What Makes a Story

20, May, 2020

For my first post on writing theory I wanted to look at something pretty basic. What elements make up a story? Doing some google research reveals

google screenshot

So, the simple question doesn’t have a simple answer. That is to be expected. Writing is an art form; art can be subjective.

Looking at the longest list from Self-publishing school, it claims that there are 11 “must have” elements.

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Resolution
  • Themes
  • Morals
  • Symbolism
  • Point of view
  • Perspective
  • Pulling it all together

This list should remind you of high school English. But 11 is a lot of elements. Is there a way to simplify and focus on the most important ones? While I’m not claiming that my reasoning is objectively true (remember art form). I propose that there are two essential elements: characters and plot.

Some of you might immediately agree with this. Some might say that there are actually three or five. I’m not dismissing the other elements, but I want to focus on the two that I feel are the most dynamic and beneficial for an author to regularly be thinking about.

Characters and plot are uniquely interconnected. There are character driven stories and plot driven stories. However, in really good stories it should be hard to tell which is more dominant because characters and plot interact in a balanced way.

Look at it this way. At the beginning of a story a character is like a ship sailing towards some unknown point. The good author creates someone who will follow a set of rules from beginning to end that everyone can agree with - in essence a believable character.

It is the plot that is the guiding hand of the author. The plot shows the reader what the rules for characters are. It also sets up scenarios for conflict, growth or exploration. Plot is the wind and currents that change the course of a ship.

Characters live by a set of rules; plot reveals them and causes the character to choose or change those rules. This leads to new directions for the characters which leads to more plot. A properly balanced interplay between these two makes for the best stories where characters are nuanced and develop throughout the story and plot is believable and drives the action.

Think of Bilbo. He is a character that has a simple quiet life ahead of him, but the author knows that he also has a desire for adventure (Tookish). Enter the plot element of a wizard and dwarves. They are characters too; they have their own courses. But when they interact all their courses change. Except for Gandalf he many times acts as a physical manifestation of the author’s hand.

The reader does not start a book understanding a character, however this doesn’t mean that the character isn’t already fully formed. The plot is the tool used to force the character to make choices that reveal who they are. This is one reason why big decisions happen later in books. A moral dilemma isn’t as impactful to a reader who doesn’t understand the stakes for a character.

A good example of this is batman and his aversion to the use of guns. A new reader wouldn’t understand the ramifications until they read his backstory.

Analyzing the interaction between characters and plot can be a good way to find problem areas in a book. Notice how characters being faced with the same type of plot elements become boring because they have to react the same way. Unexpected plot elements can be good for surprising the reader, but if the plot saves a character from the plot then you end up with [deus ex machina](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina “Wikipedia link”). If a secondary character needs more attention, then the solution isn’t necessarily more page time, but more plot time. Let the plot reveal more about the character. On a related note, it is easy to tell who the main characters are. The more a character interacts with a plot the more primary they become.

One of the biggest advantages for a writer is looking at the story in terms of the interaction of characters and plot naturally encourages showing and not telling. When writing or reading take a moment to analyze a story by asking some questions.

  • Do the characters seem to have a believable set of rules that they follow?
  • How does plot force them to follow those rules or perhaps change their own rules?
  • Are the results believable?
  • Is the story balanced between plot and characters or does one element dominate?
  • How does the genre affect that balance?*
  • Does the imbalance hurt the story?

*It is important to note that a non balanced approach isn’t necessarily wrong. Certain types of stories are focused on one element more than the other. Think about a thriller. The plot is the driving force; character development is secondary.

Next post I want to build on this and take a look at how any story can be reduced down to one question. If you found anything interesting or you respectfully disagree be sure to leave a comment. Also, answer this bonus question.

Do you think there should be a category of moral driven stories such as Pilgrim’s Progress or is the moral of a story really an aspect of the plot?

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    Saturday, September 19, 2020 - 13:01:01