There are five basic but essential elements of every great story. They enable screenwriters and novelists alike to capture their audience and craft a story worth telling. Like building blocks, they’re connected to each other to carry the load and balance out your story. We’ll go over each element and then show you how to begin writing. In the end, you’ll find a checklist for the five elements to test the strength of your screenplay.
The elements of a great story are far from secret ingredients. Depending on which storytelling theory you consult, they might go by different names. For this introduction, we’re going to call them character, want and need, plot, structure, and conflict and resolution.
Every story needs a hero. Your protagonist or main character determines what is happening in your story. Without the hero and their actions, there would be no story.
The main character will draw your audience in if they can identify with them and root for them. In other words, create a likable hero. Your protagonist will start out far from perfect but give them qualities to make them relatable and the audience will want to keep going. A character is well-rounded when we perceive them as believable or authentic.
Humans are complex beings. An interesting character has at least one thing they need to fix, a problem or a flaw. As the title The Dark Knight suggests, Batman is a flawed, even tragic hero.
A thing that the hero needs to fix allows the story to develop and move forward. The problem can come in the form of an opponent, foe or villain, an antagonist to complement the protagonist. Secondary characters further populate the story to support the plot. They enable the hero’s progression or transformation of character.
A hero who lacks nothing makes for a boring tale. In every great story, their want and need define the protagonist. These are the things that motivate the main character in their actions: their wishes, dreams, and desires. In Ready Player One, Parzival is on a quest to find an Easter egg inside the oasis.
The object of the hero’s pursuit, what they want, is one thing. But what turns out to be the true solution to their flaw or problem is another: it’s their need that ends up changing their life. Other names for this paired story element are premise and theme, A story and B story, or also external and internal story.
The external journey can be specific to the main character and feature exciting action. The internal journey is more reflective and universal, something the hero has to learn or change about themselves. Fixing the hero’s flaw can mean finding love, trust, faith, or human connection, taking on responsibility, overcoming fear, acceptance, sacrifice, or mere survival. The theme of Ready Player One is the hero making connections in real life, not inside the simulation.
The storyline or plot of your writing is a series of events in which actions and occurrences cause and effect later ones. The plot ties the events in your story together, directing the audience towards the question: why does it all happen? Together with character, the plot affects everything in your writing.
The plot of every great story follows certain patterns or story archetypes. Their exact number varies with different storytelling theories. For Aristotle, only simple and complex plots existed. Modern approaches feature a higher number of distinct story archetypes or master plots. The important lesson is the common denominators shared by stories of each of these plots.
One such archetype is the quest plot or hero’s journey, also termed monomyth by American professor of literature Joseph Campbell. A hero goes on an adventure or quest to find something, obtains victory after a decisive crisis, and returns fundamentally changed or transformed – think of Don Quixote or The Wizard of Oz.
The plot is not a genre. Romance as a genre, for example, classifies love stories in the broadest range. As a plot, romance features the common denominators of an encounter of two people by chance or fate. After they fall in love, they have to overcome various obstacles to be together before it ends either happily ever after (Pretty Woman) or tragically (Romeo and Juliet).
By now you have the who and what of your story: your characters and the hero’s want and need as well as what is going to happen to them. The element of structure defines what goes where giving order to things and creating a unified whole.
Plot and structure are closely related. The plot determines the events that happen, the structure defines when they occur. Within the simple structure of beginning, middle, and end, timing is everything.
Aristotle called these three parts of a story setup, confrontation and resolution. This is the so-called three-act-structure, defining major plot points and transitions from one act to another. Your narrative will feature additional events with immediate or delayed effects. A term to describe these is story beats. They are units of plot linking the events of the story together. So-called beat sheets illustrate these units and their timing for different types of plots.
The number and distribution of story beats vary with storytelling schools of thought. Yet they always seek to achieve the perfect rise and fall of action that will have the audience at the edge of their seat.
