Elements of Story Telling

by Nynke Passi


Janusz Grabianski, ill; story: Hans C. Andersen, “Thumbelina”

Memoirs do many things: explore ideas, argue beliefs, offer solutions to problems, philosophize about life’s great mysteries and questions, evoke emotion by juxtaposing images as in poetry, offer vignettes that are glimpses into another world, analyze feelings and experiences, and give commentary on the goings-on in the world.

However, most memoirs also tell stories. A good number of memoirs read pretty much like novels, drawing you fully into the narrative world of the characters. In order to do this well, it helps to have familiarity with some terms from fiction:


Setting: The location, time, historical context, mood and atmosphere of the graphic narrative. Without setting, a story takes place in vacuity and cannot fully come to life. Just as a play employs “props” to create a believable world in which the characters act, so a story needs setting, which literally sets the stage on which the characters engage with each other. Sometimes setting can be such an important part of a story that it becomes almost like a personified character.


Character: A character is any person, persona, identity, or entity that originates in a work of writing. Along with plot, setting, theme, style, and point of view, character is considered one of the fundamental components of story telling. Characters may be entirely fictional, or they may be based upon real people, contemporary or historical. They may be human, supernatural, mythical, divine, animal, or personifications of an abstraction. Characterization is the process of creating an image of a person in fiction or memoir, complete with that person’s traits, features, and motivation. The word “character” derives from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr (χαρακτήρ) through its Latin transcription character. Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practiced by actors or writers, has been called characterization.

Type: A character who stands as a representative of a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Types include both stock or stereotypical characters (flat characters) and those that are more fully individualised (round characters). Different types of characters are the protagonist, the antagonist or villain or opponent, the hero, the main character, minor character, and the foil.

Protagonist: A protagonist (from the Greek πρωταγωνιστής protagonistes, “one who plays the first part, chief actor,” is the main character (the central or primary personal figure) of a literary and/or graphic narrative, around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy. There can be more than one protagonist in a story. A protagonist is not always the hero of a story; a protagonist can be an anti-hero because of his/her human flaws. In a personal essay, the “I” or first person narrator (the writer) is also the protagonist—the person the reader will most identify with and get to know the best while reading the essay.

Antagonist: The principal opponent of the protagonist is a character known as the antagonist, who represents or creates obstacles that the protagonist(s) must overcome. As with protagonists, there may be more than one antagonist in a story (as in life). The antagonist does not necessarily have to be a “bad” character; it could, for example, be a parent who is protective of a child and does not want to let him/her drive a car alone at night, or a person who thwarts the protagonist because of his/her own understandable needs and desires.

Foil: A foil is a person who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight various features of the main character’s personality and to throw the character of the protagonist into sharper focus. A foil usually has some important characteristics in common with the other character, such as superficial traits or personal history. Often it is a best friend, a sidekick, a mate, a partner, or something of the kind.

Scene: In fiction or memoir, a scene is a unit of dramatic action: what happens in one place at a certain time in a continuous action. The purpose of scene is to set characters in motion and render action. Scenes advance story, show conflict, introduce or develop characters, create suspense and give information, create atmosphere, develop theme, and further the plot. Usually a story has several minor scenes and one or more major (or climactic) scenes in which the dramatic story comes to a climax, which then unravels in a conclusion (see Plot). Scenes almost always involve dialogue, and therefore both text and subtext. Plot is built up of exposition (narration) and scenes and each scene usually includes dialogue.

Dialogue: In fiction and memoir, dialogue is the conversational exchange between two or more people—namely, the characters about which a story is told. It’s a literary form with underpinnings in rhetoric and theater. Dialogue allows the graphic narrator to explore the different voices of the characters, their slang, their personality, their true natures. Dialogue can bring a lot of intimacy, humor, poignancy, immediacy, and diversity to a graphic narrative piece.


Roy Lichtenstein, subtext

Subtext: Subtext is content of speech/dialogue (or sometimes narrative), which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author), but is implicit or becomes something understood by the reader. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters, which are only covered in an aside. And subtext can be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction; this is often accomplished through use of metaphor. Subtext is basically that which is hidden, the deeper agenda.

In dialogue, subtext is content underneath the spoken words—the true meaning which is implied but not expressly spoken out loud. Underneath seemingly simple or polite dialogue can play conflict, anger, competition, pride, love, passion, caring or yearning, jealousy, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext indicates the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe  even if they cannot say it. Subtext just beneath the surface of dialogue makes dialogue more interesting, but it can also cause characters to be misunderstood. Writers play with the dynamic relationship between text and subtext, layering their work in richly dynamic ways that aren’t predictable and therefore all the more human and poignant. Subtext also allows for understatement. Instead of having your characters gush with emotion, you can convey emotion in subtext, never stating it outright, but evoking it all the same.

Plot: A literary term, plot is the backbone of a story: all the events and actions particularly rendered for the purpose of evoking some particular artistic or emotional effect or expressing a general theme. Plot usually involves a narrative structure (also called storyline or story arc) that includes exposition, conflict, rising action and climax, followed by a falling action and resolution.


