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What Are the Key Elements of a Story?

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There are five key elements to every story: plot, setting, characters, point of view, and conflict. Whether your students realize it or not, they naturally include all these elements when they’re telling a story to their families or their best fr. It’s what creates the story’s flow, builds anticipation, and excites their listeners.

We can all be great storytellers. It’s in our nature to enjoy a good story and feel compelled to share our own. But when students sit down at their keyboards, or start to put pen to paper, it’s easy to freeze up. Why is writing something down so much harder than chatting up a friend?

Good news — it doesn’t have to be! Encourage your students to take some time before you start writing to figure out their five key story elements. Need some help and direction? Read on for all the details they need to brainstorm the parts of their stories. With this newfound clarity, it’s easy to write a tale their whole class will love. Let’s get started!

1. Plot

Young boy sits at a desk with a notebook and pencil writing a story.

The plot is the events or actions that drive your story — it describes the “what” of your tale. The plot lets the reader know what’s happening, describes the problems your characters are trying to solve, and gives the details on how they attempt to solve them.

A strong, compelling plot is essential to any story. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be full of Michael Bay-type action. You don’t need crazy car chases or epic battles to construct an exciting plot. Strong emotions can also drive your story and give your characters plenty to talk about.

However, your story does need several clearly defined plot elements to help you structure your tale’s events and keep the story moving forward.

Elements of Plot

To keep your reader engaged and interested, your story should include these plot elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Let’s explore each one.

Exposition

Exposition gives the reader the background info they need to jump right into your story’s world. This is often found towards the beginning of your story. Even if you choose to jump right into the action, somewhere along the way your reader needs to get a crash course on your characters’ or setting’s history.

Exposition can be given in a variety of ways. Some examples include: 

  • Flashbacks
  • Character dialogue
  • Letters from the past
  • Setting or character descriptions
  • Point of View (aka POV, such as the narrator or main character’s thoughts)

But, as spoken by Officer Lockstock in the Tony award-winning Urinetown: The Musical, “nothin’ can kill a show like too much exposition.” This rings true whether you’re watching a play or reading a story. Don’t overload the reader with background info right out of the gate. Keep it natural and let it drive the story forward rather than stalling it while everyone catches up. 

Look to great worldbuilding novels, such as Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games, for excellent examples of setting the stage. These worlds were built from the ground up, but as a reader, it never feels labored. Find the common ground between your story’s world and the reader’s and work from there, cluing them into the big differences as you go.

Rising Action

The rising action is the moments in your story that lead up to the climax — choices your main characters have made and the events happening that are at odds with your characters’ goals. This is where your story builds and your reader begins to invest in your characters.

This is likely going to be the longest section of your story. A whole lot happens between the start of the novel and that moment, but often you’ll find yourself holding your breath and waiting to see what will happen. That is the power of rising action.

Climax

This is it — the primary turning point and what your story has been building towards. What are your main characters going to do? Will they succeed or fail? 

Typical climaxes include victories or defeats. The main goal of the climax is to resolve the conflict, but whether that positively or negatively affects your character is up to you. Or maybe it’s not that simple.

Falling Action

Now that the main conflict is resolved, it’s time to begin wrapping everything up. The falling action is a great time to tie up any loose ends while also giving your characters a chance to deal with the aftermath of the climax. 

Resolution

It’s time to end your tale! If you still have unanswered questions in your plot, answer them now. The resolution is also the time to show the next step in your characters’ lives. Do they live happily ever after? Is a new era dawning? Or do they just continue on with their ordinary existence with a new experience under their belt? 

The resolution of one story can also be the start of another. You can introduce a new conflict or raise more questions for your reader. Wrap it up, then begin again!

2. Setting

Dramatic shot of a castle from a distance across a river.

The setting of your story is both the physical location and point in time in which your plot takes place. For some stories (like the fantasy novels mentioned above) setting is a huge part of the story. You can build a whole new world with its own languages and creatures. In this case, the setting almost acts as its own character in your tale.

But, you don’t have to go all immersive like Tolkien to create a strong setting in your story. What best serves your main themes? Modern day New York or civil rights era Mississippi? Victorian England or Jersey in the 80s? There are so many places you can travel to, and so many interesting times to draw from. Choose your favorite (or multiple favorites if your characters have a time machine 😉) and dig in.

3. Characters

Close-up shot of Star Wars LEGO characters.

The characters are the people, animals, beings, or personified objects driving your story. A story can have many characters or just one main character as the focus. Going back to our example, The Hunger Games focuses on Katniss, but there are many supporting characters that play a major role in her story: Haymitch, Peeta, Gale, Rue, Primrose, and many, many more. On the other hand, Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” has only three: the narrator, Lenore, and the raven. But that’s plenty for an exciting tale.

Your story’s characters should be compelling. Whether good or evil, you need your reader to invest and care about their journey. So, what kind of characters does your story need?

