In our two-part series on storytelling, we’ll explore the structural elements of story and how these elements work together to impact and engage readers. Enjoy Part 1: Character and Context and watch for Part 2 on Monday.
The caller ID said “Landlord.” The rent was late. Again.
Jane riffled through the folds of her old wallet as if she thought a kindly elf might have hidden five hundred dollars inside while she slept. But the wallet was empty, as she had known it would be. She put it back in her pocket.
The phone kept right on buzzing. “Break’s over,” her supervisor barked behind her.
The human brain thrives on—some would say “operates on”—stories. The stories we tell ourselves and each other can make the difference between whether a random incident or encounter is viewed as positive or negative—whether we relate to or empathize with the people involved or view their problems with disinterest or even antipathy. Stories exist within the larger narrative our minds create as we absorb everything around us, and how we view a story depends on how it fits our narrative of how things are or are supposed to be.
If you're a fiction writer, you've been taught to understand story structure as a set of building blocks that starts with a character and a dramatic need. Storytelling for purposes of community engagement and fundraising works best when it starts from the same place: with a real person and a need the community can fulfill. Understanding how structure works in fiction to immerse and engage the reader is a vital tool in learning to tell the real stories that will engage your audience, both in terms of the impact your organization can have on the community, and perhaps more importantly, how your readers can become a part of the story and make a difference by supporting your work.
If I did my job above, you’re wondering how things work out for Jane. We’ll get back to her story soon, but first let’s go over some of those building blocks—the elements of storytelling that form the foundation, action, and resolution of every well-developed story:
- Character: the protagonist, the heroine, the person whose journey we’re following and to whom we want the reader to relate
- Context: the setting and situation in which the protagonist finds themselves
- Conflict: the tension between the thing the protagonist wants (dramatic need) and the forces standing against them
- Plot: a kind of battle between the protagonist and antagonist(s) (villains, obstacles) over whether our hero will get what they want or need in the end
- Resource: the thing the character has at her disposal that she doesn’t realize she has until the last minute—it will ultimately help her achieve her goal
- Resolution: how it all works out (or doesn’t) in the end
Each of these elements has a job to do in your story, and it all starts with a protagonist and a setting, otherwise known as a character and their context as the story begins.
Character and Context
The protagonist, or main “character” in your story, is the person things are happening to. In the story snippet at the start of this article, that’s Jane. If the goal is to engage people in helping us help folks like Jane, we need to give donors a window into her life and her struggles. And to have the most impact, we also need to provide a mirror—the protagonist must be someone we can relate to on some level.
While a protagonist can, in theory, be more than one person (a family, for example), the more people involved, the more difficult it can be for the reader to empathize with and relate to the protagonist—so an organization, for example, doesn’t make a particularly engaging protagonist from a storytelling perspective. The reader is looking for someone to identify with, and if we do our job well, someone who will stick with them for some time to come.
The context is the setting—the place and situation in which the protagonist finds herself, including but not limited to their immediate and wider physical, emotional, and societal surroundings at the time the story begins. In our story, Jane’s context is her job, but it’s also the stress she’s under, her anxious state of mind, toxic work conditions, and the systemic problems that have caused her poverty.
Jane put her phone back in her locker and shut it just as Derrick rounded the corner. He waved a pale hand in front of her face. “I said break’s over,” he repeated as if she hadn’t understood the first time. By Jane’s accounting she still had a couple of minutes, but that didn’t matter. If she argued with Derrick, he’d just cut her hours. He’d done it before.Now we know a bit about where Jane is in her life and a little about what she’s up against. Next up, we’ll talk more about the forces working against Jane (such as Derrick) and the journey to achieving her goals, in Elements of Story Part 2: Conflict and Resolution.