The 8 elements of a story are: plot, setting, character, conflict, theme, point-of-view, tone and style.
These elements form the backbone of any good story. If you know the 8 elements, you can write and analyze stories more effectively.
The 8 Elements of a Story
All stories have a setting. The setting includes the time and place in which the story will be taking place.
There may be just one setting, such as in a short story that only takes place in a single room of a house. Or, there may be many different settings spanning many locations and times, such as stories that span generations or that have characters who travel the globe.
a) The Setting of Time
In regards to time, stories can be set:
1. In the past
Many stories reflect nostalgically on bygone eras. Others were written so long ago that now when we read them we get an intimate look into the past
Example: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Written and set in New York in the roaring twenties.
2. In the present
Stories set in the present may incorporate current affairs and modern technologies in their storylines. Consider using present tense in your writing.
Example: A Devil is Waiting by Jack Higgins
3. In the future
Stories set in the future have the advantage of allowing the author to invent technologies and world events that haven’t happened yet.
Example: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher
4. A mix of time settings
Some stories mix up the past, present and future to tell a compelling story. Back to the Future does this effectively. Marty McFly travels back and forward in time, capturing the audience’s imagination as settings and time zones change from scene to scene.
Example: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
b) The Setting of Place
Authors need to create compelling place-based settings in their stories.
Things to consider when looking at the sense of place in a story include:
1. The country / nation
Which nation, if any, will form the backdrop of your story? If it’s a fantasy story, you may be able to create your own magical land.
2. Urban, Suburban or Rural
Will your story take place in a city, the suburbs or somewhere more remote?
3. Beachside, Mountainous, or Other
will the sea feature prominently in your story? Or perhaps the story will be set in the mountains. If your character is travelling, perhaps they will move through many different landscapes such as in The Lord of the Rings.
Some examples of stories with compelling settings include:
- The Lord of the Rings: A new world is created and vividly detailed.
- Catch 22: Set in the Korean war, the setting has a great deal of imagery of war and the misery that surrounds it.
c) Alternative Realities
Some stories choose to have alternative realities.
Alternative reality books followed the true history of the world to a point. Then, they diverge after a fictional event occurs such as a war or natural disaster.
An example of an Alternative Reality: The Man in the High Castle
This is the story of a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win the Second World War. The book’s subtitle sells us the story as: “An electrifying novel of our world as it might have been.”
d) Ambiguous Settings
Some authors want to make the setting of a story ambiguous. This works well in sci-fi and fantasy stories which want to detach themselves from our current world.
With such an ambiguous setting, the author could create their own technologies, religions and planets without the need to refer to any contexts of the ‘real’ world here on earth.
An example of an Ambiguous Setting: Star Wars
The Star Wars movies are set ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. This explanation is designed to detach the Star wars world from our real world and enable the author to create a magical universe.
e) Examples of ‘Setting a Scene’
Here is how Bilbo Baggins’s house is described at the beginning of The Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened onto a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.”
Here’s one more, from the opening page of Roald Dahl’s The B.F.G:
“Sophie couldn’t sleep. A beautiful moonbeam was slanting through a gap in the curtains. It was shining right onto her pillow. The other children in the dormitory had been asleep for hours.
Sophie closed her eyes and lay quite still. She tried very hard to doze off.
It was no good. The moonbeam was like a silver blade slicing through the room onto her face.
The house was absolutely silent. No voices came up from downstairs. There were no footsteps on the floor above either.
The window behind the curtain was wide open, but nobody was walking on the pavement outside. No cars went by on the street. Not the tiniest sound could be heard anywhere. Sophie had never known such a silence.”
It feels like you could almost be there!
Characters of course are one of the most important elements of a story. The characters are the people (or sometimes animals!) who are featured in a story. A good story will:
- Explain each character’s personality;
- Explain each character’s physical appearance;
- Use a mix of different characters with different personality traits.
a) Types of Characters in a Story
The main types of characters in a story that you need to know about are: the protagonist, antagonist, static character, dynamic character, and confidante character.
The protagonist is the hero of the story and central character. They will get most of the attention of the author. Books written in first person show the protagonist as the narrator.