Kinds of Characters

There are many different kinds of characters, but most stories include these two common types:

Protagonist

The protagonist is typically the ‘good guy’ in your story — the one the reader is rooting for. This main character is super important and central to your plot. They are often trying to overcome the conflict while finding themselves at odds with our next character type.

Antagonist

The antagonist of your story doesn’t have to be a single person. It can be any character, group, or force that is at odds with your protagonist. This doesn’t mean they have to be ‘evil’ or the ‘bad guy’, but the antagonist is often pushing the conflict onto our protagonist.

Looking for a fun example? Check out the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. She’s a classic antagonist in the original story. But in the musical Wicked, we’re told her background tale and she’s transformed into a protagonist the audience can’t help but love. That is the power of a good story!

4. Point of view

Young girl sits on her father's shoulders and peers through her fingers atop a crowd.

What changed in our two stories above about the Wicked Witch of the West? The point of view! Point of view (or POV) describes the lens through which the story is being told. 

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch is at odds with our protagonist Dorothy and her quest to return home. However, in Wicked, we get to see the green witch as a young woman going through the typical struggles of friendship and young love. And that is a whole other story.

Types of Point of View

The POV you choose can help shape your entire story. There are several different POVs to consider, but the most common are first person, second person, and third person.

First Person Point of View

A story told in the first person is most often told from the point of view of the protagonist. Our protagonist narrator will speak using first person pronouns (I, we, me, etc). And as the reader, we are privy to their innermost thoughts and feelings. 

This is a great way to pull a reader into the story, and a very strong bond can be formed between the reader and the narrator. Our previous example, The Hunger Games, was told with a first person POV. As a reader, we never knew more than Katniss did about what was happening, leading to some great surprises and reveals as the story continued to unfold throughout the three book series. 

Second Person Point of View

You won’t see second person used very often in literature, but it is an important POV to keep in mind. In the second person, the reader is addressed directly and may even become a character of sorts in your story. This point of view is written using second person pronouns (you, your, etc). 

Though you can find some books written in second person, most often you will see this writing in your digital reading, such as ads and blog posts — why, hello there!

Third Person Point of View

Third person POV is by far the most common point of view in fiction writing. In this kind of story, the reader is a bystander, observing the actions of the characters as told by an ‘outside narrator’. This POV used third person pronouns (he, she, they, etc). But how much we learn as a reader depends on which style of narrator you choose. 

Third Person Omniscient

A third person omniscient narrator knows everything going down in the story. As a reader, we can learn the inside thoughts and feelings of all the main characters. The story unfolds in front of us, and we get to experience it through a variety of character lenses.

Third Person Limited

In this POV, our narrator has access to only one character’s inside thoughts and feelings. As the reader, we typically follow this one character as our main character, learning only what they know and seeing the world through their eyes and experiences.

5. Conflict

A young girl practices writing a story with a paper and pencil.

The conflict is the big problem of the story. What is your main character trying to overcome? That is the conflict

Conflict comes in many different forms, but will almost always involve an antagonist of sorts. There can be one major conflict in your story, or your characters may encounter several throughout the tale. But more than likely there is one big theme driving the major conflict. So, what does that look like?

Types of Conflict

There are different types of conflicts you may choose to use, but the most common are character vs self, character vs character, character vs nature, and character vs society.

Character vs Self

In this type of conflict, your main character must overcome something within themselves to achieve their goal. These internal conflicts may look like a doubt, fear, or grudge. It’s whatever is holding them back from their desires.

The Lord of the Rings provides a great example of character vs self with Aragorn. He is destined to be king, but his own doubts have taken him away from that path. One of the major plots of the story is Aragorn realizing that he is capable and worthy of this leadership role.

Character vs Character

In a character vs character conflict, someone is standing in our protagonist’s way. This is a very common conflict type in superhero tales. There’s a ‘bad guy’ our main characters must defeat before the story ends. 

Character vs Nature

Character vs nature conflicts pit our characters against some kind of natural force. It could be a natural disaster (tornado, hurricane, wildfire, avalanche) or any other kind of survival tale. Many post-apocalyptic stories involve both character vs nature and character vs character conflicts. 

Another example of character vs nature is when our characters are battling forces of nature, such as in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In this heartbreaking story, two teens are fighting cancer diagnoses — a force of nature they have no control over. After falling in love, they are then left to battle time and death — two other powerful forces of nature. 

Character vs Society

In our final conflict type, characters are battling oppressive societal norms. In character vs society, our protagonist feels like they are at odds with the whole world. This can often be broken down into character vs character to get a strong emotional pull (such as a kid at odd with their parents) but the themes are much bigger than any one person.

The importance of incorporating these elements into your story

When you’re helping students write their story, keep these elements in mind or encourage students to use them to outline their stories and major themes. Including these five elements will give their stories direction, structure, and a great flow, keeping their readers flipping those pages long into the night.

Now, what are you waiting for? Go forth and give your students the tools they need to tell their tale! We can’t wait to read what your students dream up.

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