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: Plot

Building Blocks of Story

Before we can tell great educational stories, we must learn to tell great stories. Three of the greatest storytelling teachers of our time — Robert McKeeChristopher Vogler, and Donna Cooper — have spent their lives discovering what makes a story work. I have synthesized their researcher so that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Working from our basic definition of story:

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


Robert McKee (1997)

McKee defines setting as the period, duration, location, and level of conflict. “These four dimensions frame the story’s world; but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliche-free story, and you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail” (p. 181 ). In other words, the author of a story must create a world that is as believable and real as the world we all exist in. The fictitious world, may not follow the same laws of nature, but must work according to a sense of internal logic (p. 186).

“A story must obey its own internal laws of probability. The event choices of the writer, therefore, are limited to the possibilities and probabilities within the world he creates” (p. 70). “The world of a story must be small enough that the mind of a single artist can surround the fictional universe it creates and come to know it in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He created … by the time you finish your last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world … that you couldn’t answer instantly” (p. 71).

There are eight general questions that McKee suggests one asks while developing a world. (p. 181-183)

  1. How do my characters make a living?
  2. What are the politics of my world?
  3. What are the rituals of my world?
  4. What are the values in my world?
  5. What is the genre or combination of genres?
  6. What are the biographies of my characters?
  7. What is the backstory?
  8. What is my cast design?

Christopher Vogler (2007)

In the Mythic Structure there are two worlds: the ordinary world and the special world. Both of these worlds may be physical lands or worlds, or sets of circumstances and lifestyles. The ordinary world is the Hero’s life in balance. He understands the rules of survival, knows what he needs to know to be successful, and considers everything in order. It may not be a perfect world, but it is his world. This world may or may not be the same as the audience, and the further from the audiences world it seems, the more time must be spent defining the rules of the ordinary world.

The special world is where the Hero ventures after the ordinary world is thrown out of balance. The Herald gives the call to adventure, and the Hero accepts traversing the unknown. This special world has a new set of rules, new allies and enemies, and seems strange to the Hero (if not to the Audience). The Mentor typically serves as guide throughout at least some of this journey.

You can read more about the hero’s journey here.

Unfortunately, Donna Cooper doesn’t teach much about setting. If you are interested, check out for more resources. Especially for fantasy stories.

This wraps up our chapters on the Elements of Story. Next in The Basics of Educational Storytelling, we will break down the five basic principles we will use to create educational stories..

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Chris Michaels

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