Everyone looks at stories differently. It’s why people have differing opinions when it comes to stories that we enjoy. Some of us like anime, manga, or other similar Japanese stories. Others enjoy the attachment of watching actors on the big screen, or experiencing stories first-hand through a video game.
Stories are universal, but as we all know, every story won’t work for everyone. Knowing that, I’d like to introduce you today to what I consider my Three Elements of Storytelling–the three factors, that I believe makes a story great, from an objective point of view.
These Three Elements are what I consider, every single time I read, watch, play through, or otherwise experience a story. I believe that with these three concepts, the worth, relevance, and value of a story can be measured extremely accurately.
Although, that said, I do believe the most important element of a story, undeniably, is the heart behind it. The ability to convey feeling, a concept to another human. As I like to think, if a story has value to anyone, then the story’s existence is instantly validated. But, on a macro scale, in a bit more of a “literary” stance, if you will–these three elements are pretty important, I’d think.
The first thing that must be judged in a story, before even looking at anything else, is the intention.
Whenever I read a book, watch an anime, or play a video game, my first thought is this: what was the intention behind the medium? For a game like Super Smash Bros, the intention was clearly a fun gameplay experience, rather than an in-depth, thematically complex story. But then, watching Code Geass for the first time, you get the impression of a thriller, of a plot-based action drama that existed for the thrill, rather than the conveying of any singular idea.
Are you trying to tell a story? What themes are you trying to convey? If a story is trying to be stupid and action-packed, then that is what it should be judged upon. On the other hand, if a story tries to be ambitious in its scope, telling of a complex, character driven plot, then it should be judged as such.
It is around this intent, which the story is constructed–and when a story doesn’t make its intentions clear, what often results is a cluttered, unorganized mess. But then, what does this look like?
Done Wrong: Sword Art Online
In terms of technical quality, Sword Art Online is pretty great. Animation, music, even some of the world building at the beginning was undeniably amazing. However, intention, is what I believe makes this anime so hotly debated.
The premise of a virtual reality game, where people who die in-game die in real life, has promise of an action-packed, intellectually stimulating story, which gives the main character Kirito a chance to grow.
However, what many have perceived instead, is a story which has blatant plot armor, half-way done romance, and development of characters that didn’t seem to work, without focusing on expanding upon the promises of the first few episodes. It feels that the original intentions of Sword Art Online were lost in the midst of trying to be something it wasn’t, which is why it remains one of the most divisive anime in recent memory.
Done Right: Steven Universe
The show’s premise is clear, from its title, to its first episodes. It focuses very clearly on the adventures of the all-loving Steven Universe, his growth, and his interactions with others, but also makes it very apparent that there’s a lot more to explore later on.
By introducing concepts such as “Homeworld,” foreign gems, and darker themes revolving around death and love very early on, Steven Universe prepares the viewers for everything that happens down the line. Mysteries are introduced very early, to be answered far later, in a way that makes it apparent that Steven Universe, as a story, knows what it’s doing.
As I have talked about before, Steven Universe has very consistent trends and symbols, that have lasted even up to its most recent episodes. Regardless of what people think of the animation, regardless of what people think about its storytelling, it can’t be denied that at the very least, Steven’s story is told very intentionally. This clear intention makes for a very enjoyable show, and makes it clear just what sorts of ideas I can expect from the series, while not making it too predictable.
Once one makes clear what the intention of an anime is, what must be judged next is its execution. How well, from a technical standpoint, did the medium do at conveying the intention?
Execution refers far more to the practical aspects of a show, but considers them in relation to a show’s purpose, rather than being technically flashy for the hell of it. There’s a lot of games, anime, or movies that display AMAZING effects, great character moments, or otherwise fantastic technical prowess, but fall short in telling a great story, because it doesn’t support the story’s main intent.
There is an amount of technical, objective work that goes into creating a story, after all. You need the heart, the intent, to envision the story, but a story that stays in your head isn’t one that can really affect others. For that, the execution is necessary–it is the language of intent, the way in which your story is accurately conveyed to others.
That said, it is alright if a story doesn’t have much technical achievement. Rather, if what is present in the story is done very clearly, aligned with its intent, then its potential will shine through regardless.
Done Wrong: Sonic The Hedgehog 2006
If you don’t already know, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 was terrible. Almost beyond redemption. But what made it all the more terrible, was the fact that the game was touted as the revitalization of the Sonic franchise–the next-gen Sonic the Hedgehog game, that would launch Sonic into the future!
The intention was all there. We all knew just what SEGA was aiming for when creating the game–a new twist on the Sonic we all knew and loved. The cinematic trailers we got were great, indicating this new direction! A darker plot? A new Eggman? Great music to go with it? Sign me up!
But then, SEGA rushed this game to release, simply because they wanted it to coincide with the holidays. This resulted in a game that was clearly a jumbled mess. Glitches as far as the eye could see, a storyline that could be barely kept track of, and gameplay that was absolutely terrible, Sonic 06 was seen to many, as the beginning of the end.
And the sad part is–if SEGA had put their all into it, it’s certainly possible that the game would have been much better. It COULD have been done much better, putting a darker twist on the speed and excitement Sonic was known for, if only SEGA had focused on the execution, rather than a deadline.
