5 Elements of a Great Story

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Storytelling is an essential part of human nature. Stories are all around us – books, movies, music, art and even marketing ads tell stories. Humans have been telling stories for centuries and although we don’t know where the first story originated, we know they are intrinsic to our core.

Think about a story you’ve heard recently – it can be from a friend at work, a silent video on Facebook or even a TV show. Did that story leave an impression or did you tune out halfway? What is the difference between the stories that engross us versus the ones that don’t?

The stories that stay with us are those that bring out our curiosity, then hook you and then leave you a little bit changed. Great stories bring out emotion and urge you to act.

There is a story waiting to be told in every person, street, building and city. We can uncover stories anywhere, and by keeping these 5 elements in mind we can make stories significantly more powerful.

1)    Be Captivating

Great stories are those that capture your interest right from the beginning. With only 8 seconds to capture someone’s attention it’s important to hook their interest long enough to give your story a chance to develop.

To grab someone’s attention you need a catchy hook. In speaking and writing, a great way to hook someone into your story is to ask a question. It turns a passive listener into an active participant by making them think. It also compels them to stay to find out the answer.

In our digital age, stories are now increasingly told through websites, blogging and social media platforms. When telling a digital story, it’s important to not only have great writing skills, but also to have great imagery to accompany your words. There’s a reason why, on average, people spend 2 hours on social media. Social media has captured the human desire to see their friends’ life stories not only through words but also through photographs.

In addition to capturing your attention, a great story holds your attention all the way through by having a beginning, middle and end. If your story doesn’t follow the storyline arch – having a beginning, middle and end - it risks being interpreted as uninteresting or pointless.

2)    Have a Mission

Telling a story for story’s sake may make a good story, but a great story with a lasting impact has a mission.

Think about why you are compelled to tell this story - what is the end goal?

The story’s mission doesn’t have to be stated outright, but keeping the mission in mind will help craft the direction of the story. This will also help the audience connect, relate and become invested in whatever you are trying to accomplish.

Before crafting your story, you can ask these questions to help you pinpoint your mission. For example, did you learn a lesson you want to share with the world? Do you want to inspire a certain population? Do you want to entertain someone? Do you want someone to take an action?

Great stories with a mission have the power to change their audience.

3)    Be Informative

Now that you’ve drawn someone into your story, it’s important to make them happy they stayed. In a time-poor world, everyone is about increasing efficiency. If someone stops their busy life for your story, it needs to be a good one. Your story needs to answer the question ‘why should I care’?

Most people will stop what they’re doing to learn something new. Learning is a deep-rooted habit in humans. We start learning from the moment we are born – from how to take our first breath to tying our shoes to becoming an expert in a certain field. Learning is what humans do and we can’t help but be interested in gaining knowledge.

This is why a great story is usually informative and sheds light on something the audience wasn’t aware of before.

Whether educating the public on an important issue like women’s rights, or providing background on a topic like the construction of the St. Louis Cathedral, great stories teach. When you provide something of value in your story your audience will want to come back for more.

4)    Invoke Emotion

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” Maya Angelou

There is a reason why this quote is so famous. It’s because emotions are powerful and stories that make us feel something, tend to stick with us.

People love being able to relate to things and if they can’t relate, then they can’t forge a connection. Just think about relationships in life; people surround themselves with others who share similar views and interests. It is the same in storytelling – people want stories they can relate to.

Many times, stories have conflicts or hardships that need to be overcome. This element allows the audience to cultivate empathy and compassion by relating to those adversities.

Whether positive or negative, it speaks volumes when a story can bring out an emotion. Whether its happiness, compassion or inspiration, emotions are key to creating a great story.

5)    Use Your Unique Voice

A great story is told with a unique voice that only the storyteller possesses. The same story can be told by multiple people and can contain the same information, but each time the story will have a different flavor.

For example, a history book will tell you a slightly different story of World War II than your grandfather. They may be telling the same story of the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, but each will have their own perspective, voice and tone.

A voice doesn’t have to be written or verbal though, it can also come through in imagery. For example, photographers take photos of the same tourist icons, but they can be drastically different. Think about how many photographs there are in the world of the Golden Gate Bridge, yet each photographer has a slightly different interpretation in their image.

Each storyteller has their own way to telling a story and having a unique voice is important. No one wants to hear the same exact story told in the same exact way. Celebrate the unique offerings you can bring to your storytelling!

Masters of storytelling combine these elements to create great stories. What story will you tell next?