There are some essentials of story writing. From my point of view those are change, loss, love and hate. But what does that mean?
Stories usually start because of a change. Now, life is full of changes, from the everyday ones like night and day to the slow ones like youth to old age. So what does it mean when I write ‘stories usually start because of a change?’
Every story revolves around a ‘hero’ of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a classical hero, the hero can just as well be an everyday person. But this person will start a voyage. It might be a trip from Paris to L.A. or just a mental trip from the well-known beliefs to strange ones. The voyage might take place in a fantasy world, in a historic place, in space or just inside someone’s head. But to make the hero undertake this voyage, a change is needed. The situation must change and ‘force’ him or her to make the first move.
When Luke Skywalker leaves his aunt’s and uncle’s home to follow the droids and find Obi-Wan, the change starts. When he comes back and has to realize that there’s no way to return to his old life (because the farm is destroyed and his relatives are dead), the change is complete and he is forced to move on.
When Harry Potter finds out he is a wizard and will be allowed to study magic instead of going to a local school while his cousin will attend a boarding school, his life changes. He knows what really happened to his parents, he know what they were and what he is. This kind of knowledge can’t be ‘undone’ in some way. It’s there and it forces a change.
There are loads of other changes in novels, in movies or in comic books. Frodo’s life changes when he learns the truth about the Ring. He can’t go back to the life he had before he knew. Jonathan Harker can’t simply ignore the knowledge he’s gained about Dracula, he can’t simple let the count run wild in England.
There’s a saying stating that “You can’t cross the same river twice.” This might sound stupid (and seems not to fit very well with the rest of this post), but it is true. Between the first and the second time you cross a river, the water molecules will have moved, the animals and plants in the river will have grown older. Everything has changed since the last pass, you will never cross the same river twice.
Now on to the next basic ingredient: loss. Loss often comes with the change, in a way the change always means loss – the loss of the established situation. But loss in a story usually goes even further. It’s the loss of home, the loss of loved ones, the threatening loss of life. Loss is motivation. The change forces a movement, but the loss directs the direction.
The loss of his aunt and uncle makes Luke Skywalker follow his first mentor, lets him reach the rebellion and become a member of it.
The loss of friends and the threatening loss of more friends motivates Harry Potter to fight Voldemort instead of simply running and hiding.
You can play this ‘loss’-game with any number of stories, if you want to. It may be a very minor loss, but very, very often there is a loss in the life of a character destined to be a hero. That might also be the reason why most classic heroes are orphaned.
Love and hate, although complete opposites, are in truth two sides of the same coin. Both are strong emotions that drive people to do great things – wonderful or terrible. Love can turn to hate and the other way around, because the emotions are so similar in many ways. But for a story, love and hate bring more motivation.
A hero might do something for love or because of hate. A hero might undertake a voyage of a thousand miles on foot to seen the woman he’s in love with. He might undertake the same voyage to find the person he hates most of all. A person might risk everything, including their own life, to save a loved one – or to destroy a hated one.
This can also be coupled with the loss: the fear to lose the loved one can turn a humble nobody into a hero (or a hero into a villain, see Episode 2 and 3 of “Star Wars” – in essence it is the fear of losing Padmé like he lost his mother that will turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader). The hate of the person responsible for the loss can also turn a peaceful village dweller into a terrible warrior.
So, four basics of storytelling are change, loss, love and hate. There are many, many more, but there will be other posts for them.