Done Right: One Punch Man
One Punch Man is perhaps the best representation of a story that does a lot with little.
Starting as a simple web comic with some of the most BASIC art imaginable, One Punch Man managed to obtain a rather huge following. It had a simple enough concept, but was kept afloat due to the execution of its ideas. Keeping the plot rather simple, and focusing mainly on the adventures of lovable characters, OPM eventually got popular enough to gain its own manga, and then its own anime.
And of course, once the anime came out, it exploded in popularity. With quality in all the right places, One Punch Man knew what sort of funny, action-packed story it wanted to tell, and stuck with it to the end. With top-tier animation in all the right places, a focus on senseless, over the top action, OPM is a prime example of how proper execution can lead to greatness in a story.
The final test of a series, the most personal, and I believe most important, is in how the series communicates with its audience. What sorts of meanings can a story convey? Is there some sort of meaning that a human could derive from the experience of said story?
This is a far more subjective test, most prone to variation from person to person, but is one that I feel is imperative. It speaks to the very fundamental idea of human meaning, of the communication of ideas that defines our shared existence, and the meaning of a story. After all, what is the point of a story that cannot speak to shared human experience, to some extent?
The classics of literature, of anime, of movies, whatever you can think of, all speak to complex themes, and are applauded for doing so. But why is this sort of expression so commonly beloved?
Perhaps this is a tad philosophical to say, but I believe themes and thoughts that are shared by all of humanity, that speak to the common intellectual struggles of mankind, are those that resonate most profoundly within us. This is why entertainment, drama, romance, dystopias that paint alternate realities, are so revered and looked up to–they present us new realities in which the common intellectual, emotional desires of humanity are acknowledged and catered to. And of course, this is why other forms of media–pornography, reality TV, magazines–are hardly ever considered to present meaningful stories.
Stories take the reality we are given, and create something new, and relatable with it. They mean something to people, and that’s what makes a story great–even if we might not understand it.
Done Wrong: School Days
School Days is a story that is the subject of much debate. It’s almost universally considered a pretty terrible anime, with a universally hated set of characters.
However, what is rather clear, from the Visual Novel, to the anime adaptation, is that, to be honest, it wasn’t TERRIBLE from a technical standpoint. In fact, the Visual Novel version was pretty damn good, technically speaking. The intention of the story IS relatively clear, and there ARE vague themes that end up being expressed. So then, why did it fall through the floor entirely with most watchers?
Simple. The story being told was not one that resonated with those who watched it.
When the most powerful themes many people have taken from School Days, is “cheating is bad,” and “actions have consequences,” it’s clear that the series isn’t exactly meant to be a literary masterpiece. With characters that appeal to some of the worst parts of human nature, in what many people consider an illogical way, relating to the series’ ideas as a whole becomes rather tough for most people.
The story it presented, simply put, was not one that seemed to reflect real-life ideas. And not in the “surrealistic” way. It was just a story that existed for the sake of telling itself, and seemingly nothing else.
Done Right: Clannad
Clannad is the quintessential emotional anime, and for good reason.
Clannad is, at the moment, my second favorite story of all time, as I’ve talked about before. Its intent was clear, and its execution was pretty good, as far as most anime of that time were concerned. However, calling it an exemplar of anime as a whole is a long stretch–it’s not the BEST in regards to its technical prowess, or its intent.
However, what it DID do was express themes, conflicts, and ideas that all people have had to consider: how to show love, how to express kindness despite worldly cruelty, and of course, how to cultivate a good family. These ideas are ones that resonate throughout human history, and indeed, are still very powerful to consider even today. It is why this series, despite not being completely stellar, is so well-received by the masses.
What Clannad had was able to support its themes very well. It was consistent in its ideas, and these ideas were expressed in complex ways, touching human emotion, as well as being intellectually stimulating. Clannad served to be entertaining, emotional, and thought-provoking, showing that it fulfilled the “audience” criteria very well.
I believe that as long as a story can touch one person, it has merit. There are certainly better or worse ways of telling a story, but I like to think that regardless of how it actually turns out, there is potential in almost anything. From School Days to Sword Art Online, which both were great in their own ways, there’s always good to be had in any story.
That being said, I also believe that it is possible to be objective about the relative worth of a story, compared to another, and these three elements of storytelling are how I personally determine that. From anime, to manga, to video games, to books, to…literally everything, I find that considering a series from these three perspectives really helps me to look at it from a more critical, objective point of view.
So again, these are the Three Elements of Storytelling, with which a story can be (relatively) objectively judged.
- Intention, setting up what the story aims for, is necessary for a focused, organized, and ultimately more effective experience.
- Execution is then necessary, for being able to convey the intention of the story from a technical standpoint.
- An Audience, is reached out to in this way, people who connect to the story on an intellectual or emotional level.
And of course, the heart behind a story is what brings it all together. The ability of a human mind to be creative, and give birth to new worlds, by reimagining the real world, is freaking beautiful.
Well, now I’m curious. What do you think about this way of thinking? Is there any particular way YOU think about stories? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear what you have to say!