If you are a new writer, you have likely already figured out that you need to spend time learning how to plot out a good story, a skill that requires practice. While it may not be apparent at first, to write a book readers love, there are some elements that you must know if you want your story to be deeply engaging.
The four main elements of a story are the characters, setting, plot and theme. These are the foundation that you need to start with when you start building your book. There are also others such as tone, style and point-of-view that then layer on top of these foundation elements.
A story contains many different elements that can help make it an engaging read. Each element serves a different purpose for the narrative and adds layers to help improve the overall experience. So, what are the elements of a story? Let’s look at them and what they can do for you.
The first and primary element is likely the most obvious one, characters.
They are one of the most critical parts of a story to get right because they are what the audience will be able to connect with and can be used to reflect their own personality.
Characters are often called the backbone of any narrative.
Without a solid backbone, the rest of the story will not be exciting, no matter how clever and well-constructed.
It is easy to gloss over the characters’ creation process, especially if their role isn’t the central focus. Instead, you need to make sure the character has a personality all their own. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or evil. What matters is that they are unique and memorable.
You have to make people care about them in one way or another, whether it be sympathy for a terrible situation they’ve been put in or anger for being the antagonist.
If done incorrectly, they can come across as flat and unimportant. Most writers understand the importance of great characters and work to create them accordingly. It is up to the reader to decide what elements make for a good character.
Secondly, there’s the setting.
This element describes where everything takes place, from physical locations to the time period. For example, some stories might take place solely in one location, while others may take place all over the world, but they all have a setting.
This can vary greatly depending on the genre of your book.
A plot in a fantastical world will have a much different kind of setting that you need to plan in far more detail than one set in present-day New York.
While these settings are worlds apart, they both serve the same general purpose of advancing the story.
The setting is a fine line between being descriptive enough that it immerses readers and being overly wordy.
It has to be enough for readers to get an idea of the location but vague enough that you don’t bore them with unnecessary details.
Spent time developing more details about your setting than you will ultimately use in your story. Knowing your setting in depth is critical to writing a good story.
The next element of a story is its plot.
The plot is the sequence of events that happen in a narrative.
It’s not always as simple as it sounds, sometimes there are hidden elements to uncover, or there are multiple twists and turns.
The simplest form the plot can take is a linear path, but others can be more complex and winding depending on how many plot threads you choose to weave into your story.
The plot should be engaging but predictable enough to keep readers invested and wanting more after each chapter.
There needs to be a buildup for any kind of resolution to have its full impact on the audience.
This is where the tension comes into play as it helps provide that push forward so that readers are not bored with the story and keeps them engaged.
Tension is a critical part of keeping your readers interested in what’s happening on the page and draws attention away from anything that might be lacking in other areas.
It makes for an engaging read where readers care about what is going to happen next.
It is what drives everything forward and moves your narrative from one point to another.
In addition to tension, you need to add conflict to your plot.
We will get into more detail about conflict but as you plot remember that you need to build in some sort of problem to overcome through the actions of your characters. The problem needs to be something that your protagonist must solve in some way in order to be successful in the end and conflict is established by something getting in the way of solving that problem or reaching a goal.
Plot points need to be spaced out so that there is always something driving the story forward while they add tension and conflict.
Remember to vary the plot points using combinations of small and large ideas. A plot with just a series of only one big thing after another can become exhausting to read and put people off.
Good pacing is important!
The final of the four main elements to build a good story is the theme. The theme is what your story is about on a deeper level.
The theme of your book will let readers know what kind of messages you are trying to convey, but it should not be something that feels too heavy-handed in the actual narrative.
Themes are important for helping readers understand the ideas you want them to take away from reading the story.
Some books will include a clear theme that the reader can spot right away, but others can be more subtle and may only become apparent once the story is over.
The theme could help you convey important messages to your readers that might not have been as obvious if it wasn’t included in the narrative.
This is not to say that the theme is meant to be a heavy element that you are trying to force your readers to take away from the story.
It is just something that goes into crafting a better narrative and gives readers an extra element to think about after reading your story.
Now we have covered the four main elements, let’s discuss ten more that build on this foundation to an exceptional story.
Subplots are secondary plotlines that are woven into the primary story, and they usually take the focus of a tale for a while before returning to the main theme.
They complement the main plot and add several other elements of conflict, suspense, and resolution. More on those later.
They are woven into the main plot to add suspense and interest, giving additional depth to the story to keep people reading.
Subplots can establish the central idea of narrative and add character depth, but it is up to your discretion to decide whether to add them.
Just like any aspect of writing, subplots can be overdone and ruin whatever is engaging with the main storyline and cause readers to lose interest in the story as a whole. They may be a fun element to add, but you need to understand how and when they should be implemented into your narrative.
