Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids

Elements of Storytelling: Themes


For many of our triathletes, not to mention their parents, the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skits are the highlight of every USAT Meet. Coming up with an idea, figuring out a story, making all of the props and costumes, and practicing the skit; these are all things that take time, and with only 45 minutes to answer the prompt every second counts! In other posts, we’ve addressed strategies for taking care of the props and costumes, but it’s time to take a few posts to discuss what makes a good story, and some tips for developing stories quickly. Every story needs certain elements to make it complete, and during the rest of this season we’ll be exploring each one.

Story Elements:

  1. Theme
  2. Protagonist (the hero)
  3. Antagonist (the villain)
  4. Beginning
  5. Middle
  6. End

It might seem strange not to begin with the beginning, but USAT teams start the process of figuring out their stories with another element already decided: the theme. We always shape our P.A.R.T.Y. prompts around themes and make it easy to find (hint: it’s always #3 on the scoring rubric!). We think themes are so important, in fact, that it is also the area where students have the most potential to score points.

Starting out with a theme is a huge advantage because it provides tension without dictating anything else about the story. There is nothing quite so daunting as a totally blank page, so by providing a theme for each P.A.R.T.Y. event we are giving our students a place to start. We also give the judges plenty of latitude when it comes to scoring in order to reward those teams who are able to do more to show different sides of their chosen story.

Humans love to tell stories, but despite how many different writers and stories there are, there are really only a handful of themes that emerge over and over again. The longer the story and the larger the cast of characters, the more themes the story could possibly explore. Old adages such as “be careful what you wish for” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely” get played out by different characters in different settings throughout our storied past.

In our culture that prides innovation, this might seem like a bad thing, but the truth is that we see these themes repeating because they are struggles that could affect anyone, and watching characters working through it in their own way offers us a chance to consider different options. If we didn’t take solace, wisdom, and pleasure from stories, we wouldn’t keep coming back for more, and using a theme as a pivot is one way to ensure the audience walks away with something of value when the story is finished.


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