeds them, keeps them as pets.

The scales of the final confrontation, even with other factors not withstanding, are now tilted even more in the antagonist’s favour. Tension is higher as readers and audiences fear for our hero’s fate.

But what then might cause our hero to defeat his nemesis? This can’t be forced lest our protagonist appear to be a marionette at the mercy of the plot.

Well, how about checking through his list of positive traits for a clue? His rediscovery of some half-forgotten talent? His ability to fight blindfolded, developed through a childhood spent sword fighting with his brother, perhaps? Add to that a talent for hitting small targets from a distance acquired through flinging stones at coke cans, again, as a boy?

Might he not knock out the light in the chamber, grabbing the advantage from his adversary while simultaneously avoiding seeing the spiders?

This example, simplistic as it is, does illustrate how thinking about character traits in an integrated way might put us on the path to finding a fitting context for those traits to operate in—in this case the climax.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I use precisely this integration technique at the story’s climax to allow Benjamin’s backstory and his unrelenting love for his family to generate a fitting but surprising response to the life-threatening challenge presented to him by tropical cyclone Yasi.

Summary

Learn to integrate the various narrative components to produce a story that is well-crafted.

4 thoughts on “Elements of a Great Story

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    There is a reason way one of the symbols in the end credits of Gotham is a skeleton sitting in front of a type writer. It’s testimony that writers are made and not born. People who get up in the morning and write everyday regardless the demands of there daily lives. There is no such thing as talent . The product of your craft is the result of hours of blood , sweat and tears. What separates a award winning film from a Zack Effron piece of shit movie will always be the script. No script that gets green lite is the result of one draft.

    In short : The more you think about what your writing the better the story will be.

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  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Yes, Stephen, the antagonist should know so he can take advantage of the situation. It’s part of loading the deck against the hero to heighten tension. And the thing about everyone having a book inside herself? Perhaps, but life, which is so often mandate, has to be transformed into something else in order to become interesting to a reader – so yes, I agree with your sentiments!

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  3. Stephen Marcus Finn

    I enjoyed this, Stavros, and immediately thought about what I would do, somehow thinking of Ron in the Harry Potter series who is arachnophobic. It is a terrifying position for any phobic person to be in. A solution could be for the protagonist to know what the antagonist is terrified of, and then they have a face-off. But I really appreciate your idea of having an important backstory to solve this.

    As for anyone being able to write. Yes – but write what? What really irritates me is when people (who never write anything) talk about their lives (usually humdrum) and then say, “I could write a book!” But, alas (or, really, hallelujah), they never have the time to do it.

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