What makes a great story? Is it compelling characters, an exciting plot, incredible description — or all of the above? It may seem like your favorite story comes together with magic, but there are seven key elements of a story that you’ll find in any great one: plot, character, setting, conflict, theme, point of view, and tone.
Skillful stories typically have a straightforward plot and sequence of events that manage to surprise the reader with plot twists.
Example: In the beginning of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker works at his uncle’s farm on the planet Tatooine. In the middle, he rescues Princess Leia from the Death Star. At the end, Luke destroys the Death Star.
The standard plot structure consists of five main elements:
- Exposition - introduces the character and setting
- Rising action - something changes; the characters meet a challenge or crisis
- Climax - the turning point and most exciting part of a story
- Falling action - events that follow as a result of the climax
- Denouement (or resolution) - the end that occurs after a conflict is resolved and a character has changed
Complex and relatable characters are important to a good story. Writers create these types of characters by understanding character types and character traits.
Each of the types of characters in a story contributes to the plot, but in very different ways.
- Protagonist - the main character whose journey we follow throughout the story
- Antagonist - sometimes known as the foil, the character whose goals come up against the protagonist's, leading to conflict
- Dynamic character - a character who changes as a result of the events in the story
- Static character - a character who does not change during the course of a story
Example: in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet's dialogue and behavior show that she is witty, discerning, and playful. We can then predict how she will react when Mr. Darcy invites her to dance.
Where and when a story occurs can affect what characters do, how the plot unfolds, and whether the reader can connect with the author's choices. Consider the two main types of setting when writing or reading a short story.
This type of setting can be the backdrop for almost any story. The time period and physical place don't affect the plot in a major way.
Example: Most fairy tales take place in a distant kingdom during the Renaissance period. However, the themes of these stories do not depend on their backdrop.
An integral setting is a time and/or place that directly affects the plot. Alternatively, the story depends on that setting as an integral element.
Example: The characters in William Golding's Lord of the Flies create a society on a deserted island where their plane has crashed.
The point where the interests of the protagonist and antagonist collide is the conflict. There are many types of conflict in different stories, but they can be broadly categorized as external conflict and internal conflict.
An external conflict exists between a character and something else (like another character, nature, society, or fate) outside of the character's control. The character must resolve this conflict during the rising action or climax of the story.
Example: The stepmother in Cinderella sabotages Cinderella's chance to attend the royal ball.
Internal conflict occurs when a character struggles with something within themselves, such as fear or insecurity. Resolving internal conflict allows the character to develop in a dynamic way.
Example: Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment follows Raskolnikov's deep guilt and internal torment after he commits a terrible crime.
The theme is the story's "big idea" or underlying message about life. It can be one word that embodies what a story is trying to say, or it can be a longer phrase.
Sometimes, you can find clues for a story's theme in its motifs, which are repeated images, sounds, words, feelings, or other story elements.
Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby watches Daisy's green light on East Egg every night. This foreshadows how much her absence affects his happiness.
The theme of a story is not the same as its subject, which is the actual topic of the story.
Example: The subject of the Harry Potter series is a boy wizard who learns to use magic at Hogwarts. However, its themes are friendship, bravery, and good vs. evil.
Even though the main character is the central figure of the story, the point of view (or perspective) of the story may not be theirs. Sometimes, an author uses a narrator to tell the story instead.
In the first-person point of view, the person telling the story is a character, usually the main character (but not always), and speaks from an "I" perspective.
Example: “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
A second person point of view allows you, the reader, to experience the story through a "you" perspective. This point of view is not as common as first or third-person points of view.
Example: R.A. Montgomery, Journey Under the Sea from the Choose Your Own Adventure series
"You are a deep-sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission."
A third-person narrator tells a story that is happening to other people. A narrator can be omniscient, where they know about all events and characters, or limited, where they follow only one or a few characters.
Example: Joseph Miller, Catch 22
"Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."
Tone is the general feeling of a story or scene, which the author establishes with vivid word choice. All of the previous elements must be consistent in order to achieve the desired tone.
It's easy to confuse tone and mood, but they are not interchangeable. A story establishes its tone with all of the previous storytelling elements. The mood of the story, on the other hand, reflects the emotion the author wants the reader to feel.
Example: In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the dark, foreboding setting and tortured character of Heathcliff, paired with themes of loss and forbidden love, establish an eerie tone. This leads to a dreary mood for the reader.