Get key elements in storytelling from the great storyteller Hans Christian Andersen
Nothing keeps us engaged like a good story. Master storytellers know the magic of filtering human experience into captivating stories. But what is it that they do that makes us stay and excitedly wait for the story’s unfolding?
In this article, I want to give you one big thing and 3 vital elements that great storytellers use to make their stories vivid and captivating.
If this sounds good to you, please read on.
To illustrate these essential storytelling tricks and tools, I will share parts of the children’s story of The Ugly Duckling by the prolific storyteller Hans Christian Andersen.
The Ugly Duckling
”It was so beautiful out there in the country. It was summer- the wheat fields were golden, the oats were green, and down among the green meadows, the hay was stacked. There the stork minced about on his red legs, clacking away in Egyptian, which was the language his mother had taught him. Round about the field and meadowlands rose vast forests, in which deep lakes lay hidden. Yes, it was indeed lovely out there in the country.In the midst of the sunshine, there stood an old manor house that had a deep moat around it. From the walls of the manor right down to the water’s edge, great burdock leaves grew, and there were some so tall that little children could stand upright beneath the biggest of them. In this wilderness of leaves, which was as dense as the forest itself, a duck sat on her nest, hatching her ducklings. She was becoming somewhat weary because sitting is such a dull business, and scarcely anyone came to see her. The other ducks would much rather swim in the moat than waddle out and squat under the burdock leaf to gossip with her.”Hans Christian Andersen
And this is how the story of The Ugly Duckling begins.
The eggs hatch one by one, and out come the ducklings. But one egg is bigger than the others, and it doesn’t hatch as soon as the others. So when the one big egg finally hatches out comes a big grey ugly duckling.
”The duck took a look at him. “That’s a frightfully big duckling,” she said. “He doesn’t look the least like the others. Can he really be a turkey baby? Well, well! I’ll soon find out. Into the water, he shall go, even if I have to shove him in myself.”Hans Christian Andersen
Mamma duck shows the ducklings around in the duck yard. The other ducks bully and bite the ugly duckling because he is different. Even his sisters and brothers abuse him and tell him: “how we wish the cat would catch you, you ugly thing.” The mummy duck says: “how I do wish you were miles away.” Even the girl who feeds the ducks kicks him.
Finally, The Ugly Duckling runs away
Outside of the duck yard, the ugly duckling goes through a lot of trials and tribulations. First, he finds himself in the middle of a hunt. “Bing! Bang!”
He escapes the hunters and the bird dogs to find himself bullied in a small cottage by an old lady, a cat, and a hen.
The ugly duckling gets caught in the ice during the long, hard, and cold winter. He barely survives.
Finally, the sun comes back, and springtime is here. The ugly duckling spreads his wings. They feel much more robust. Suddenly he finds himself high up in the air and lands in a lake with three beautiful swans.
“So, he flew into the water and swam toward the splendid swans. They saw him and swept down upon him with their rustling feathers raised. “Kill me!” said the poor creature, and he bowed his head down over the water to wait for death. But what did he see there, mirrored in the clear stream? He beheld his own image, and it was no longer the reflection of a clumsy, dirty, gray bird, ugly and offensive. He himself was a swan! Being born in a duck yard does not matter if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.”Hans Christian Andersen
Let me pause the story here.
Key elements of storytelling
As you can tell from the parts of the story of The Ugly Duckling above, it has certain powerful storytelling features. And if you look for it, you will find these storytelling characteristics in almost all great stories.
Here I will give you 3 of these key storytelling elements that you can apply to your content to make it more compelling and captivating. Applying these fundamental elements has helped thousands of my students over the years improve their writing.
But first, I want to highlight the number one big thing that makes this story everlasting.
Hans Christian Andersen himself was born under poor conditions in Odense in 1805. His mom was a washerwoman. He felt like an outsider. At the age of fourteen, H. C. Andersen moved to Copenhagen to pursue his dream of an acting career, but with little success. He ended up focusing on his talent for writing. A beneficiary paid for him to get more schooling. During these years, he experienced a lot of abuse and hardship.
Write from the heart
This leads me to the number one big thing in storytelling: writing from the heart.
Powerful personal experiences are easy to bring to life in writing. The Ugly Duckling is a premiere example of this approach.
H. C. Andersen entwined his personal experience of hardship and abuse into the story in a subtle manner. He also integrated the transformational experience of coming into his own. In other words, Hans Christian Andersen brought his personally significant experiences to life through the happenings and the thoughts of the duck in The Ugly Duckling. And he did it in a personal but not private way. He used the experiences in a generalized form as the driving fuel in the story.
When you write with your heart, you have something of significance to tell. And the reader will sense it.
The next step is to edit with your head using proven tricks and tools that great writers use to shape and vitalize their captivating stories.
Write from the heart, and edit with your head
These 3 key elements of storytelling are all present in The Ugly Duckling, as you will see in the explanation below. And when you look at other stories you treasure, you will find these essential elements too.
1. Show, don’t tell: The opening of The Ugly Duckling is an excellent example of how to create a visual scene with the words used. The narrative follows the movement of a movie camera. First, we see the landscape with specific visible details like the green meadows and the haystacks. Then we zoom in on the duck yard until we are right there with the duck sitting bored on the nest under the burdock leaves.
2. The Narrative Arc – a great story has three overall parts:
a. Setup: with inciting incident or teaser, elaboration, and point of no return. In The Ugly Duckling, we start In Medias Res, which means that the story begins right in the middle of the events with the duck sitting on the eggs about to hatch. Next, we witness the cruelty in the duck yard leading up to the point of no return, where the ugly duckling runs away from the duck yard.
b. Conflict: confrontations and conflict escalate, leading up to a climax. In The Ugly Duckling, the unlucky main character goes through all these trials and tribulations – from bad to worse.
c. Resolution: the resolution of conflict. Tension release. Things return to the new normal. Finally, after the long and brutal winter, the ugly duckling realizes that he is a swan and finds himself accepted in a “new” family group.
3. Dialogue: A great story has well-chosen dialogue that shows the conflict and tension between the characters. In The Ugly Duckling, the dialogue itself highlights the abuse: “He doesn’t look the least like the others” and “how we wish the cat would catch you, you ugly thing.” Towards the end of the story, the dialogue shows the desperation of the ugly duckling “Kill me!”. Finally, the “new normal” is expressed through the child saying: “The new one is the most handsome of all. He’s so young and so good-looking.”; and the ugly duckling’s final remark: “I never dreamed there could be so much happiness when I was the ugly duckling.”
If you write from your heart about topics of significance to you, you will find it easier to make your stories come to life. And when you edit with your head and apply these 3 critical elements of Show, don’t tell, The Narrative Arc, and meaningful Dialogue in your storytelling, your stories will be more compelling and captivating. And with captivating storytelling, your reader is much more likely to keep reading and follow your call to action.
I encourage you to try it out when you write your next article or blog post. And I would love to hear how it works for you!
This article is the third in a new series with Pro copywriting tips for high-leverage content writing to boost traffic and increase sales.
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About Sophie H Higgins, MA, MBA, MBC: I’m a freelance copywriter, professional speaker, business coach, and martial artist. I specialize in providing high-quality content and in helping people and businesses grow. Need a copywriting magician? 🧙♀️ 📖 ⚡As a copywriter and business coach, I can help you and your consulting business boost your client flow.