The Elements of a Compelling Story: Structure, Character

Structure, Characters, and Conflict

The Three-Act Structure
Chekhov's Gun
In Our Time

The Three-Act Structure

The three-act structure, which consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, is a classic storytelling device used to create compelling stories. The beginning introduces the characters and sets up the conflict that will drive the story forward.

This is where readers become invested in the characters’ journey and begin to care about their fate. The middle act builds tension as it reveals more information about the characters and their struggles, while also introducing new obstacles for them to overcome. In the end, the conflict is resolved and readers learn how each character has grown from their experiences.

This structure can be seen in many classic works such as Homer’s *Odyssey* or Shakespeare’s *Romeo & Juliet*; both follow this same pattern of introduction, rising action, climax, and resolution. Even modern films like *Star Wars* adhere to this formula: Luke Skywalker begins his hero’s journey with no knowledge of his true identity but by its conclusion he has embraced his destiny as a Jedi Knight who saves an entire galaxy from destruction.


The Importance of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is an important element of storytelling that can be used to create suspense and anticipation without ruining the surprise. It involves hinting at future events or plot points in subtle ways, allowing readers to make connections between seemingly unrelated details. Foreshadowing was particularly developed by writer Anton Chekov, whose placement of objects at the beginning of a story that would later all come to be significant is known as the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ technique.


In addition to creating suspenseful moments for readers, foreshadowing also serves as a tool for character development. By providing hints about what will happen later on in the story it allows us to better understand each character’s motivations and decisions along their journey. Moreover, foreshadowing creates a subconscious expectation which when met will lead to satisfaction from your audience.

What's The Takeaway?

The importance of a clear message in storytelling cannot be overstated. A story without a purpose or moral lesson is like an empty vessel—it may have all the necessary components, but it lacks substance and meaning. It’s essential for authors to craft stories that convey something meaningful to their audience. A good storyteller should always have their purpose in mind.

Narratives also may have more than one message running at a time. We call these subtler subconscious morals “metamessages”.

These metamessages are often defined by the experience of the audience. For example, while the message of *Romeo and Juliet* by William Shakespeare might be that love conquers all, for a viewer who grew up in a conflict zone, the metamessage might be that partisan factionalism is destructive.

Sometimes a metamessage can complement the primary narrative of a story. For example, John Milton’s epic poem *Paradise Lost* tells the story of Satan and his temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

While the story is apparently written from a Christian perspective, many readers over the centuries have found themselves sympathising with the character of Satan. Here a metamessage is used to create a psychological drama in the reader’s own mind – leading them to ask difficult and intriguing questions about their own moral compass.

Crafting Memorable Characters

Creating memorable characters is essential for any story. It’s important to include details that make them unique and relatable, such as physical characteristics, mannerisms, and backstories. For example, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, readers are introduced to a wide range of characters with distinct personalities and backgrounds—from the brave Gryffindor student Hermione Granger to the mysterious Professor Snape.


One way of introducing characters is through backstory. This is where the story of a character is told directly to the reader or viewer.

The more subtle way of building a character is through expositional dialogue. This is where you allow conversations between characters to reveal what the reader needs to know about them, rather than directly telling those things to the reader. For example, at the beginning of the first *Lord of The Rings* film, Gandalf knocks on Bilbo’s door. Bilbo shouts from inside ‘I don’t want well-wishers visiting!’

Here we have learned about Bilbo’s character – he’s a little grumpy – without any narrator having to tell us that directly. This is how expositional dialogue can reveal things about a character without it feeling obvious and clunky.

Character Crafting Through Tics

In Anderson’s *Winesburg, Ohio*, the characters are richly textured and psychologically complex. The author’s use of small details and quirks, or “tics,” in each character’s behavior and personality adds depth and realism to their portrayal. The characters’ small habits, mannerisms, and preoccupations contribute to their individuality and unique voice, while at the same time hinting at their hidden motivations and deeper psychological conflicts.

The seemingly unrelated details in Anderson’s descriptions serve to anchor the characters in their particular time and place, while also providing insight into their inner lives. For example, Wing Bibblebaum’s picking at fruit serves as an outlet for his dissatisfied romantic cravings.

By carefully crafting his characters through these tics and details, Anderson creates a vivid and compelling world in which the characters’ struggles and conflicts come to life.

The Role of Dialogue in Storytelling

Dialogue can shape a story’s pacing, making it move faster or slower depending on the way it is written. In stichomythia, a technique in which characters exchange short, rapid-fire lines of dialogue, the pace of the story is accelerated, creating a sense of tension and urgency.


This technique is often used in dramatic scenes, where characters are in conflict, to heighten the emotional impact. Dialogue can also slow down the pace of a story, allowing for reflection and introspection, or it can be used to create pauses and moments of silence, which can add depth and emotional resonance to a scene.

