The 8 Elements of a Story – Explained for Students!

The 8 elements of a story are: character, setting, plot, conflict, theme, point-of-view, tone and style.

8 elements of a story explained

These story elements form the backbone of any good novel or short story. If you know the 8 elements, you can write and analyze stories more effectively.

Teacher Resource: Elements of a Story Worksheet for Students: ‘Planning your Short Story’ (Google Doc)

The 8 Elements of a Story

1. Setting

The first of the story elements is the story setting. 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 story 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.

Common setting considerations are:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Alternative reality

In regards to time, stories can be set in the past, present, future, or even a mix of the three. For example, Back to the Future uses all three settings. Marty McFly travels back and forward in time, capturing the audience’s imagination as settings and time zones change from scene to scene.

Authors also need to create compelling place-based settings in their stories. Things to consider when looking at the sense of place in a novel or short story include:

Story SettingExplanation
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.
Urban, Suburban or Rural. Will your story take place in a city, the suburbs or somewhere more remote?
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 stories may also 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.

Lastly, 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.

2. Characters

The next of the elements of a story is the characters. Of course, characters are one of the most important elements of a novel or short story.

The characters are the people (or sometimes animals!) who are featured in a story. The different 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. We’ll also usually call them the ‘main character’. They will get most of the attention of the author. Every narrative – whether it’s a novel or short story – will have a protagonist.

The antagonist is the opponent of the main character. This person stirs trouble and is often the main cause of tension in the plot line. The hero’s role is often to prevent the antagonist from doing harm to people.

There can also be peripheral and dynamic characters. 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. By contrast, 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, become closer to the main character, and increase in importance. 

Lastly, the confidante is the sidekick for the main character. 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.

Also Consider Character Conflicts and Fatal Flaws

Often times a character will have their own inner conflicts, challenges or struggles to overcome. 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. For example:

  • Edmund from the Narnia series must overcome jealousy to help save Narnia and protect his family;
  • Professor Snape from Harry Potter suffers from an inability to get past his grudges from the past.

3. Conflict

Nobody wants to read a novel or short story without conflict – so you’ll find every story will have some sort of 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.

The main types of conflict you will come across in a story are:

  • Protagonist vs Antagonist
  • Protagonist vs Nature
  • Protagonist vs Self
  • Protagonist vs Society

In the protagonist vs antagonist conflict, the protagonist (hero) must challenge the antagonist in order to prevent the antagonist from doing something harmful. For example, this occurs in 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.

In the protagonist vs nature conflict, the protagonist goes up against a challenge that occurs in nature. This may involve a main character taking on a natural challenge like escaping the jungle, or a natural disaster like a tsunami or asteroid coming at earth.

In the protagonist vs self conflict, 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. For example, this happens in 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.

In the protagonist vs society conflict, 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.

4. Theme

The next of the story elements is theme. 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. Even in a short story there will be a key theme.

Common types of themes, also known as central ideas, include:

  • Good vs. evil
  • True love
  • The absurdity of life
  • The pain of war
  • Seeking freedom
  • Political corruption
  • The power of redemption
  • The importance of faith

Most contemporary American movies tell stories of good vs. evil, with good usually triumphing thanks to a heroic protagonist. For example, in Spiderman.

Similarly, love has been a theme throughout millennia in stories. What is true love, how can it be found, and how can we keep it? Perhaps the most famous example is in Romeo and Juliet.

Existentialist literature attempts to expose the absurdity of life, e.g. how life is futile, pointless and meaningless. Two great examples are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Catch 22.

Many stories throughout history have been cautionary tales about the pain of war and its devastating effects on life. A compelling example is The Diary of Anne Frank.

The desire for freedom is another common motif in stories and movies. This often involves the struggles in escaping oppression, war or nature. One example of this theme that I love is The Truman Show’s theme.

Stories of political corruption usually highlight how fascism, communism or other political systems lead to concentration of power and corruption. A famous example is Animal Farm by George Orwell.

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. A great example of this is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Many tales have morals about religion and faith and the importance of penance to a god as their central theme. A famous example is the short story sets of Sinbad the Sailor’s Seven Voyages.

5. Plot

The next of the story elements is the plot line. 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.”

Plots usually follow a familiar structure. We tell children that plots have a ‘Beginning’, ‘Middle’ and ‘End’ – and that might be true for a short story:

  • 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.

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: The rising action part is the part of the story where “the plot thickens”. Challenges, conflicts and complications are introduced during the rising action segment. 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: After rising action comes 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 comes falling action. I often find the falling action segment is brief but may be necessary to conclude the key scenes that occurred in the climax. During the falling action, tension starts to dissolve
  • 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.

6. Point of View

The next of the story elements is point of view. The point of view of a story has a big impact on how the story will be told.

Point of view also influences how the audience will respond to it. There are three common points of view: first person, second person and third person.

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 point of view 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.

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.

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’.

7. Tone

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:

  • Melancholy
  • Uplifting
  • Hopeful
  • Ominous
  • Intellectual

Some examples of tones in books include:

  • Brave New World: Dystopian
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Funny
  • Tuesdays with Morrie: Heartwarming

Tone can be conveyed through elements like weather conditions, time of day, and a soliloquy. 

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.  By contrast, sunshine will signify happy times.

Similarly, you might want to define the time of day, particularly for one scene or a simple short story Night time might show that the tone is eerie and full of mystery and magic. A warm Evening might set a tone of drowsiness. A morning setting might convey a tone signifying starting afresh and heading out excited for a day’s adventures.

Tone is often also 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.

8. Style

Writing style is one of the most important elements of a story, but 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.

Below are a range of styles to consider:

  • 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.
  • 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 a short story, many of the classics have this descriptive style.
  • Fast-Paced: If you like entertaining books, ensure your writing is always compelling the plot forward and not getting into the weeds.

Final Thoughts on Story Elements

Every story should contain the above 8 elements of a story. The eight elements of a story are: character, setting, plot, conflict, theme, point-of-view, tone and style. Make sure you include all 8 elements of a story in the next story you write. For every short story I write, I will start with character, setting and plot then go on from there. Similarly, you can use the 8 story elements as a framework to critique a film or book of your choice. 

infographic listing the 8 elements of a story
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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