Story Basics 101: The Elements Every Story Needs

Contents

Introduction

A story is created by mixing certain elements that bond together to form a tale. Much like baking a cake. A cake needs ingredients to blend and transform to become a cake. Story structure is akin to a three-layer cake — first layer, the beginning, second layer, the middle, and third layer, the end. Read Story Basics 101: Beginning, Middle, and End for more on story structure. This post will focus on the remaining ingredients for a tasty story; purpose or meaning, the protagonist, the antagonist, conflict, setting, and change.

 I should quit while I’m ahead. I’m abusing the cake metaphor now. Onward. 

Purpose or Message

Every story needs a purpose or a message. The tale can aim for a laugh and be funny. Many stories critique life and society or are thoughtful and hold meaning. Others contain a moral lesson. Every marvelous story evokes emotion in the reader, positive or negative. 

Even fairytales many of us grew up on, such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Cinderella, hold meaning. These meanings make them timeless because they still resonate. Hansel and Gretel critiques bad parenting and child abuse explores hunger and the extremes people will go to for survival. Snow White shows us shacking up with seven little dudes is cool we can create new and better lives after abuse. And the “rag to riches” fairytale, Cinderella, critiques class and society. 

Other readers might take away different messages from these fairytales. The point is, every story has a purpose or message.

The Protagonist 

The Protagonist is the main character, aka the point-of-view character. They aren’t always pleasant people and a well-rounded protagonist is flawed (think Dexter or Jax from The Son’s of Anarchy). In contrast, fairytales characters are archetypes. Snow White and Cinderella fall into the princess archetype and are the protagonist of their story. Identifying the protagonist in Hansel and Gretel is a bit tricky. In my opinion, Gretel is the main protagonist and not Hansel, because she is more active in the plot and is the one who saves her brother and roasts the witch. It boils down to who’s point-of-view the story is written from. However, an argument for multiple protagonists can be made for stories written in the third person omniscient point-of-view, the god-like nature of the narrative allows for multiple protagonists to star within the same paragraph. Classic fairytales are written from an omniscient point-of-view. Hansel and Gretel can be considered joint protagonists. 

Larger stories may alternate between several protagonists between paragraphs or chapters. Flash Fiction, by nature, is limited by word count (under 1000 words) and therefore stars one protagonist. I’ve tried multi protagonists in flash fiction stories, results were… embarrassing. Not enough words to pull the story off. I was told to my face one such story was “crap” (the stronger four-letter descriptive was used). Only a true friend would be that honest…  

If you’re new to writing, make it easy on yourself and focus on one protagonist. Once you’re established, experiment. 

The Antagonist

The Antagonist is the opposition to the main character (the protagonist). As children, we identify the antagonist as the villain or the bad guy. However, like protagonists, antagonists are somewhere on the spectrum of good and evil. A well-intended best friend can be the antagonist if their actions become an obstacle for the protagonist. Think of the antagonist (and protagonist) as a role rather than a character. In “The Wizard of Oz” the antagonist is The Wicked Witch. The novel and stage production “Wicked” flips characters around and The Wicked Witch is the protagonist of her own story.

Worth noting, the antagonist isn’t always a character; natural disasters, monsters, machines, illness, or accidents can throw the protagonist into a tailspin. The antagonist’s role is to provide obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, thus creating conflict.  

Conflict

Conflict is any obstacle standing in the protagonist’s way. In Snow White, the protagonist wants to be safe, but the queen makes it her life mission to kill Snow White. Cinderella wants to go to the ball but has no outfit or transport thanks to her horrible stepmother. Hansel and Gretel want to return home but are lost and later held hostage by a cannibal witch.

Think of conflict as “versus”; Snow White vs The Evil Queen, Cinderella vs Horrible Stepmother, Hansel and Gretel vs Poverty (the witch is a candidate for the role of chief antagonist, she creates conflict but so do the parents and a lack of resources. The witch doesn’t arrive until act 2 and poverty drove the plot in act 1 with the parents abandoning the children and continued throughout the story with the need to eat or be eaten). Refer to Story Basics 101: Beginning, Middle, and End for story structure details.

Setting

The Setting is the story stage or the location. Locations can say a lot about a story. Imagine fairytales set in different time periods or parts of the world. Consider 21st Century Hansel and Gretel locked up in a New York penthouse. Would they call the cops on a mobile phone rather than baking the witch or would they blow her brains out with an unregistered gun? It doesn’t have the same ring as the classic fairytale.

Change

If all this story theory is doing your head in (maybe it’s just me), ask yourself what changed for your main character. Something has to change in every story. Cinderella went from being a wench to a princess. Snow White escaped her stepmother and married into a neighbouring kingdom. Hansel and Gretel returned home, scarred for life, and needed therapy. Change can be subtle or extreme. No change, no story.  

You might find if you ask yourself what changed, all the other story elements fall into place organically. I struggle with the purpose or message when writing my own stories. Often a story’s meaning will hide until the end. 

Conclusion

Every story embodies these elements. However, not all prose writing contains these elements. Begs the question, what doesn’t constitute a story? Jumping back to the cake analogy, recipes dictate the ratio of ingredients for taste and mixture consistency. Confusing salt for sugar would be a disaster. Meat and chilly don’t belong in cakes. Stories are much the same, certain ingredients don’t belong or can be added in small doses. Like good cooks, good writers need to know how to throw ingredients together, it may save their creation from the bin. Grasping what doesn’t belong in a story is one of the best tools in a writer’s toolbox because it steers writers away from pitfalls. But “what story isn’t”, my friends, is for another post.

Writing Exercise

Identify the story elements in your own work, fairytales, or the book you’re reading. 



Categories: Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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  1. Story Basics 101: What Story Isn’t – THE WRITING ASYLUM

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