The antagonist is the hero’s opponent. This person stirs trouble and is often the main cause of tension in the plotline. The hero’s role is often to prevent the antagonist from doing harm to people.
3. Static character
Peripheral characters who don’t change much throughout a story but set the context are often called ‘static characters’. Parents are often seen as static characters in books and movies. They are reliable, always there, but don’t do much to compel the plot forward.
4. Dynamic character
A dynamic character might start out as an unassuming peripheral person in the story. As the story progresses, they move toward the center of the storyline and increase in importance.
The confidante is the antagonist’s sidekick. It often takes the role of a wise or philosophical character, although not always. In The Lion King, Timon and Pumba act as confidantes to Simba during his exile years. Other confidantes in that story include Rafiki and Nala.
Not all stories have every one of these characters.
b) Character Conflicts and Fatal Flaws
Often times a character will have their own inner conflicts, challenges or struggles to overcome. For example:
- Edmund from the Narnia Series: Must overcome jealousy to help save Narnia and protect his family;
- Hamlet from Hamlet: Must overcome his own fear and inability to make up his own mind;
- Professor Snape from Harry Potter: An inability to get past his grudges from the past.
By giving characters inner conflicts they are made more realistic. Flaws in personality traits also humanizes them.
A good book will have a range of realistic and flawed characters. This explains why different people have different favorite characters from books and movies.
c) Examples of Character Descriptions
Here is how the Dursleys are introduced in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
“Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a big, large mustache. Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.”
I do love how J.K Rowling describes her character’s, so here’s one more example from the same book:
“If the motorbike was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply to big to be allowed, and so wild – long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of dustbin lids and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.”
Nobody wants to read a story without conflict. What would be the point?
The conflict in a story is the main challenge to overcome. It compels the plot forward and is usually resolved during the plot’s climax.
a) Types of Conflict in Stories
The main types of conflict you will come across in a story are:
1. Protagonist vs. Antagonist
The protagonist (hero) must challenge the antagonist in order to prevent the antagonist from doing something harmful.
Example: Harry Potter.
Harry (protagonist) must defeat Voldermort (antagonist). Harry is the only person who can save the world from Voldermort and represents the child savior.
2. Protagonist vs. Nature
The protagonist goes up against a challenge that occurs in nature. This may involve a protagonist taking on a natural challenge like escaping the jungle, or a natural disaster like a tsunami or asteroid coming at earth.
Jack (protagonist) must save Rose from the ship that crashed into an iceberg.
3. Protagonist vs. Self
The protagonist may have inner struggles to overcome in order to succeed. The protagonist may need to get over a lost love, learn courage, or achieve a personal goal that they set out for themselves in the beginning.
Example: The Wizard of Oz
Dorothy and her companions each has to learn that the characteristics they most desire are within them. The Cowardly Lion seeks courage, the Tin Man seeks the ability to love, and the Scarecrow seeks intellect.
4. Protagonist vs. Society
The protagonist may identify an enemy or problem in society that they must overcome, often single-handedly. In children’s books, this model is often recast as Child (protagonist) vs. Adults (Society) where the child must save adults from themselves. We see this in the ‘child savior’ complex such as in The Hunger Games.
There may be multiple protagonists and antagonists in any one story. This is true of the Marvel Avengers movies for example.
Example: The Hunger Games
In a dystopian universe, Katniss is enlisted into a game show that only ends when all but one competitor are killed. Katniss fights from within the game to reveal the absurdity of the spectacle.
Before long, her mission becomes the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship that invented the Hunger Games to appease the masses.
The theme is the author’s central argument or big idea they want to convey.
Themes are often associated with a ‘moral of a story’ or an analogy (a hidden meaning in the text). They attempt to convey a piece of wisdom or fundamental truth about human nature for us to think about.
a) Types of Themes in Books and Movies
Common types of themes include:
1. Good vs. Evil
Most contemporary American movies tell stories of good vs. evil, with good usually triumphing thanks to a heroic protagonist.
2. True Love
Love has been a theme throughout millennia in stories. What is true love, how can it be found, and how can we keep it?
Example: Romeo and Juliet.
3. The Absurdity of Life
Existentialist literature attempts to expose how life is futile, pointless and meaningless.
