Image: Matthew Loffhagen
As this article is aimed at newly budding writers, hello and welcome to a scary but exciting expedition, probably into regions of your imagination you had no idea existed. The fact that you want to know what these 5 essential story elements are shows that you are on the right track.
There are all manner of reasons you started on this journey—perhaps you were inspired by how your grandparents met during the war, or a robin dancing on a windowsill made you think, “What if the robin was trying to tell me something?” Whatever the trigger, there is a story that is wanting to be told festering in the back of your mind.
That story may not be complete and all the characters have yet to present themselves, but you are laying the groundwork, plotting a course, rummaging around to find the compass and the sextant and … wondering where the heck to start.
So, to help you along your way, here are the 5 essential story elements you must consider when putting pen to paper. It might be worthwhile if you grab a notebook, copy down the headings and scrawl copious, but legible, notes under each.
1. The story arc
It sounds dreadfully obvious, but your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Yes, I know you know this, but you may not have really thought about what should happen in each.
- The beginning: you set the scene, present and give life to the characters, set the plot in motion and start raising questions—make the reader want to know more.
- The middle: the tension builds, the pace of the action increases, questions might be answered, but still more are raised, the characters learn, grow and set goals—make the reader care how this will all end.
- The end: the culmination of tension and action, the questions are answered (maybe one or two are left unanswered with thoughts of a sequel in mind, or even allowing the reader to decide for themselves) and the characters have changed into better, or maybe worse, versions of who they were at the beginning—give the reader closure and let them shut the book with a satisfied “Well, that was worth the read”.
I hasten to add that you might not know all of this yet and that’s perfectly acceptable, but keep it in the back of your mind as it will help give you direction.
2. The characters and their story arcs
I have touched on this above, but the characters themselves need a “story arc”. Their experiences must alter them as the story progresses. By the end, in a good way or in a bad way, they are changed.
It would be beneficial to ask yourself these questions:
- Who are they at the beginning?
- What is it that they are setting out to achieve throughout the story?
- What experiences will they endure in the middle?
- Who are they at the end?
- How will their presence in the story affect the plot?
Your characters drive the story, and making the reader really care about them is important to a successful novel. Taking the time to really think about each of these questions for each of your characters is well worth the effort.
3. The setting
The setting can almost be described as another character. Think about books you have read where the protagonist has battled against the landscape which has, in itself, been an antagonist—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—or historic novels where the era in which the story is set is intrinsic to the plot—Robert Harris’ Enigma, for example.
A badly researched or shallow presentation of the setting is poor workmanship and can make a reader lose interest.
I often stand on my soap box about respecting the reader and I’m going to leap up onto it again. Do not think the readers are not going to care about the setting and do not think they will not know much on the subject.
Assume, instead, that your historical novel is going to be reviewed by a professor of history at Yale. Research it, and research it well.
And if your setting is to create obstacles for the characters, then, in your story development, answer the following question: exactly how and why will it affect the plot?
Like any other character, the setting is a driving force in the momentum of a story and it needs to be given life to really draw the reader in.
4. The point of view
The point of view in a story is, basically, whose eyes the story is witnessed through and is presented in first person (“I said”), very rarely second person (“you did”) or the third person narrative (“he laughed”).
The first person point of view does what it says on the tin—the story is presented as if you are inside the character’s mind, hearing his thoughts, observations and feelings. If this is your chosen narrative, the point of view is easy to adhere to. And, should you find you need to introduce a secondary point of view, it is possible to introduce a narrative within a narrative—your protagonist recounting the story told to him, such as Mr Lockwood recounting Nelly Dean’s tales in Wuthering Heights:
Before I came to live here, she commenced—waiting no farther invitation to her story—I was almost always at Wuthering Heights; because my mother had nursed Mr. Hindley Earnshaw, that was Hareton’s father, and I got used to playing with the children: I ran errands too, and helped to make hay, and hung about the farm ready for anything that anybody would set me to.
I shall confess now I have not encountered a novel written in the second person narrative and I rather suspect I would close a book quite quickly if I found it to be so. Don’t let me put you off, however. I clearly am a “narrative snob” and if you have decided this tricky, but creative route is one you want to take, I heartily encourage it.
The third person narrative is probably the most commonly used. More often than not, although the story is told by a silent, detached narrator, the plot is followed through the thoughts and observations of one main character, as seen in the Harry Potter novels.
There is also the option of the “omniscient third person narrative”, where the point of view can change from one character to another and several perspectives and thoughts on a situation are described.
Hang on a moment while I drag my soap box over again…
Please assume that the reader is smart enough to grasp what another character’s reaction might mean merely from the observation of it. Setting down the thoughts of all characters is telling, not showing and it makes for a rather frustrating read.
The odds are your point of view will be that of the protagonist. Again, a hasty addition, this is not necessarily so, but chances are good. Whatever your choice, make that decision early on in the writing process and stick to it to avoid confusing or exhausting the reader.
5. The moral
Here’s an important question: why are you writing this story?
Is it just a nice story to tell or, if you stop and think about it, is there a strong opinion—about politics, life, love—filtering through?
You might surprise yourself if you stop and analyse what exactly is motivating the urge to write. Or even, simply, how your life experiences are affecting the course of the narrative.
One way or another, your story is going to have a message, a moral. You need not declare it boisterously—the literal version of shoving it down the reader’s throat—but be aware of what it is. This awareness will show in your writing.
Be aware and be proud of it. This is your story to tell—do not feel like you need to address both sides to a moral’s argument. You don’t need to apologise for having and expressing an opinion.
The above pointers are by no means exhaustive or definitive. You will find, as your journey progresses, that there are many thoughts and opinions to be had—taken or left, it is entirely up to you.
I hope, however, that they will help you find your way and, perhaps, provide a metaphorical kick in the rear end to get started.