The anatomy of a great story

Human beings are social creatures by nature and one of the principle ways, with the invention of language, they socialise is by storytelling. From the caveman with his parietal art down to modern man with his advanced computing wizardry, the common denominator that links them is a good story. Indeed, virtually all of man’s activities- whether matters educational, trading, entertainment, publishing, or explaining his origins and culture- revolves around a story. With that understanding, what goes into a good story? And how can we move from a good to a great story?

This here is a great story. That Ernest Hemingway, the venerated writer, was out lunching with a group of fellow scribes. They traded many a tale about their craft, during which arose a wager. Could he compose the saddest story ever? The catch. To do so in six words only.

Now, many a writer would have confessed their inability to do so, handed over their purse and mulled over their loss with a sad countenance for the reminder of the lunch. Not so Hemingway. After drafting his story and passing it around, they grudgingly admitted that it was indeed the saddest tale they had encountered and promptly paid up. His labour? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Such is the power of this story that a website, www.sixwordstories.net ,  exists solely to curate stories in the same fashion. My favourites include: “Sorry soldier, shoes sold in pairs.”, “The smallest coffins are the heaviest.”, “Cancer. Only three months left. Pregnant.”, “Free rent. Three squares. Maximum Security.”, and “Selling Parachute: never opened, slightly stained.” If I was to add mine, it would be; “Corruption. Kenyans bleed. Die. In thousands.”

So, how to do a great story. First, start by hooking the reader from the word go. In writing parlance, it is called the ‘inciting incident’- the why of the story. Think of it as the fulcrum of the story: all the narration before the inciting incident merely being the background to the story and all the narration after being the story. The movie Trainwreck has such an opening where the dad explains to his two daughters why he is separated from their mother.

Secondly, keep your story conversational. Which means narrating it on paper the way you talk to your friends- light, informal, interesting, full of humour. Of course, the style of narration can change depending on the audience or genre. For instance, if you are writing about an adventure story set in the medieval times, it would have much more flavour if you adopted the tone (dialects, intonation, dressing, culture) of the period in question for your story; hence making it authentic.

Third is conflict and its resolution (or lack of it thereof). This informs the soul of the story. Essentially, it boils down to the opposition the main characters in a story face as they set about accomplishing their goals- a duality which casts them as either protagonists or antagonist and who are diametrically opposed to each other. Typically, the protagonists are cast as the good guys while the antagonists are cast as the bad guys as the various themes (love, loyalty, hatred) play out in the course of the story.

Lastly, a great story is that which is written simply (which does not equate to the story being simple). The choice of vocabulary, plot, setting, description, character development and use of stylistic devices should enhance rather than hinder the story in moving forward. As a rule of thumb, the more the action, the merrier the story.

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