The credibility of dialogue is also crucial to the believability of a story. In order to make dialogue convincing, it must adhere to certain standards, such as authenticity, coherence, and accuracy. Dialogue should sound natural and reflect the way people actually speak, with all their idiosyncrasies and imperfections. It should also be consistent with the characters’ personalities, backgrounds, and motivations.

The Role of Dialogue in Storytelling

Dialogue is an essential tool for creating believable and engaging stories. It can be used to reveal character traits, advance the plot, and create tension between characters. To write effective dialogue, it’s important to consider the context of each conversation – who is speaking? What are they trying to achieve? How do their words reflect their personality or beliefs?

When crafting conversations between characters, authors should strive for naturalism by using language appropriate to that speaker. For example, if a speaker comes from Southern California, it might make sense for them to speak with a more casual language. However, if they are speaking in the English Parliament, a more formal register would work.

The way you write character dialogue is also important in defining the personality of characters. For example, Draco Malfoy’s sneering tone in *Harry Potter* shows him to be from a snobbish upper class background. In F Scott Fitzgerald’s *The Great Gatsby*, the use of technical terminology like “ectoplasm”, “platonic” and “spectroscopic” to describe ordinary daily life shows the narrator to be a person of pretentious education.


The Importance of Pacing in Storytelling

Pacing, or the speed at which a story unfolds, is a crucial element of effective storytelling. A well-paced story balances tension and release, keeping the reader engaged and emotionally invested. Pacing can create a sense of urgency or calm, excitement or contemplation, depending on the desired emotional effect.

For example, Dan Brown’s *The Da Vinci Code* is known for its fast-paced plot, with short chapters and frequent cliffhangers, which create a sense of excitement and tension. In contrast, Gabriel García Márquez’s *One Hundred Years of Solitude* has a slower pace, with longer chapters and more gradual plot developments, which create a sense of introspection and depth.

Pacing should also reflect the characters’ emotional states and the intensity of their conflicts. For example, in *To Kill a Mockingbird* by Harper Lee, the pace accelerates during the trial of Tom Robinson, reflecting the characters’ escalating emotional turmoil.


Creating a Sense of Urgency to Motivate Your Audience

Creating a sense of urgency is an important element of storytelling, as it motivates readers to keep turning the page. Authors can use various techniques to create this feeling, such as introducing a ticking clock or setting a deadline for characters to achieve their goals. For example, in the first film of the *Kingsman* franchise, the protagonist has a limited amount of time to diffuse a ticking missile launch, with the clock frequently being referenced as an establishing shot for scenes.

Another way authors can create urgency is by using cliffhangers at the end of each chapter or scene; these leave readers wanting more and encourage them to continue reading until they reach the resolution. There are two ways of achieving this. The first is by telling a story with pauses between sections: this is called serializing.

The other way of achieving this is by using oscillating narratives. This is when multiple stories are playing out at the same time and you cut between them. For example, in the Avengers movie franchise, you’ll often cut between superheroes mid-battle, leaving the audience desperate to find out what happened to each of them.


Ultimately, creating a sense of urgency helps motivate audiences and encourages them to stay invested in your story until its satisfying conclusion.

The Role of Perspective and Point of View

The perspective and point of view from which a story is told can have a huge impact on the takeaway for readers. For example, in Harper Lee’s *To Kill A Mockingbird*, the story is narrated by Scout Finch, an innocent child who sees her father Atticus as a hero.

However, if the same story were to be told from Bob Ewell’s perspective—the antagonist of the novel—it would likely take on an entirely different tone. This demonstrates how changing perspectives can alter our understanding of events and characters within a narrative.

In addition to providing insight into characters and their motivations, shifting perspectives can also help authors create suspense or surprise twists in their stories. In *White Teeth* by Zadie Smith, different chapters are told from the perspective of different characters, allowing you to get a new take on their interaction.

When used effectively, varying points of view can add depth and nuance to any narrative. For example, if you’re telling a story about taking responsibility, you might map out a disaster at your company from both an engineering and finance perspective, so you can build empathy across departments.

Unconventional Story Structures

Unconventional story structures such as flashbacks and vignettes can be used to add depth and complexity to a narrative.

Flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past, often providing insight into characters’ motivations or backstory. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s frequent flashbacks provide readers with an understanding of his inner turmoil and struggles with depression.

Vignettes are short stories within a larger narrative which focus on one particular moment or event; they can be used to create suspense or surprise twists for readers. For example, in Ernest Hemingway’s ‘In Our Time’, smaller short stories allow you to get a better understanding of the formative experience of a soldier’s life. In fact, Hemingway’s use of an unconventional temporal structure was designed to throw the audience off balance and subvert their expectation that the story would center on patriotic heroism.

These unconventional story structures allow authors to explore complex themes while keeping audiences engaged until the end of their stories.

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