You’ve got a story idea you’re certain has the potential to impact lives.
Where do you start?
There’s enough writing advice on the internet to overwhelm you and make you want to quit before you even begin.
So let’s simplify things.
Writing a story is like building a house. You may have all the tools and design ideas, but if your foundation isn’t solid, even the most beautiful structure won’t stand.
Most storytelling experts agree that 7 key elements must exist in your story.
Make sure they’re all included to boost your chance of selling your writing.
What are the Elements of a Story?
Effective, compelling stories contain:
1 — A Theme
Plot (#5) is what happens in a story, a theme is why it happens—which you need to know while you’re writing the plot.
So, before you even begin writing, determine why you want to tell this story.
- What message do you wish to convey?
- What will it teach the reader about life?
Resist the urge to explicitly state your theme. Just tell your story and let it explore your theme and make its own point.
Give your readers some credit, they’re smart. Subtly weave it into the story and trust them to get it. Don’t rob them of their part of the writing/reading experience.
They may remember your plot, but ideally you want them to think long about your theme.
2 — Characters
I’m talking believable characters who feel knowable.
Your main character is the protagonist, also known as the lead or hero/heroine.
The protagonist must have:
- redeemable human flaws
- potentially heroic qualities that emerge in the climax
- a character arc (he must be a different, better, stronger person by the end)
Resist the temptation to create a perfect lead character. Perfect is boring. (Even Indiana Jones suffered a snake phobia.)
You also need an antagonist, the villain.
Your villain should be every bit as formidable and compelling as your hero. Just don’t make the bad guy bad because he’s the bad guy. Make him a worthy foe by giving him motives for his actions.
Villains don’t see themselves as bad. They think they’re right! A fully rounded bad guy is much more realistic and memorable.
Depending on the length of your story, you may also need important orbital cast members.
For each, ask:
- What do they want?
- What or who is keeping them from getting it?
- What will they do about it?
The more challenges your characters face, the more relatable they are.
Much as in real life, the toughest challenges transform the most.
3 — Setting
This may include location, time, or era, but it should also include how things look, smell, taste, feel, and sound.
But, beware. Agents and acquisitions editors tell me one of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is feeling they must begin by describing the setting.
It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But a sure way to put readers to sleep is to promise a thrilling story on the cover—only to begin with some variation of:
The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…
Rather than describing the setting, subtly layer it into your story.
Do this, and what things look and feel and sound like subtly register in the theater of the readers’ minds while they’re concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension, the drama, and conflict that keep them turning the pages.
4 — Point of View
To determine Point of View (POV) for your story, decide two things:
- the voice you will use to write your story: First Person (I, me), Second Person (you, your), or Third Person (he, she or it), and
- who will serve as your story’s camera?
The cardinal rule is one perspective character per scene, but I prefer only one per chapter, and ideally one per novel.
Readers experience everything in your story from this character’s perspective. (No hopping into the heads of other characters.) What your POV character sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, and thinks is all you can convey.
Some writers think this limits them to First Person, but it doesn’t.
Most novels are written in Third Person Limited: one perspective character at a time, usually the one with the most at stake.
Writing your novel in First Person makes it easiest to limit yourself to that one perspective character, but Third-Person Limited is most popular for a reason.
Read current popular fiction to see how the bestsellers do it.
Point of View can be confusing, but it’s foundational. Overlook it at your peril.
5 — Plot
Plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. It’s what compels your reader to either keep turning the pages, or set the book aside.
Think of plot as the storyline of your novel.
A successful story answers two questions:
- What happens? (Plot)
- What does it mean? (Theme; see #1 above—it’s foundational)
Writing coaches call story structures by different names, but they’re all largely similar. All story structures include some variation of:
- An Opener
- An Inciting Incident that changes everything
- A series of crises that build tension
- A Climax
- A Resolution (or Conclusion)
How effectively you create drama, intrigue, conflict, and tension, determines whether you can grab readers from the start and keep them to the end.
6 — Conflict
Conflict is the engine of fiction and is crucial to effective nonfiction as well.
Readers crave conflict and long to see what results from it.
If everything in your plot is going well and everyone is agreeing, you’ll quickly bore your reader—a cardinal sin.
Are two characters chatting amiably?
Have one say something that makes the other storm out, revealing a deep-seeded rift in their relationship.
What is it? What’s behind it? Readers will keep turning the pages to find out.
7 — Resolution
Whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser like me (one who writes by the seat of your pants), you must have an idea where your story is going and think about your ending every day.
How you expect the story to end should inform every scene and chapter. It may change, evolve, grow as you and your characters experience the inevitable arcs, but never leave it to chance.
Keep your lead character center stage to the very end. Everything he learns through all the complications that arise from his trying to fix the terrible trouble you plunged him into should, in the end, make him rise to the occasion.
If you get near the end and feel something’s missing, don’t rush. Give it a few days, a few weeks if necessary.
Read through everything you’ve written. Take a long walk. Think on it. Sleep on it. Jot notes about it. Let your subconscious work on it. Play what-if games. Be outrageous if you must. But deliver a satisfying ending that resonates.
Give your readers a payoff for their investment by making it unforgettable. Do this by reaching for the heart.
Readers love to be educated and even entertained, but they never forget being emotionally moved.
You Can Do This
Focus on these 7 story elements, and when you’re ready to dig deeper, click here to read my 12-step process for How to Write a Novel.