Basic Elements of a Story

checklistCrafting a compelling, absorbing story is not merely a simple application of will. Of course, the proper accumulation of willpower and its application at just the right moment is a key component of the story writing process.

However, if a story is to stride the line separating imagination and information, several steps must be taken to assure the story’s integrity.

The Right Idea

Every great story ever written began with one deceptively simple concept: an idea. Not only an idea that could perhaps have commercial appeal and widespread acceptance but, most importantly, a direct and sincere appeal to the very heart of the writer who imagined it.

After all, if a story does not appeal to the very person penning it, then what is the point of pursuing its completion at all?

To be upfront, you must inscribe thousand of ideas for stories, page after page after page, and then, without mercy, strike each of them down. In this way, you will train yourself to hone your instinctual response to the greatest of ideas so that you may focus on what will truly inspire a great tale.

The Right Characters

If one pauses to think about it, how many legendary characters of fiction were bland, forgettable, mundane figures who shuffled through life with no impact on their environment or personal contacts? Excepting experimental prose, hardly a one.

Your characters must breathe, exude passion and anguish, desire and disappointment, everlasting love, betrayal and the inevitability of death.

Even in a brief short story about one man or woman’s thoughts as they wait their turn in a grocery checkout line, each of these concepts must be considered.

Even if none of the principles are ever mentioned, even once, they must inform and direct the realities of the characters that bear the burden of their existence. Naturally, each one of us weighs each daily decision in the context of greater concepts, whether we realize it or not.

To be truthful to your story, your most personal creation, you must also lend the same weight to your characters.

The Right Tone

When one speaks of stories, tone is the equivalent of the volume, heat and intensity of speech in conversation.

Beyond the vast use of adjective and adverbs (which is ill-advised), there must come a point in the story when the balance of what is spoken and what is left unsaid comes to a focus.

On the one hand, you cannot simply spell out every whim and fancy of a protagonist while her friends and enemies grumble silently in the wings.

Likewise, an antagonist who brays in endless soliloquies is a mechanism of antiquity with little bearing on a modern audience.

Perhaps the best advice we can give in this regard is: don’t say things that you would not believe for your self.

That is not to say that you cannot use flamboyant, extravagant or even alien languages to add breadth and depth to your story. Rather, it means that you must believe in your story’s content if you hope for the audience to do likewise.

Final Thoughts

Above all else, remember this. The story is yours. Make it as you see fit and let no one dictate your personal, final decisions.

Learn about the elements of a short story in this video:

Useful resources:


Filed in: Planning Your Book

2 Responses to “Basic Elements of a Story”

  1. Kate
    November 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I think the thing I most struggle with is the characters. I’ve heard of authors having whole books filled with the backstory of their characters. It’s hard enough to think of an idea and get the book writter, let alone write the history of each character! Makes me wonder if I’m really cut out for writing. The authors that keep all those notebooks must have a real passion for their characters and stories. I just like to write!

    • Melissa Contreras
      November 22, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

      You can make this as complicated or uncomplicated as you wish.

      If you feel that building a backstory for each character helps you develop more credible dialogues and scenes then by all means go for it. However, be careful that you don’t end up writing a whole novel on each character!

      Don’t get distracted and focus on your story…and keep writing! Keep moving forward!

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