Subplots are typically non-critical to the main story and not the focus for extended periods of time. Remember they are to enhance the story, adding depth and interest so be careful they do not take over too much.
For example, one subplot might be about a crime spree taking place in New York City that is affecting the main character, but the story does not stay focused on this subplot for long before progressing to the core of the narrative.
The subplot should be interesting but add in elements from the main plot to give it an extra layer of depth that deepens the narrative.
If you weave the subplot in too tightly to the main plot, you could lose readers by confusing the narrative and straying too far off topic from what you’re essentially trying to show your readers.
Like any other element, it must be used in moderation. You need to decide how much you want to spend on subplots and how much time you want to be spent on them, balancing them against each other.
Conflict is critical in storytelling because it helps drive the narrative forward and keeps readers engaged and invested.
There are many different forms of conflict you can add to a narrative, but the most common type is outer conflict-circumstances outside of your protagonist’s control.
This type of conflict pits your characters against another, whether it be another character, a specific antagonist, or an obstacle that is preventing the protagonist from reaching their goal. It is some kind of external problem that must be solved in a story.
Another type of conflict is inner conflict.
This type of conflict comes from within, usually because of something a character feels that they cannot overcome. It is what the characters believe about themselves and their own intentions for actions.
This internal conflict can come from any number of reasons such as self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, or even something as simple as a fear of failure. This form of struggle helps define your characters and gives them greater depth to who they are as people and how their actions affect the world around them.
The main difference between these forms of conflict is the source- inner conflict comes from within while outer conflict arises because of other people or events outside of the protagonist’s control.
Adding conflict is one of the best ways to make your story engaging and exciting to read.
Conflict can be added by placing external problems before your protagonist, but that does not mean you should neglect inner conflict.
Both forms of conflict have their place in a story and help develop the characters as well as add suspense.
The tensions and conflict will combine to drive your story toward a satisfying plot conclusion.
Suspense or tension is a narrative element that can make or break a story. It keeps the narrative interesting and keeps readers invested in it.
Suspense can show up in a number of diverse ways depending on the plot and setting, but it all boils down to an idea of uncertainty or tension.
This tension can come from any number of things but, more often than not, it results from an external conflict or situation.
No matter what type of story you are writing, suspense and tension is key to keeping readers interested.
This type of narrative makes readers care about the story and stimulates them to keep turning the pages, leading to an overall improvement in the story.
Suspense comes from doubt and uncertainty. When a character is faced with some kind of conflict or problem, readers remain confused about how the story will resolve.
The source of suspense can come from several places, but the most common source of suspense comes from external conflicts.
Suspense can also be created when an antagonist is keeping a protagonist from reaching their goal.
Internal conflicts can also create suspense when they arise from internal doubts about the character’s intentions.
The rising action occurs over the course of the story and involves the events that lead up to the main conflict of the story.
This is the time when the story begins to take shape, the plot starts to come together, and the characters start to develop.
Many narratives begin with the rising action, or at some point early in the narrative, and it may be the most complicated layer of the story to build and organize.
This narrative element creates a bridge and acts as a warm-up exercise for readers before they face the climax that will follow.
The rising action sets the tone for the overall theme of the story and helps drive the narrative, giving readers a preview of what’s to come while introducing them to the story’s main conflict.
The rising action is the prelude to the main conflict of the story, which builds to a dramatic climax and is where your story reaches its peak moment, bringing the narrative to an end and forming the final act of the story.
It can be any point of the story where you feel that the climax has occurred- it could be a main conflict, a climatic action scene, or even the reveal of some pivotal piece of information.
The climax is where all pieces of narrative come together to form one dramatic, story-defining moment. It drives or ends the story.
It’s the final piece of the puzzle that writers use to build their story and characters. It’s the point when a character learns the answer to the question posed by the story, inspired by the actions of the protagonists in the story.
The resolution is the finale in the story – the climatic ending that ties up all the narrative threads of the story, allowing the story to end on a strong note and leave readers satisfied.
This ending provides closure to readers and allows them to reflect on the story’s main conflict, and how it affected everyone within the story.
Resolution can take several forms, but the most usual form is that the character overcoming the conflict, whether that’s in terms of achieving a goal or setting things right (such as mending a broken relationship or defeating an external antagonist).
Sometimes the resolution of a story comes with the revelation of a truth or a key piece of information that the reader learns throughout the story.
This ending allows readers to think back on the story’s events, analyze them, and help them understand the main character’s motivations or desires.
Understanding this desire or motivation is key to understanding the character’s actions throughout the story.
Resolution can come in any number of forms – it doesn’t have to be a single event, it can be a series of events that leads to a resolution of some sort- the end of a relationship, the final confrontation with an antagonist, or even the death of an important character. All of these elements combine to make up the ending of a narrative.
