Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The Protagonist

Once a USAT team has their theme figured out, it’s time to decide who is going to star in the story and how they relate to that theme.


The literary world uses the word “protagonist” rather than “hero” to talk about the main characters of books because a “true hero” is a type of character with specific traits (honor, morality, selflessness, and sometimes a cape), but a protagonist is simply the character at the center of a story. They may have other people around them who are helping them out, but the protagonist is going to be the person (or sometimes people) who is pivotal to how events unfold. Most often, protagonists are heroes, but that’s not always the case. Basically, the protagonist is the one in a story who has goals that need to be accomplished, and consequences if those goals aren’t reached.

So, how do you choose a protagonist? We try to keep our themes for PA.R.T.Y. in a Box challenges open-ended to allow room for creativity, but they are always going to suggest different kinds of characters that are necessary to address them. Sometimes, they are even specified in the scoring guidelines! Over the years, we’ve asked students to create everything from aliens to zebras, and if we require a certain character we always let you know. Plus, the judges will be paying extra attention to anything that is mentioned specifically in the scoring, so it’s a good idea to give extra attention to those costumes and props during prep.

In general, protagonists tend to be people who are “outsiders” for some reason. This might be because they were chosen for quest, are new to town, experienced a tragedy, or any other reason a person might feel different from those around them. Their place on the fringe allows them to see what others don’t, do what others can’t, and search for things that others won’t dare to find. And that’s why they get to be at the center of it all.

Brainstorming prompt: Set the clock for two minutes and write down as many protagonists as you can!


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.