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Weaving the Elements of Storytelling

Do you have a friend that knows how to tell a good story? I don’t mean they know how to write, I mean they know how to share something that happened and make it funny, interesting, or insightful.

Take a moment and think about a story they’ve told you and why it was good. Chances are they had these three elements in their story:

  1. Dialogue - What someone said, what they said, the interactions people have. Sometimes it’s the punchline, sometimes it’s the “oh wow!” moment. In any case, they probably had a good few lines they plucked from the incident.
  2. Inner Monologue - What they were thinking as the event unfolds, perceptions that maybe changed or shifted, descriptions of what they thought about someone else they interacted with. In a more insightful or thoughtful story, they might end with this element.
  3. The Room - Quite literally, where they were, what surrounded them, and how that affected the incident or story they’re telling. Whether the story takes place at a laundromat or in a casino, something about the location likely affects the story in a signficant way.

A good storyteller includes these three elements and knows how to weave them together to make a compelling narrative. A story about a trip to the grocery store could seem boring and yawn-inducing, but with the right mix of those three elements, it can suddenly be a gripping story about what happened when they reached for a bag of potato chips.

Naturally, these elements play a crucial part in writing a story as well. Weaving them is what constitutes crafting a story. How you shape the story and use these elements is what determines if your story hooks your readers into getting invested in a bag of potato chips or makes them lose interest and has them wandering over to the produce aisle.

Unfortunately, there’s no secret to success in how to weave these elements. Every story is different. However the key is to use all three effectively. You don’t want to rely too heavily on one element. Too much dialogue becomes repetitive, and the story can suffer from a lack of immediacy. When people talk, nothing’s actually happening. Think about storytellers, good and bad. Is it fun when your friend rambles on saying “And I was like, blahblahblah, and then she was like, blahblahblah.”? Dialogue should push the story forward, reveal things to the reader, and show who the characters are.

Likewise, too much inner monologue and description of the room can become an endless parade of unnecessary thoughts, asides, and details. Do we really need to know the fabric of the couch or the pattern on a table? If it serves the story and becomes a crucial element, then yes! But oftentimes, the details need only be the ones that matter the most.

If you look at your story and notice chunks where one of these elements is heavier than the others, it might be a weak spot in the story.

Now, for an example from a Carve story: Judith Slater’s “The Time of Plenty” is expertly crafted, mixing and mingling these three elements in just the right amounts to create a compelling story about two families opposite on the political spectrum but joined together on election night, all told through the lens of a rather intelligent and insightful young girl, Lizzie.

Without even reading the story, you can scroll through and see the different elements take their turns, some heavier than others at times, but when you do read the story (and you really should) you find that the story clips along nicely despite its length, always developing more about the characters, the story, the events that are happening. Nothing is verbose, overdone, or unnecessary. Every sentence counts, and every element is used to its full potential.

And the ending actually uses an image of “the room,” more specifically an object, and it’s a recurring image woven throughout the story. Using that particular image, which by now has taken on a more symbolic meaning, conveys the depth of change the characters have endured in just one night.

In summary, if you’re struggling with revising a piece, think about these three elements and how you’ve weaved them together. Is one element dominating - and if so, it is called for? Or do other elements need to shine? Ask yourself if it’s a story someone would keep listening to if it were just a friend telling it.