Long before we could even write, we’d been telling stories through different mediums – for over 40,000 years now, in fact. After all, stories are an expression of one of our core human characteristics. In the words of Robert McKee, stories are “the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. What earlier was said in cave paintings (and even orally – via epic poems, chants, rhymes and songs) is now increasingly said through the medium of books and screens. Stories play an integral role in communicating ideas. They act as recognizable patterns, and in those patterns, we find meaning.
But stories alone are not enough. Understanding how stories are created and told is equally important. Tackling the project of creating a full-fledged story can be quite daunting. Here, we’ve created this very simple guide to understanding the art of storytelling and all the elements that go into creating an immersive story.
A story is the telling of an event, either true or fictional, in such a way that the listener experiences or learns something just by hearing it. It is a means of transferring information, experience, or perspective. In simpler words, a story is a depiction of a journey, where we follow a character or a series of characters on a journey as they pursue something up against certain obstacles.
Every story is unique. But there are certain templates most stories follow. These archetypes of stories have engaged human attention for centuries and continue to be used in popular narratives. Hence it’s important to understand the type of story you want to tell that will also reverberate with your audience. The different types of stories are:
There are generally two types of adventure archetypes of stories. They are:
There are generally three types of improvement archetypes of stories. They are:
There are generally two types of theatric archetypes of stories. They are:
It’s important to understand your audience and the type of stories they prefer. For example, children grow rapidly in their ability to understand different concepts and sense of humor too. A book for a 1-year-old, 4-year-old, and a 10-year-old are all different, as something too abstract won’t work for toddlers, and something too baby-ish may put off the older kids. A good tip for finding the right style of illustration is to study fairly recent books. As the children’s book industry has changed, books from 30 years ago don’t match what is being sold now. Therefore, it is preferable to study books published in the last 10-15 years.
Let’s look at Kubo & the Two Strings. The original story and its characters are a bit more mature than the usual movies catered towards children. Now, if we convert the same movie into a book by making the story and the characters simpler, we have a perfect storybook catered towards small children, with a focus on family values. Similarly, taking the same concept and making it more gritty and complex can create an interesting graphic novel meant for teenagers.
All books, especially children’s picture books, need to be both mirrors and windows. It’s wonderful for an audience to see different people and cultures represented in the stories they read. Hence, it is of equal importance that a person is able to see themselves in a story and relate to it on a literal level. The story of Cinderella, perhaps the best-known fairy tale, is read to children of very young ages. But Cinderella is not just one story. Till date, more than 500 versions have been found, where every culture seems to have its own iteration.
For example, Glass Slipper is a Worldwide Cinderella story by Paul Fleischman. It has a beautiful tapestry of text that combines many different versions of the so-familiar tale. Similarly, the tale of Cinderella can also be found in South-Asian cultures, such as “Yeh-Shen” in China and “Anklet for a Princess” in India. All these stories have a similar concept of the story, but a change in the details representing Cinderella.
It is difficult to start writing a story either because you don’t know how exactly to organize the story, or you don’t know what to write about it. This is where creating a setting gets extremely useful, as it helps you narrow down your ideas. A setting refers to the place where your whole story takes place. Is your story’s timeline set way back in the past? Or is it a story with a futuristic timeline? Does it occur in a magical castle on a cold winter night? Or in a desert during a hot summer night? The setting can be as simple or as complex as desired.
There are three main parts to the structure of a story, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Most stories stick to a basic story structure. There is always room for creativity, but the basic structure generally looks something like this:
The style of illustration also plays an important role in creating immersive stories. Some of the most popular styles that are used include watercolor illustrations, stylized graphic illustrations, line drawings, and collages. Most styles can be adapted to match the quality of your book.
For example, sweet watercolor illustrations, for instance, can be a great match for a gentle, touching story, but they don’t work well for a monster truck book.
Just like shape, color, too, has the power to invoke certain emotions. We take in and connect to colors before anything else, even before words, shapes, and designs. In young children’s books, the colors we typically see are bright, clear hues, that grab the attention of the children or lighter pastel tones that provide a healing effect. This group of colors speaks to children. Swap these out for greyed-out hues or desaturated colors, and children are likely to dismiss them. However, these work very well for more mature audiences.
Every story needs to be made only after considering all these points. It is very important to make a conscious effort to create a story palette that reverberates with your audience.
What do characters like Po from Kung Fu Panda, Carl from Up, and Anger from Inside Out, have in common? They are all engaging and likable characters that have managed to capture the hearts of many children. We all know how different colors make us feel different emotions when we look at pictures, but shapes are equally potent in affecting us psychologically. Any character can be broken down into basic shapes and we often subconsciously assign qualities to a character simply based on these shapes.
Squares are usually perceived as something stable and heavy. Hence, strong and masculine characters are usually square or rectangular in shape. It may even depict a stable or stubborn personality. Oval shapes are perceived as safe, soft, friendly, harmless, and naïve. Hence, they are usually used to depict baby characters or chubby adults. Triangles and angular shapes have always projected danger. That is why triangles and pointy shapes are often used to show evil characters. Triangles also provide directions and can be used to show a hero’s determination, drive, and opportunism.
In the movie Up (2009), one of the main characters Carl, and the antagonist Charles Muntz, have similar square body structures that depict their stubborn and inflexible nature. But looking deeper into their shape psychology, Charles Muntz has a much more angular concept as seen, for example, in his head, shoes, and cane. The jacket also gives him a major triangular shape. Carl, on the other hand, although grumpy, has a softer edge to his structure, which makes him more endearing overall.
India has its own method of narrating stories and bringing ideas to life. Listening to stories and passing them down over generations is an integral part of Indian culture. Being a land of diverse cultures, every state and district follows its own style of storytelling. While some narrate, others employ props like puppets, masks, musical instruments, and even dance. Oral storytelling is not the only way to create dynamic stories. Passed down from one generation to another, Indian folk art is still alive in many parts of the country. Not only do these art forms give unique, fresh, and eye-catching visuals, but they also help in creating love and awareness for Indian arts and crafts.
For example: ‘Bulli and the Tiger’ is one such book about the story of a little girl Bulli, growing up in Assam, illustrated by Nankusiya Shyam in the Gond style. Another simple yet effective story is ‘The London Jungle Book’ illustrated by Bhajju Shyam. It is another popular book that beautifully illustrates the two months he spent in London in Gond style.
Storytelling is an art. It helps you communicate your ideas creatively and engagingly. It is one of the most powerful mediums of conveying your message and bringing people together. We hope that our guide helped you learn the art of storytelling and gave you a bit of inspiration for your next story!