The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

Storytelling: The Elements of Designing a Story

It may come as a surprise to know that 50 per cent of developing a novel goes into deigning the story and the other half into writing.

The writer designs a selection of elements to include in the story. The elements must arouse an emotional response in the reader, such as excitement, fear, or compassion. Take Michael Mopurgo’s War Horse (1982). We experience a variety of emotions as we follow the story of the farm boy and the horse – initially the love between the two; then the fear of the first world war approaching; followed by loss as they are separated; and finally reunion. 

So the writer will carefully select elements, such as the setting, the type of conflict, the theme of the story, and the characters.

Let’s start by looking at setting. The design choices the writer will make are to do with when - past, present or future; and where - in this world or a fantasy world. Child 44 (2008) by Tom Rob Smith is set during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. There is a serial killer on the loose but the authorities can’t stop him, because under ‘perfect’ Soviet society, crime does not exist. As a reader you feel frustration and hopelessness for protagonist, Leo Demidov, as he tries to hunt down the serial killer and take on the system at the same time.  

The type of conflict or struggle taking place is another element the writer must consider. Conflict doesn’t always have to be about war, death, and action packed sequences. It can also be quiet and inner to the character. In Flowers for Algernon (1966) the level of conflict is inner, as we follow Charlie Gordon, a man who suffers from a mental disorder and has a low IQ of 68. He undergoes an experiment which makes him super smart and realises all the people he thought were his friends, were actually making fun of him and using him. Eventually the effects of the procedure wear off and we see Charlie regress back to his former mental state.

Theme is a tricky one and I’d hazard a guess most writers aren’t clear in their minds until they finish. So Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), is about a stingy old man, Ebenezer Scrooge who goes from being selfish to selfless after he is visited by a series of ghosts. We know that Dickens was concerned about the plight of the poor as a result of the industrial revolution and this theme runs throughout the book. Whether Dickens set off with this in mind, you’ll need to ask his ghost.

Characterisation is the sum of the observable qualities of a human being. So Mr Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) is an eccentric inventor, who wears a top hat and uses a cane. But sitting behind what we can see, is true character, which can only be revealed by putting our characters under pressure. The greater the pressure, the greater the revelation as to who this person really is: Honest or a liar? Loyal or disloyal? Courageous or cowardly? In Great Expectation (1861) Pip believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor, but it turns out to be Magwitch. Miss Havisham was intent on breaking his heart, as hers had been broken on her wedding day. 

So a well-designed story arouses an emotional response in the reader. How do you feel about the novel your currently reading? Has the writer been successful in the way they've designed the story?


Rehan Khan is the author of Last of the Tasburai, his debut epic fantasy novel.

Watch the full presentation on storytelling from Rehan at the City Circle -