Freytag’s pyramid

Exposition: Exposition is the beginning of the plot usually concerned with introducing characters and setting. These elements may be largely presented at the beginning of the story, or occur as a sort of incidental description throughout. Exposition may be handled in a variety of ways—perhaps a character or a set of characters explain the elements of the plot through dialogue or thought, through media such as newspaper clippings, through letters, and diaries, video tape, television, documentary, or omniscient narrative, etc.

Rising Action/Conflict: Rising Action is the central part of a story during which arise various problems, which lead up to the climax. Conflict is the “problem” in a story, which triggers the action. Usually conflict stems from the character’s desires and passions. There are five basic types of conflict: 1) Person vs. Person: One character in a story has a problem with one or more of the other characters; 2) Person vs. Society: A character has a conflict or problem with society-the school, the law, tradition; 3) Person vs. Him or Herself: A character struggles inside and has trouble deciding what to do; 4) Person vs. Nature: A character has a problem with some element of nature, a snowstorm, avalanche, bitter cold; 5) Person vs. Fate A character has to battle what seems to be an uncontrolled problem. In a longer graphic narrative, rising action can build slowly in steps. The problem at first may appear small, but then it gets worse and worse, until a climax is inevitable.

Climax: The climax is the high point of the story, where a culmination of events creates the peak of the conflict. The climax features the unraveling of all the conflict and struggle of the main characters of a story, and usually reveals any secrets that were kept, any mistaken identities, any unresolved aspects of the story. Alternatively, an anti-climax may occur, in which an expectedly difficult event is revealed to be incredibly easy or of paltry importance. The climax usually is rendered as a scene and spun out in great detail, but sometimes it’s not; it can be just a sentence or paragraph at the end of a story that unravels everything. The climax is never the first important scene in a story. In many stories, it is the last scene, the scene the story builds toward.

Climactic scene: The climactic scene is the scene in which the climax takes place. Usually it’s the last or almost the last scene of the story in which the protagonist (hero/heroine) attains or does not attain his/her goal. In itself it is not as important whether the hero/heroine wins or loses his/her objective; it is only important that the hero/heroine transforms and learns something, finding him or herself deeply changed. This in turn also changes the consciousness of the reader of the story.

Falling action: The falling action is the part of a story following the climax. This part of the story shows the result of the climax, and its effects on the characters, setting and proceeding events. Falling action can be anti-climactic for it can take away from the power of the climax. Usually it is so interwoven with the climax that it takes place almost simultaneously.

Resolution/Dénouement: In literature, a dénouement consists of a series of events that follow the climax of a drama or narrative, and thus serves as the conclusion of the story. Conflicts are resolved, creating a sense of catharsis or release of tension for both the characters and the reader. Etymologically, the French word dénouement is derived from the Old French word denouer, “to untie,” and from nodus, Latin for “knot.” Simply put, dénouement is the unraveling or untying of the knots, or the complexities of a plot.

The dénouement comprises events after the climax and the falling action (which should not be confused with dénouement). It can take the form of epilogue or a final scene, or a flashback that reveals how all the characters have moved on and how things have turned out since the climax. Evildoers repent, good and bad characters are exposed in their true natures, rulers are restored to power, wronged people come to justice, married couples bear children and have a fruitful life, disguises are dropped, lessons are learned, etc. In this sense, dénouement can be very satisfying for the reader. In the hands of an inexperienced writer, it can also become a bit sappy and overly-sweet or predictable. Modern literature likes better to end on a note of ambiguity where the final conclusion may be implied but where nothing is too tidy and where a lot is left unsaid. Modern writing also favors surprise endings that don’t allow for dénouement because they are too quick. In personal essay, dénouement can be subtle and represent an inner transformation of the writer, part of a continuum of action/transformation that may not be finished at the end of the essay, as essays are based on life experience, and life experience is rarely as neatly packaged as life appears to be in a fictional story. In a tragedy, a dénouement usually involves the death of one or more of the characters, for better or for worse. Dénouement is considered part of the classical dramatic structure.

Quest: In mythology and literature a quest—a journey towards a goal—serves as a plot device. Quests appear in the folklore of every nation and also figure prominently in non-national cultures. This is because the essence of quest lies within human consciousness: the journey outside and inside to attain greater good, or, spiritually speaking, enlightenment. In literature, quests require great exertion on the part of the hero and the overcoming of many obstacles—for example travel over a body of water symbolic of travel in consciousness, descent into the underworld symbolic of familiarization with death (transcendence), helping animals and humans in need to demonstrate kindness of heart and compassion, atoning with father and mother figures to clear the tensions of the past, fulfilling impossible tasks to demonstrate great resilience, answering complicated questions and solving riddles to demonstrate superior intellect, performing trying tasks to demonstrate superior virtue, slaying monsters or dragons to demonstrate valor, etc. Once the hero or heroine overcomes all obstacles, he or she receives a “boon” or reward to bring back to his or her society. The quest motif is present in all of literature and serves as a framework for plot in many graphic narratives.