Example: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Catch 22
4. The Pain of War
Many stories throughout history have been cautionary tales about war and its devastating effects on life.
Example: The Diary of Anne Frank.
5. Seeking Freedom
The desire for freedom is a common motif in stories and movies. This often involves the struggles in escaping oppression, war or nature.
Example: The Truman Show.
6. Political Corruption
Stories of political corruption usually highlight how fascism, communism or other political systems lead to concentration of power and corruption.
Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell.
7. The Power of Redemption
Often based on Christian beliefs, redemption stories show how characters can come back from sin and shame to redeem themselves through good deeds and repentance.
Example: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
8. The Importance of Religion
Many tales have religious morals and the importance of penance to a god as their central theme.
Example: Sinbad the Sailor’s Seven Voyages.
The plot is the sequence of events that tell the story. Sometimes we call it the ‘narrative structure’.
Another way to use the term ‘plot’ is to make a plan. For example, “There is a plot to rob a bank.”
In both definitions, we can see that a plot is a pre-planned and well formulated sequences of events.
a) Explaining Plots to Children
Plots usually follow a familiar structure.
We tell children that plots have a ‘Beginning’, ‘Middle’ and ‘End’.
- Beginning: Introduce the characters and set the scene;
- Middle: Introduce a complication and tell the story of how it is overcome
- Ending: Resolve each character’s individual story and provide a sense of closure.
b) An Advanced Explanation of Plots
As students get older, we go into a bit more depth and use more formal terms:
Exposition: The exposition begins the story. It provides the necessary background information like the setting and character details. It may also outline the relationships between characters and any other important information. This section should set the scene but also entertain the reader from page one.
Rising Action: This is the part of the story where “the plot thickens”. Challenges, conflicts and complications are introduced. This is often the longest part of the story. Authors aim to create and build tension as long as possible to entertain the reader and create a true ‘page turner’ of a story.
Climax: This is the turning point of the story where the tensions in the plotline come to a head. A good climax may involve a twist or a big reveal. Other examples of a climax might be a big battle, police chase or exposure of a love affair.
Falling Action: After the climax, tension starts to dissolve. I often find the falling action segment is brief but may be necessary to conclude the key scenes that occurred in the climax. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the journey to Mordor takes up many hundreds of pages. The journey in return is very brief indeed.
Resolution (denoument): The resolution gives a sense of closure to the reader. It may tie up loose ends in character plotlines and explain what becomes of the key characters after the story. To use The Lord of the Rings example, the resolution shows Frodo sailing to the Grey Havens and Sam marrying Rosie Cotton.
c) Examples of Plots in Literature
The plot line of the Three Little Pigs is as follows:
- The three little pigs are sent out into the world to build their houses by their mother.
- The pigs find a clearing to build their homes.
- The pigs build houses of straw, sticks and bricks.
- The wolf blows down the straw house and the first pig flees to his brother’s house of sticks.
- The wolf blows down the stick house and the first and second pigs flee to their brother’s house of bricks.
- The wold attempts to blow down the brick house but fails.
- The wolf jumps down the brick house’s chimney and lands in a pot of boiling water.
- The wolf runs away, never to return.
- The pigs live happily ever after in their brick house.
The point of view of a story has a big impact on how the story will be told. It also influences how the audience will respond to it.
There are three common points of view: first person, second person and third person.
a) First Person Point of View
First person stories are told by the protagonist. You can tell a first person story from the use of first person phrases like ‘I’ and ‘We’.
A benefit of first person stories is that you can get inside the head of the main character. They can talk about what they’re thinking and what their opinion is of all the other characters throughout the piece.
Examples of books and sentences in first person
Tomorrow When the War Began:
“It’s only half an hour since someone – Robyn I think – said we should write everything down, and it’s only twenty-nine minutes since I got chosen, and for those twenty-nine minutes I’ve had everyone crowded around gazing at the blank page yelling ideas and advice”
The Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…”
The Great Gatsby:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
To Kill a Mockingbird:
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little to no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
b) Second Person Point of View
Second person stories are narrated by an outsider (not a character in the story), but talk directly to the reader. It is like we are in a conversation with the author. This is called ‘breaking the fourth wall’.