Plot creates tension, which makes a story interesting and entertaining. Two people falling in love and spending the rest of their life together is a love story. But a hero pursuing their love despite denial is much more intriguing. In Leaving Las Vegas, the relationship between Ben and Sera is doomed by the exact rule that allows them to live together: they’ve vowed to not change each other’s lives.
Introduce tension in your story through opposition. An antagonist can be a villain, a rival, a character flaw or external circumstances such as society as a whole. You’ll be able to increase the tension by raising the opposing force more and more.
Conflict drives your hero out of their current circumstances and towards change. As they develop, their need takes prevalence over their want until they’re truly changed at the resolution.
Knowing these five elements of great stories is good and well, but which element comes first? How do you begin writing? You can avoid common problems that arise at various writing stages if you choose either character or plot as a starting point. Define your hero by their actions, or create a protagonist for a certain plot.
Your audience will follow your hero through thick and thin, so it makes sense to start with them. Make your main character well-rounded and give them a problem or flaw, a want they pursue and a need they have to discover or learn.
Proactive characters make great heroes: they pursue their want, or what they think they need. Then you introduce the opposition, obstacles or antagonist, creating conflict. Over the course of events, they will arrive at the root of their problems, discovering their true need.
Create a main character bound for major change with a specific problem or flaw; make them unable to remain in a status quo; going after a concrete goal against a strong opposing force; which will lead them to a realization about themselves. As you define your protagonist, a plot for them will also begin to crystalize.
The opposite might seem counter-intuitive, yet putting plot before character goes all the way back to Aristotle. He felt that a hero’s happiness or misery depended on their actions. You can let a protagonist talk all you want in your story, the audience will know and judge them by their actions.
If you know what kind of story you’re going to write and need to populate it with characters, story beats and a beat sheet are a good starting point. Chart the changes that will occur, then play psychologist and conjure an image of the person that will undergo them, and why – and you’ll arrive at your story’s hero and other characters.
Putting plot first might strike you as formulaic, like choosing a pre-made structure. Writers rejecting this approach feel they can’t create anything new by working with an existing story archetype and its structure.
Yet bestselling works of fiction hit the sweet spot on both plot and character, as well as style and theme – their pleasing pattern of story beats have been proven by algorithms, as The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel tells us.
Story archetypes and plot structure are not a rigid construction superimposed on your writing. They’re a craft that can enable the smooth flow of a plot. Your specific characters and their journey are what makes your story unique.
Don’t get us wrong: there are many more ways to go about beginning work on your screenplay or novel. J. R. R. Tolkien created whole languages before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.
Yet world-building can be exhaustive work and in vain if you can’t manage to bring interesting characters to life in the universe you created or fail to come up with an enticing plot to take place in your fantasy world.
We perceive stories as ‘strong’ when they feature well-rounded characters and a balanced, symmetrical plot. Stories where an otherworldly setting or extraordinary structure takes precedence but characters and story arch remain flat strike us as ‘weak’.
Sure, movies like Memento, Forrest Gump, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Goodfellas, or Citizen Kane break with story-telling traditions we’ve described so far. But master the basics before you begin writing without a protagonist or a structure outside of three acts.
In the following mini cheat sheet, we’ll summarize the five elements of great stories in the form of a checklist. You can use it to test your ideas for a screenplay or novel to see you haven’t forgotten anything or prioritized minor over major elements.
We encourage you to use the five-story elements we’ve described above when drafting your novel or to test your ongoing screenplay project. To transition from theory to practical application, it’s also helpful to apply character, want and need, plot, structure as well as conflict and resolution to existing works: can you detect the patterns in blockbuster movies and literary classics and identify the five elements in popular titles?
This article is the first in a series about storytelling theory. In future instances, we’ll return to the elements that make up great stories for a more in-depth analysis, consult Aristotle again as well as other gurus of story and dramatic theory, and give you more practical tips on how to create compelling characters or plot your screenplay. In the meantime, check out our suggested reading below.
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