Every story, no matter what it is about or how long or short it is, uses these 5 elements to capture your interest and take you along for a ride into a world previously unknown to you. Everything that you notice about a story—what you liked about it, moments that spoke to you, scenes that fell flat—can be repaired by reassessing the use of these elements.
In this article, I will break down each of these elements for you so that you can decide how best to balance your use of these things in your own stories.
The plot is simply what happens in a story. It can be as simple as a character going to the grocery store. It can be as complex as taking your character from an orphan on Mars to conquering the Grox civilization in the center of the galaxy.
When you finish a story or get out of a movie and exclaim “nothing happened!” you are really just saying that the plot was quiet.
Plot-driven stories tend to be longer (think novels as opposed to short stories) and more complex. That is, the main events of the story are usually supported by smaller-scale or less described events in other parts of the story (think subplots).
And even the most complex plots can be boiled down into one sentence. This is helpful if you want to write a more complex plot but don’t know how—it’s called the snowflake method, and all you do is start with a simple plot line.
“Bejeezus goes to the grocery store.”
Add detail, and increase the dynamics of whatever’s going on.
“Bejeezus goes to the grocery store. On the way, she meets a gang of human-sized preying manitises.”
Boom! Plot complexity increased.
Every story needs a conflict. Otherwise you’re not telling a story, you’re describing a setting. And while there are some beautiful descriptions out there, I have yet to meet someone who would rather hear a description than a story.
Like plot, conflicts can be simple or complex, but they have to exist. It can be structural—maybe your character has a time-limit to accomplish a task. It can be character-driven—maybe your main character simply can’t get along with a side character. It can be internal—maybe everything is going fine from the outside, but your character is having a hard time reconciling their emotions to the situation.
If the plot is “what happens” then conflict is “what’s wrong?” or “everything is fine, BUT…”
If you aren’t writing about a problem that needs solving, then perhaps your story is without conflict and needs to be relegated to the descriptive category.
Who is involved in “what’s happening” and who is at the center of “everything is fine, BUT…”? Character is, that’s who.
Building character is an important part of many stories. And even if you’re not writing a character-driven story, your reader still needs to have a solid understanding of who the character is and why they’re doing things the way they are.
Having a character that is well-fleshed out (or at least appropriate for the plot/conflict) will help drive the other elements of your story and ultimately tie it together. Even if your readers don’t like the character, they will still want to know what happens (or happened) to the character to make them the way they are.
The number of characters you use should vary strongly within genre. In a short story, you simply don’t have time for a large cast. But a novel would be awfully dry with only one character in it. Even Crusoe had Friday!
Another important element of character is point of view. Readers perceive characters very differently when they’re reading their “I” thoughts versus when they’re reading “Timmy did this.” If you want readers to sympathize better with a character, try first person (I) or close third person (s/he thought/did). If you want to understand many characters at once, consider third person omniscient (she and he and they thought/did).
4. Setting (Description)
While a story needs a conflict in order to be a story, description helps situate the reader in the world that the story is happening in. Going to the grocery store (plot) becomes more or less interesting depending on setting. After all, going to the grocery store after the apocalypse is bound to have a different dynamic than going to the first grocery store ever founded on your planet.
Setting encompasses all sorts of world-building musts, and is mostly built through description. What does your world smell, sound, taste, look, feel like? You can include these details in dialogue, but much of it will be in describing things.
For example, describing how your character is dressed can tell your reader all sorts of things about the time, place, and climate of your setting. Situating your reader helps them understand the character and the plot, which will compell them to keep reading!
As lovely as prose is, dialogue is perhaps one of the most critical elements of a successful story—both with its presence or absence. The reason dialogue is last is because all of the above elements can be thrown in as a part of dialogue.
- Need to describe a character? Have a character comment on what they’re like.
- Need to describe the weather? Have a character complain about it.
- Need to explain what the conflict is? Have a character come right out and say it.
- Need to define the plot? Have a character talk about it.
Dialogue is especially good at subliminally explaining to the reader who your characters are. What is said is almost equally as important as what is unsaid in building characterization, which is critical for character-driven stories.
Plus, dialogue is easier to read than giant blocks of exposition. Literally, it’s just easier on the eyes, which makes reader more likely to get critical pieces of information from dialogue than from prose.
Finding the balance
Here’s the thing: all stories don’t need all of these elements equally. Quiet stories (very little plot) can be as poignant as loud stories. A small conflict can be equally devastating as a large conflict. Readers fall in love with many characters, or grow deeply attached to a few. Not all details about setting help explain the plot or conflict; having a tangible world keeps and distracts readers. And I’ve read many stories with nary a quotation mark in sight that have still intrigued and entertained me.
You have to choose the balance of these elements for your story. Having different ratios will make your story unique, and can even define your writing style. Don’t be afraid to experiment with each of these elements (techniques, really) as you tell your story.
What do you think—what are elements that you see in successful stories? How have you grown in using these elements? Have I missed something? Share in the comments!