An example of second person is when the author directly says ‘you’ to the reader.
Examples of books and sentences in second person
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:
“You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”
The Fifth Season:
“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things. First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over again in the days to come…”
“You want to be somebody else. You don’t know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident, beautiful, beloved.”
c) Third Person Point of View
Third person stories do not talk directly to the reader and do not insert themselves into the story either. This is the most common type of point of view.
Most third person books have an omniscient narrator. This means the narrator is an all-knowing person who can get into characters’ heads and explain their thoughts.
The author tells the story as if looking through a looking glass. They refer to the characters (including the protagonist) using terms like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’.
Examples of books and sentences in third person
“Jarred stood unnoticed in the crowd thronging in the great hall of the palace. He leaned against a marble pillar, blinking with tiredness and confusion.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:
“Mr Buckett was the only person in the family with a job. He worked in a toothpaste factor, where he sat all day long on a bench and screwed little caps on the tops of tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled.”
Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice:
“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak…”
d) Multiple Points-of-View
Some stories may have multiple points of view. This is common with books where the author has different characters narrating different chapters.
Here are some books with multiple points of view:
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult:
A book with a different protagonist in each chapter, the story follows the differing perspectives of Anna, Kate ,Campbell, Brian, Jessie and others. The story follows Anna’s lawsuit against her parents for the right to control her own body after she is used for blood transfusions to save her sister from leukemia.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones:
Written with alternating authors in each chapter, the novel tells the story of the breakdown of the marriage of Roy and Celestial.
Authors choose a tone to act as the backdrop to a story. The tone often overlaps with the protagonist’s mood or circumstance.
Tones include moods like:
a) How to Convey Tone in a Story
1. Weather Conditions
Tone is often conveyed through the weather conditions. Some stories are set in long, endless summers. Others are anticipating an endless winter to come (e.g. Game of Thrones).
Rain is a good idea for when a character is sad or moody.
Sunshine will signify happy times.
2. Time of Day
You might want to define the time of day, particularly for one scene or a simple short story:
- Night Time: Eery and full of mystery and magic.
- Warm Evening: Lazy, drowsy and seemingly never ending (especially if you’re at school!)
- Morning: A time to signify starting afresh and heading out excited for a day’s adventures.
3. Actions of the Protagonist
If the tone of a book is melancholy, the protagonist will not be out exercising daily. They won’t be partying at night.
Instead, they may be at home by the hearthstone reading a book. Perhaps it is raining outside.
Tone is often set through the soliloquy of the narrator of a first-person text. A soliloquy is a piece of writing (or speaking) where the author reflects on their moods and thoughts.
5. At the Beginning of the Chapter
The opening few paragraphs of a chapter is the ideal time to ‘set the tone’ for the remainder of the chapter.
b) Examples of Tone in Books
Brave New World
This dystopian society’s city is dark and mysterious. Clouds hover overhead making the setting even darker and more ominous.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The tone of this book is – simply – funny! Its quirky humor is designed to entertain and make the reader leave each chapter giggling to themselves.
Tuesdays with Morrie
After being diagnosed with ALS, the author meets with his sociology lecturer Morrie on fourteen Tuesdays to learn lessons on life. The tone is positively heartwarming as the two bond over Morrie’s wisdom and they mull over the realities of life.
Writing style is very personal to each author.
We also tend to find authors whose styles we like and continue to read their works whenever they publish something new.
A style is simply a way of speaking about our subjects. Some authors are long-winded descriptive writers, others are curt in their writing with shorter sentences and less descriptiveness..
Below are a range of styles to consider:
1. Short Sentences
I first came across very short sentences in Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemminway’s curt writing style comes across as masculine, but is often very easy to read.
2. Highly Descriptive
When reading The Lord of the Rings, I was bemused at just how long it took JRR Tolkein to describe a fireplace. While I personally prefer shorter, faster-paced novels, many of the classics have this descriptive style.
Airport crime literature is fast-paced to keep the reader entertained. If you like entertaining books, ensure your writing is always compelling the plot forward and not getting into the weeds.
Again, not my style, but a well-known style of the Beat generation. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road exemplifies this style with run-on sentences and lengthy paragraphs.