This post is part of a series that explores the Basics of Educational Storytelling. Largely taken from my master”™s thesis, The Value and Principles of Educational Storytelling (which can be read here), this I will lay the foundation for an educational storytelling model regardless of setting and medium. We look at the basic elements of storytelling, five guiding principles and educational stories, and practical tips.

Check out the rest of the series.

See also Elements of Story: Character and Elements of Story: Setting

Building Blocks of Story

The term “story” can be defined in a thousand ways. Believe me, I’ve done the research. Many of these definitions are important, wielding long lists of elements and features, but are a bit overly complex for our purpose today. For an introduction to educational storytelling, and a primer of story itself, let’s stick to the basics. A story is:

A person (character) doing something (plot) in a place and time (setting).

As I did in the previous post about Character, I will synthesis the teaching from three of the greats. Robert McKeeChristopher Vogler, and Donna Cooper are three of the most respected screenwriting and story construction teachers. While they teach screenwriting, the principles they have discovered are effective in any medium.


We have our person (or dolphin or alien or teapot) that acts as a character, but that character must do something. In all but the most experimental stories, the protagonist (the main character) is a willful character, not ambling around waiting for something to happen. In most cases, there was some event (inciting incident) that drives the character forward. You can structure this in many ways. This is the plot. Let’s see what our experts have to say.

Robert McKee (1997)

“In truth, there’s only one story. In essence we have told one another, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity, and that story could be usefully called the Quest. All stories take the form of a quest. For better or worse, an event throws a character’s life out of balance, arousing in him the conscious and/or unconscious desire for that which he feels will restore balance, launching him on a quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism (inner, personal, extra-personal). He may or may not achieve it. This is story in a nutshell” (p. 196-197).

In order to understand a bit more about stories, McKee has broken the form of a story into five basic parts: the Inciting Incident, Progressive Complications, CrisisClimax and Resolution.

“The inciting incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance.” Whatever this event may be (meeting the girl of your dreams, hearing of a new promotion, learning your village has been poisoned), the indecent drives the protagonist into active pursuit of a goal.

The progressive complications are roadblocks to the protagonists goal. He meets each one and makes a willing decision that he expects to overcome this obstacle with the least amount of resource expended. Invariably, the world does not react the way they expected and a larger roadblock is set in his place. “A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another” (p. 209).

Crisis, at its heart, is the protagonist’s decision. There are many decisions that make up the progressive complications, but Crisis with a capital C speaks to the final set of decisions. “The protagonist’s quest has carried him through the Progressive Complications until he has exhausted all actions, save one. He now finds himself at the end of the line” (p. 303). Remember, we always try to get the most for the least. The hero will do as little as possible to achieve the goal. Now there are no more options. This should be the decision to take the biggest action. He has decided to jump off the bridge into the river of fire and demons. Now, all he has to do is win.

The resolution of a story has three possible uses. First,not all subplots may have been resolved in the climax. Second, show the effects of the climactic decision. Lastly, the resolution must exist to signal to the audience that the story is over and order has been restored (p. 312-314).

Christopher Vogler (2007)

Last week, we talked about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s simplification for modern writers. These stages were pulled from studying thousands of world-wide myths and legends.

  1. Ordinary World – The Hero’s world is in balance and she understands the rules of living here. It may not be perfect, but the she has no genuine desire to upset the status quo (p. 83-98).
  2. Call to Adventure – The Herald delivers some news, or some force upsets the balance in her ordinary world. Now, the only way to make things right is to step out on an adventure (p. 99-106).
  3. Refusal of the Call – The Hero typically refuses the call at first, but is given some incentive to continue. (p. 107-116).
  4. Meeting the Mentor – The Hero is ready to step into the special world, but does not know the way or the rules. The Mentor has been there before and is willing (sometimes reluctantly) to guide the Hero at least part of the way (p. 117-126).
  5. Crossing the First Threshold – As she stands on the edge, she must cross the threshold to be completely immersed by the special world. Threshold Guardians serve to test her resolve and give her a taste of what lies ahead (p. 127-134).
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – On her way the Hero meets with many tests, trials, allies and enemies. This is the bulk of the story (p. 135-142).
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave – The Hero has proven himself in the special world and now stands at the brink of what she knows will be the greatest challenge. Her Object of Desire is close at hand (p. 143-154).
  8. The Ordeal – This is where the Hero meets her Crisis and the worst confrontation yet. This is not necessarily the climax, but where the Hero faces death (and in some cases does die) and appears to be reborn (p. 154-174).
  9. Reward – Once the Hero has made his way past the Ordeal, she has a moment to savor his reward (p. 175-186).
  10. The Road Back – With the Object of Desire in hand, she returns to set his life back into balance (p. 187-196).
  11. The Resurrection – This involves Character Growth. The journeys have made the Hero change and grow. Sometimes she literally dies and is raised again, and sometimes she is just reborn into a new type of person: stronger, more confident, and able to overcome (p. 197-214).
  12. Return with the Elixir – The Hero returns to the ordinary world and sees that she doesn’t exactly fit anymore. It is here that she creates a new ordinary world melding the best from her experience and the world that surrounds her. The world is in balance again (p. 215-230).

It should be noted that the last five steps of the Hero’s Journey can happen in very quick succession and in slightly different orders. For a (perhaps) simpler and more detailed look at my series on The Hero’s Journey.

Donna Cooper (1997)

Donna Cooper sees plot as a roller coaster with key moments of change turning the audience’s emotions. These twists on the track are what makes the audience sit up to see what will happen next (p. 68-72).

She also teaches that the audience has four primary needs that a plot must fulfill. The first, and most important, is conflict resolution which is the process of “confronting the many challenges created by change.” Another core emotional need of the audience is new information that allows the audience to experience circumstances they have never or will never live through. The third emotional need is to feel a personal connection to the story. Finally, the plot should allow the audience to experience the satisfaction of building to a climax then resolution. (p. 76).

Cooper also gives some very concrete advice about increasing the “pillars” of the story. That is, the points that elevate the plot.

  1. Increase Dramatic Stakes
  2. Increase Jeopardy
  3. Increase Obstacles
  4. Increase Desperation
  5. Increase Unpredictability
  6. Increase Likelihood of Change
  7. Increase Revelations

What’s Next?

Characters do not act in a void. The place and time — the world — influences every bit of the story. Let’s explore setting next.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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