A model for what makes a great story

May 21, 2013 by Joshua
in Art, Exercises, Humor, Models, Tips

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Storytelling seems so common to all cultures it’s probably in our genes to like a good story. We love hearing messages in the format of a story. If any has given you advice on how to give a presentation, someone probably told you to make it like a story.

Storytelling skills are a universally useful and attractive social skill.

So what makes a great story?

Why do we like to listen to some but not others?

I don’t claim to be the best storyteller, but when I started the personal development kick I’m still on, I organized a group of like-minded people to meet and practice storytelling. I figured the skill would benefit everyone no matter their goals or field. Getting the group to meet wasn’t that hard, so I imagine people saw the benefit.

I read a bunch of books on storytelling for ideas and suggestions. I used to think plot and theme were the main elements of a great story, based on what teachers asked us about books growing up.

These books suggested otherwise. I boiled down several books’ suggestions to what they all agreed on.

A model for what makes a great story: CCSG: Characters, Conflict, Struggle, Goal

All the books agreed, and I’ve found, that characters make the most important element of a story. If you wonder where to invest time into your stories, you almost can’t go wrong giving characters depth, detail, motivation, and such. If your characters have no richness or motivation, people lose interest.

Most stories have main character and an antagonist. Often the antagonist is more interesting, but we side with the main character.

As you describe the characters, a conflict almost always emerges. If they don’t have any conflict, you end up just describing people and a series of events. That might not bore people, but they won’t get hooked like when they learn of a conflict. For some reason we want to know how it plays out.

The struggle among the characters is what most people consider the plot. Usually most of the story plays out there.

Achieving a goal makes the story feel complete. Without it people feel cheated or consider the story empty.

Put those four elements together and you’ll have a decent story, even if you make it up on the spot. Leave any out and your story will feel incomplete or empty.

Like I said, I’m not the best storyteller, so I don’t claim my word is final here. I’m sure people can tell great stories without this structure, but I find when I use it I don’t lose people.

One of the easiest things to add to make it funny is to talk for the characters in a funny voice. Or to react in character.

The structure is only one part of a story, but it’s a big part. Other things include how you use your voice and arms, your confidence, timing, and other things. But I find this structure one of the quickest things to learn to improve with.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when starting to tell a story to think about how to structure it. If I don’t know, I focus on giving richness to the characters at the beginning. That description usually reveals a conflict. Once the conflict emerges, people are hooked.

I often use this structure when creating presentations.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces for most people just recounting a series of events without exposing the underlying conflict that would hook people to hear the struggle and goal with a structure that does hook people.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to more engaging stories. Since people in all cultures like stories, storytelling is a universal social skill.

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