Five Elements of a Story

What makes a great book? A wonderful story that is well-written is the usual answer, but that just sparks another question: what makes a great story?

Most often, those who study literature mention the five elements of a story: character, setting, plot, conflict and theme.

Character involves the people in the story: the hero/heroine, the villain (in literary terms, the protagonist and the antagonist), and all the supporting characters. These could be the love interest, the side kick, the comic foil, a source of conflict, or just a bit player who appears in only one scene in the book.

The major characters need to be well-rounded, meaning they need to have more than one dimension. If the hero of the story is a hard worker and nothing more, he will come across to the reader as flat and dull. He needs to have fears, hopes, dreams, character flaws, opinions and preferences in order to get the reader to care what happens to him.
Supporting characters also need to be developed, but don’t need the level of detail as the major ones.

How do you communicate all that detail to the reader without violating the “show, don’t tell” rule? Feed that information to the reader in small doses through what the character says, what she does, what she thinks, or through what others say about her. Showing the reader your hero shocked by the shine on his head is more interesting than just telling her the man is bald. The reader also now knows that your hero is bothered by his lack of hair.

Setting is the place where the action occurs. Use the details of place to establish a mood or set up the action. You want your readers to feel like they are there, that they can smell the trash cans, hear the traffic or see the leaves falling to the ground.

Conflict involves the struggle of the main character. Her conflict can be mostly internal, as in a struggle with herself. Or it can be external: with nature, society, the unknown, the supernatural, time or with other people.

The plot is the events that relate to the resolution of the main conflict. These are either external events or actions taken by the characters.

The plot line usually follows a sequence such as the opening situation, the establishment of the conflict, rising action (the conflict intensifies), climax, falling action, and resolution of the conflict.

Running throughout the story is its theme, the central idea or belief, view about life, human behavior or society. The theme is what makes the story memorable and gives it more meaning than just a narration of events.

Put together, these elements create the story. Once the elements have been figured out, it’s time to start writing. If any of these basic elements are missing, the story will not have enough pull to keep readers engaged and interested.

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