In this post, we will go back to basics and talk about some of the essential elements of a story. What is the handful of things that a story usually needs to be effective? Now, this list of story elements will be, by no means, comprehensive. I’m sure I’ll leave a few things off, and if you think I missed something important, let me know in the comments.
It’s important to remember when you read these “elements of a story” articles that writing is an art form. It’s primarily an art when you endeavor to write a work of fiction. Please, don’t feel tied down by a checklist that some rando on the internet- i.e., me- says you have to have. In truth, your story doesn’t have to have anything that you don’t want include. Take my previous post about the Four-Part Story Structure. Those types of stories don’t even need conflict to be engaging.
The point is, I’m tired of rules. I’m not giving you a list of rules here. I’m not even giving you a list of suggestions. This list consists of elements that a lot of stories have in common. Take a look at them. If you’re asking yourself, “Do I need characters for my story to work?” Maybe not. It’s up to you!What are the essential elements of a story? What is the handful of things that a story has to have to be effective? Click To Tweet
The Basic Elements of a Story
Characters are the people who will inhabit your story. Most stories are told through character. Characters are those who experience conflict, and they are the ones who overcome it. Characters can learn and grow during your narrative, or they can remain static. It depends on the type of story you want to tell.
The vital thing that characters need to have is some sort of motivation. Motivation is a need that drives their actions. Motivations can be simple or complex. Your character could be hungry, or they could want to gain the approval of their overbearing parents finally. Above all, characters need to be intriguing! Next to the plot, interesting characters are what keep your readers engaged. It’s a big topic. Too big for just one article. So, here are several articles I’ve written about character:
The setting is where and when your story happens. But it’s so much more than that. A proper story setting will act almost as another character. You’re setting should have a personality. Think of Gotham City. It’s dark and brooding and dangerous- a reflection of its hero. Then there’s Metropolis, bright, hopeful, the city of tomorrow. You get it.
The setting is the background. It gives your story color and meaning, and it informs how your characters act their worldviews. The setting is all the people in the environment, too. A video game developer would never create a world with no NPCs. It’s also the sounds, smells, FOOD! And politics. Oh man, it’s so much. Too much. So, if you want to keep reading about it:
Typically, conflict is what you’ll use to drive the plot of your story. You set up a character that’s living an average life. Something happens to disrupt that normal life; we call an inciting event. This event creates a conflict that the character spends the rest of the story trying to overcome.
When it comes to conflict, the tricky is coming up with a conflict that readers will care about. Don’t confuse a premise with actual conflict. Let me give you some examples:
- Aliens attacking Earth
- Vampires overrunning a remote village
Both of these are a premise or an idea for a story. But, they don’t represent conflict. Conflict is the thing your reader is worried about. What your reader is naturally going to worry about our characters- if they’re interesting.
So, the only way I’m going to care or read about vampires overrunning a village is if that village is populated by a group of characters I care about. Character and conflict intertwine in a way that’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate. And yes, I do have articles that go deeper into conflict.
With those three elements, you can write a pretty solid story. That’s all you need to write a basic and a lot of times an excellent story. If you’re just starting and don’t want to overcomplicate things, get yourself a few characters, a setting, and some conflict. You’re good to go!
The Not-So-Basic Elements of a Story
So you want to be fancy? Write some of that, what they call, literature. Honestly, I love to read literature, but I’m not sure what sets it apart from commercial fiction. It’s like pornography. You know it when you read it. But, here are a few things you might want to consider.
The plot is what happens, right? Ok, it’s more than that, but plot might be one of the more straightforward concepts to wrap your mind around. That’s because there are a ton of plot formulas that you can follow like the Hero’s Journey or the Three Act Plot and probably a dozen others.
If you’re having trouble coming up with a plot, you can use one of these formulas to fill in the blanks. You can also rip off the plot of one of your favorite stories if it’s in the public domain. Hollywood does this all the time. Clueless was a modern retelling of Emma and 10 Things I Hate About You follows the plot of Taming of the Shrew.
