[Podcast] A.C.T.S. - the 4 Essential Elements of Writing a Great Story

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Jul 27, 2021

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

Story. Story. Story. No one argues with the idea that stories are one of the primary ways we communicate as humans. It's one thing to enjoy a great story. And quite another to write a great one.

But what are the essential elements of writing a great story?

Recently Dave and I spoke with Steve Mathewson, author of "The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative," who laid out the four essential elements of writing a great story using the acronym A.C.T.S.:

1. Action. Every story has a crisis, problem, or challenge. If you don't have that, then you don't have a story. Crisis - and delaying the resolution of the tension created by that crisis - keeps the reader reading. The temptation is to lead with the "Aha!" moment. But when the  tension is over the story is over, whether you're done telling it or not. 

2. Characters. A good story will show the development of characters. You can tell the reader that a particular character struggles with envy for instance. But that is uninteresting. It also doesn't connect the reader to the character and, therefore, your story.  The more a reader can identify with the complexity of a character's human experience, the more your reader will be drawn into the story.  

To get started, Steve recommends creating a list of characteristics of your characters. Then begin to grapple with the why of the characteristics. Why is your character envious? What prompts him or her to become more envious? What does the envy look like? What does he or she say when struggling with envy?

Once you've done a character study,  begin to identify dialogue and action that might paint the picture of the character. As the old writing adage goes, show, don't tell.

3. Talking. This is related to the previous point about characters. Stories need dialogue to help readers understand a character's motivations and struggles, without the writer simply telling the reader about them. 

Dialogue might be one of the most difficult elements of writing a great story.

How the character speaks is just as important as what he or she says. This means understanding colloquialisms and idioms that your character might use. It also means keeping dialogue brief. Think about how you talk with others? We rarely ramble on. There's a give and take, which has cadence.

The same is true with stories: dialogue with a cadence helps move the reader along, while also revealing the motivations and personality of your characters.

4. Setting. Simply, this is about the time and place of where the story takes place. Setting, however, is so much more than that.

Setting actually influences how you understand the story. It helps contextualize characters, heightens the tension in the story, and also communicates deeper themes.