You can leave your readers with a hook if you are writing a series to get them excited for the next book, but it is important to have a satisfying ending for each book. There must be a resolution to a major storyline in some fashion. Keep the hook a side-plot that is intended to become the start of a new major plot in the next book.
Point of view
Point of View is the type of narration used to tell a narrative. Let’s look at the three most used types of Point of View- first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
First Person Point of View
First-person point of view is where the narrator and point of view character is the same character, and this is the person telling the story.
First person point of view is best used when you are writing a story where the character knows everything about the story and can reveal any secrets or information to readers or where you want the reader to experience the same limited knowledge that the character does.
The first-person narration puts the reader directly into the mind of the viewpoint character.
Readers can experience what it’s like to be the character living in the story as the main character narrates the story either through dialogue or through descriptive narrative.
This narration style is best suited for a story where the main character is personally involved in the story and has a dramatic impact on it.
Third Person Limited Point of View
Third person limited point of view is a narration style where the narrator witnesses events from a different perspective than the reader. In this case, the narrator is a separate character from the reader, and is watching the story unfold.
Usually, a third person limited narration is used when the narrator is observing a character and witnessing their actions. This narration style works in a similar way to first-person narration, except the narrator tells the story observing the actions from outside perspective but is still focused on a single character as they experience events.
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
Third person omniscient point of view is a narration style where the narrator is separate from all characters and sees events from an outside perspective. This narration style works the same way as third person limited point of view, except the narrator tells the story and witnesses all events that occur in the story.
The story will change between multiple characters in the story and thus give the reader the full scope of the story and the events that occur within it.
This narration style is best suited for a story where the story focuses on multiple characters and their experiences. It’s important to note that the type of point of view used does not in any way dictate the type of story you should write so evaluate each carefully to figure out which presents your story the best.
Narrative style refers to the way a story is told and the words used to describe the events in the story.
For example, a narrative style can be used to show emotion or shock with a vivid descriptive narrative or used to emphasize the feelings of a character with a dialogue that relays the character’s feelings to the reader.
Many novels and books employ a certain narrative style throughout- some show the events through dialogue and witty banter, while others use more descriptive narrative to show the scenes in a setting.
The narrative style you use for your novel can be dictated by many things, including your writing style, your unique voice, or the type of story you are writing.
A narrative style is an artistic choice made by the writer to convey a certain feeling to readers.
The atmosphere of your book refers to the overall mood of your story and the way it makes you feel- whether it makes you feel excited, sad, scared, melancholy, or anything else.
Atmosphere can often determine whether a reader will engage in your story or not- by conveying certain emotions through storytelling, writers are able to engage readers into a story and make them come back for more.
When writing a book or writing a screenplay, it is important to keep in mind all the senses of a reader.
- What visuals come to mind when you think of your story?
- What sounds can you imagine?
- What smells can you catch?
- What tastes can you capture in the mind of your reader?
All these things and more can go into the making of your story’s atmosphere. Make sure to take time to create a picture in the reader’s mind by including sensory details in your story.
Establishing atmosphere can be done using imagery. We are all very visual so using vivid imagery helps the audience become more involved in the story.
It is the use of sensory details that help to show a certain mood or feeling and it can be direct or indirect- it can be shown through visual storytelling, or through dialogue or narrative.
When using imagery in your writing, you need to make think about what particular mood and emotion you are portraying and that you are portraying that for the reader.
Imagery done well helps the reader pull from their own real-life experience so they feel more connected to the story. It also gives you the opportunity to describe in detail the scenes and settings that impact the mood of your story.
Just be careful with the atmosphere and imagery that you give to the reader is done via small pieces woven into the story. Nobody wants to read three pages of heavy description of a new location. Sprinkle bits carefully. Use different methods such as dialog and inner thought of characters to present the information as part of the story.
Too much at once will take the reader out of the flow of the story so build carefully.
Lastly there is dialog, one of the trickiest things to get correct. We have left this for last ever though it is important as beautifully written dialog can be used to power all the elements we have covered above.
As you write, think about all the other elements and how you can incorporate them in your written dialog.
Dialog should add to the story and stand on its own without distracting from the story. It should not be used to tell the story in isolation. It will sound like dictation if you are not careful.
Dialog in your story can be the most powerful tool you have- use it carefully and your people will love your because of it.
Every writing element should be treated like another puzzle piece and put together to create the complete picture.
With all the pieces combined, you will have a complete story.
Each piece is vital to getting the best result and when all of them are in place, you will have a much more rewarding experience for your readers.
So, when you start your plot planning process, take some time to make sure to evaluate the foundational elements are properly developed and integrated into the story you invent.
You can make your plot far better and end up creating something special if you take the time to add these.