Katharsis: Literally “going beyond,” from the Greek kata basein, is a literary term referring to the climactic moment the hero/heroine of a story transcends his/her own boundaries and the boundaries of the world he/she lives in, experiencing a new awakening to new truth. In psychology, katharsis is a term to indicate emotional purging, but it is more than that in literature—it quite literally means transformation through transcendence. Katharsis is an essential part of the archetypal “quest.”


Janusz Grabianski ill, story: Hans C. Andersen, “The Ugly Duckling”

Epiphany: Less grand than katharsis, epiphany indicates a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

Subplot: While plot is the main story line, subplot is a side story that often counterbalances, juxtaposes, or somehow plays off the main story line, augmenting its impact or providing comic relief.

Point of View: Point of view is an essential decision in the telling of any story. It’s the vantage point from which a story is told. This is a narrative choice that dramatically affects the feeling level and impact of a graphic narrative piece, allowing or disallowing intimacy and encouraging or discouraging distance, thereby influencing voice and tone. A story can be told as if over the shoulder of an involved observer whom the reader cares for, with full access to this characters thoughts and feelings (limited omniscient perspective). It can be told from the vantage point of an omniscient God-like narrator (omniscient point of view). It can be told in an objective manner as if the storyteller were a fly-on the wall without access to the thoughts and feelings of any of the characters, only able to render actions and dialogue (objective point of view). It can also be told in the personal voice of either the villain or the hero of the story (first person point of view). Even the choice whether it is told in first person or third person makes a big difference on the impact of the narrative.

The advantage of a more personal point of view is that it creates intimacy; the disadvantage of the personal voice is that a narrator can be reliable or unreliable—the reader does not know to what extent he/she can trust the speaker’s voice and the speaker may only have limited access to the full scope and implications of the story. The advantage of a less personal and more omniscient voice is that it gives a sense of emotional restraint, which is rather modern; omniscient perspective also allows a God-like knowledge of all actions and thoughts and feelings, past and present, of all of the characters, so that an omniscient story can gain an epic scope.

Voice: Voice is the opposite of attitude. It is a writer’s authentic energy and style of telling a story. A writer should write as he/she speaks. A writer’s text should sound natural and engaging, even though accomplishing this might involve some labor. A writer must be in command of several voices. First of all his/her own, the voice that carries the narrative in a “confident and confiding manner” (Josip Novakovich). Then, like an actor, he/she must also be able to construct personae, authentic-sounding characters and narrators. If a writer has an authentic voice, his/her work will be recognized anywhere.

Tone: The attitude toward a subject and toward an audience implied in a literary work. Tone is a literary technique very intimately connected to the personal voice of the author. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending—or many other things—in attitude. Tone and mood are not exactly interchangeable; tone sets the mood for a narrative story. Without tone, a piece of literature would evoke no emotion, and may seem very dull. It would likely be an official document. In many cases, the tone of a piece of work may change or evolve. Elements of tone include diction or word choice; syntax, the grammatical arrangement of words in a text for effect; imagery, or vivid appeals to the senses; details, facts that are included or omitted; extended metaphor, language that compares seemingly unrelated things throughout the composition, etc.

Literary Techniques: Personal essays can employ a vast range of literary devices. These techniques are conventions or structures employed to certain effect in literature and story telling. Literary techniques are important aspects of an author’s style, which is one of the five traditional elements of fiction, along with character, plot, setting and theme. Literary devices collectively comprise the art form’s components, the means by which authors create meaning through language, and by which readers gain understanding of and appreciation for literary works.

For a complete list of literary techniques that can also be employed in personal essay, see the Wikipedia links below. Let’s just mention a few: 1) Sound devices (alliteration, assonance, consonance, sibilance, repetition, metrical devices). 2) Figurative language (metaphor, personification, simile). 3) Epiphany (katharsis, vision, insight, transformation on the part of a character and/or reader). 4)Flashback and flashforward (leaps in time that take characters back to the beginning of a story or that jump ahead, projecting the outcome of a story).  5) Frame story or story within a story (a character in a story tells another story). 6) Irony (a discrepancy between expectation and reality. The three forms of irony are: situational irony, where a situation features a discrepancy between what is expected and what is actualized; dramatic irony, where a character is unaware of pivotal knowledge which has already been revealed to the audience (the discrepancy here lies in the two levels of awareness between the character and the audience); and verbal irony, where one states one thing while meaning another). 7) Juxtaposition (when the author places two themes, characters, phrases, words, or situations together for the purpose of comparison, contrast, or rhetoric). 8) Unreliable narrator (a technique in which the narrator of the story is not sincere or introduces a bias in the way he tells the story, thereby possibly misleading the reader, hiding or minimizing some events, characters or motivations. A child is a famous example of an unreliable narrator, since a child may not comprehend everything that goes on in the adult world around him/her.) 9) Foreshadowing (hinting at events to occur later, especially those important to the plot). 10) In media res (starting in the middle of a story for the sake of drama, then working backwards and forwards from there).

Wikipedia list of literary techniques: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_technique

On elements of fiction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiction#Elements_of_fiction


Janusz Grabianski, ill; story: Hans C. Andersen, “Gerda”