Most plot formulas will follow a pattern where the character will try several ways to overcome it once the conflict is introduced. Each action the protagonist takes will fail, and usually, the stakes will gradually rise as the story progresses. In other words, the problem gets worse before it is solved. Here’s more on plots.
Pacing refers to how much is happening in each part of your story. Less action will make for a slower story. A slow-paced story isn’t necessarily bad, and most plot formulas will have sections that call for a slower pace.
It’s also important to realize that action doesn’t always mean big explosions or car chases. Action can come through dialogue like two people have a quiet discussion (slow pace) or a loud argument (fast pace).
You can break most (not all) stories into sections of variable pacing. Moments of character development, usually your set up and leading into your final confrontation, will be slow-paced. Then your action moments like your inciting event and climax will be fast-paced.
You’re dialogue, or when your character is talking, should do a few things:
- Give your readers insight into a character (characterization)
- Give your reader insight into the events of the story (exposition)
- Or advance the plot
Don’t have your characters spout your opinions on a subject, unchallenged by other characters, and think that you’re revealing a broader theme. Dialogue is a medium for conflict. If readers feel like they’re being preached to, they’ll get bored or annoyed quickly. If, however, they feel like they’re eavesdropping on two characters having a juicy argument. Well, that’s interesting. Every conversation should give your readers new information. You know the drill:
You often see these two split up, but I feel they’re the same thing. Sure, we can say that a story’s theme is “love” or “family,” but that’s too broad to tell us anything. We want to know what a story or author has to say to us about love or family. What is the lesson that a story has to impart? A theme would be, “Why family isn’t that important when you have good friends.”
Symbolism ties to whatever your thematic message is. A tool like the One Ring or the Infinity Gauntlet might represent the broader theme of how power corrupts. You can also have symbols representing a character and their personality. A character who is outwardly put together and controlled but inwardly spiraling might have a gorgeous, ornate desk with drawers filled with junk.
Tone & Mood
The oft confused tone and mood. Let’s see if we can clear this up.
The tone is the author’s voice is how they choose to say things. We all deal with tone when we’re doing something like writing and email or in text. If I asked you to go to lunch, and you said, “Um, sure.” I would think you’re not that excited to eat with me now, if you said, “YES! I would love to!” that’s a different story.
The mood has more to do with what’s going on in your story. The setting, the plot, and the types of characters will be what sets the mood. But, really, more than anything, the setting. A horror movie usually takes place at night, or at least the scary scenes do. It sets a mood.
Point of View
The point of view describes who is telling your story. Is it a character in the story? That would be a first-person point of view. Is it a narrator? That’s third-person. The point of view you choose has everything to do with the type of story you want to tell. Point of view is a vast topic, and if you’re going to dive in on every aspect of it, check out these posts:
Your story has to end, right? I’ve argued that endings are the most crucial part of your story. An excellent conclusion will leave your reading thinking about your story for hours, days, or maybe longer. It’s your chance to present a theme or put everything into context. Sticking with a theme here, I’d like to point your attention to an entire article I’ve written on endings:
Your Story Goal
What do you want to do with your story? Is there a lesson you want to teach us? Or do you only want to entertain? Do you just enjoy writing, and you don’t care if anyone ever reads your story?
You may not need every element of story.
The essential element of a story is your reason for writing. If I’m writing a story, my main concern is whether or not it’s entertaining. At least entertaining for me, and hopefully for the reader. I don’t worry too much about a moral or theme beyond some fundamental ones. I don’t try to write literature; I’m not that talented.
Write for whatever reason makes you happy, and use these elements as you see fit. You don’t always have to fit your story in some predefined formula. Do you. That’s what I’m trying to say here.
This is a shorter list, and I didn’t go into any real depth on many of these, but that’s because I’ve written extensively on most of these subjects. If you want to learn more about any one of them, I encourage you to read some of the articles I’ve linked. I did extensive research for each of them, and I’ve also linked to external resources in most.