Story elements Storytelling guide

Story elements are the brushstrokes in your narrative masterpiece

Aspiring writers sometimes rush to master story design without fully grasping the essential story elements. This can make crafting a compelling story that goes beyond its surface level quite challenging. Understanding and incorporating the core story elements lays a strong foundation for your storytelling journey.

Whether you dream of crafting enchanting children’s stories, thrilling TV shows, epic novels, or action-packed comic books, understanding the essential story elements is your gateway to captivating storytelling.

Writing stories can be a bit like magic – some gifted souls have an uncanny ability to create masterpieces without a strict plan. And it’s true, as beginners, we should explore the craft with that sense of freedom to find our unique voice, unencumbered by conventional thinking.

But let’s face it; most of us often end up feeling disappointed when the brilliance of our story idea doesn’t quite translate onto paper. One reason for this frustrating situation is that we might lack a proper understanding of the engineering behind stories.

You see, storytelling is an intricate art, and simplified explanations of story elements can sometimes lead to more confusion than clarity for aspiring storytellers like us.

However, fear not! By understanding the essential story elements, how they fit together, and how they work, we can achieve precision in our storytelling. In this post, I’ll cover the following topics to help you on your storytelling journey:

  1. The Traditional Understanding of Story Elements
  2. A Basic Explanation of Story and Narrative
  3. The Full List of Story Elements

Please note that this post is meant to provide an overview. In the future, I’ll delve deeper into each story element in separate posts – your comments and feedback are always welcome!

1. Key Story Elements: A Traditional Perspective

Stories have faithfully accompanied us since the dawn of time. Consider beloved folk tales like “Cinderella” or “Little Red Riding Hood.” Generations have handed down these classics, brimming with timeless story elements.

Let’s unravel the art of storytelling by exploring the foundational work of the great philosopher Plato. Plato argued that every story should follow a simple yet potent structure – a beginning, middle, and end. Beyond this, he pinpointed six dramatic elements essential to a gripping narrative: Plot, Theme, Character, Language, Rhythm, and Spectacle.

While Plato’s theory offers a robust framework for storytelling, we should scrutinize it closely. His definitions, though thorough, can cause confusion if interpreted too rigidly. As we delve into vital story elements, we often see the need to broaden the list with other key components:

  1. Characters
  2. Setting
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Resolution
  6. Theme
  7. Point-of-view
  8. Tone
  9. Style

At first glance, this list seems logical, but storytelling surprises us as an unpredictable art. When we analyze masterfully crafted stories, we often find that certain elements don’t fit neatly into distinct categories. For instance, consider how the setting can act as a character, like the vibrant New York City in the movie “Taxi Driver.”

Even stories that seem straightforward often have complex narrative designs, making it challenging to teach these concepts. This complexity can lead less experienced storytellers down the path of rigid plot formulas. They try to follow “rules” without fully understanding their core. So, when they face obstacles, they feel lost, unsure of why they’re stuck and how to move forward.

Enter narratology! Narratology offers a structuralist approach that clarifies the nature, form, and function of narratives. By adopting this methodology, we achieve a deeper understanding of narrative design and story elements, equipping us to become adept storytellers.

So, as we start this storytelling adventure, let’s respect Plato’s insights and also harness the depth of narratology to craft tales that mesmerize and resonate with our audiences.

2. Story vs. Narrative: Core Story Elements Explained

In the world of storytelling, the concepts of “story” and “narrative” play distinct but interconnected roles. To grasp their essence, let’s break it down. A story is the heart of the tale – the sequence of events that form the core content. On the other hand, a narrative is the art of how the story is told. Think of it as the lens through which we view the events unfolding.

2.1. The difference between story and narrative

Imagine your favorite fairy tale, “Cinderella.” In it, a kind-hearted girl, facing adversity, gets help from her fairy godmother to attend the royal ball and win the prince’s heart. This event sequence forms the story’s backbone, letting our imagination soar.

Do we view the tale from a third-person perspective, observing events as outsiders, or do we experience it first-hand through Cinderella’s eyes? The choice of narrative style, language, and pacing all shape the story’s emotional resonance with the audience.

While a story captures the core events, a narrative dictates how we present those events. These two elements together weave the storytelling magic, transporting readers and audiences on unforgettable adventures. As we delve deeper into storytelling, we should strive to perfect the intricate dance between these two foundational aspects.

2.2. Story elements

A story has two essential elements: form and substance. A story’s form consists of events (i.e. the plot) and existents (characters, setting, etc.). A story’s substance is made of concepts (people, things, etc.) that reference the cultural in which it was created (ex. Tolkien explains the significance of The Ring without having to first define that a ring is a piece of jewelry worn on a finger).

2.3. Narrative elements

Similar to stories, the essential elements of a narrative are form and substance. But a narrative’s form is its design (ex. tone, imagery, structure, etc.), and its substance is a manifestation of medium (ex. things like chapters and grammar in novels, editing and cinematography in films, etc.).

2.4. The importance of narrative design in storytelling

The distinction between story elements and narrative elements, though subtle, holds significance. When we consider narrative design from these two perspectives, we grasp how to realize our story’s intended design more effectively.

Think of it like having a pile of colorful LEGO bricks but lacking the blueprint to assemble them. Narrative design provides that blueprint. The correct blend of narrative elements can transform your story from good to unforgettable. Whether you craft a heartwarming children’s story or a spine-chilling horror novel, your presentation style plays a crucial role.

3. Full list of narrative elements:

The more detailed narrative and story elements fall under the main categories of form and substance:

3.1. Story (i.e. Content)

3.1.1. Form of Content

  • Events (i.e. Plot): The sequence of events that make up the main story, driving it from the beginning to the end. Example: In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” the plot revolves around the journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
    • Actions: Specific deeds, movements, or decisions made by characters that propel the story forward. Example: In “Star Wars: A New Hope,” Luke Skywalker’s decision to join the Rebel Alliance and his subsequent actions, like the attack on the Death Star, are pivotal actions.
      • Dialogue: Conversations between characters that reveal their personalities, relationships, and plot details. Example: In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, the dialogue between Harry and Dumbledore often provides insights into the larger battle against Voldemort and the history of the wizarding world.
      • Happenings: Events that occur in the story, often outside the control of the main characters, which affect the plot. Example: In George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” the sudden death of King Robert Baratheon is a happening that sets off a chain of events leading to the War of the Five Kings.
    • Existents: Elements that exist within the story world, including characters, settings, and objects. Example: In the Marvel Universe, the Infinity Stones are existents that play a significant role in the overarching narrative.
      • Characters: Individuals, whether human, animal, or other, who take part in the story’s events. Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Jay Gatsby is a central character whose mysterious wealth and unrequited love for Daisy drive the novel’s plot.
      • Settings: The time and place where the story unfolds, providing a backdrop for the events. Example: In the TV show “Stranger Things,” the fictional town of Hawkins during the 1980s is the setting where the characters encounter supernatural events and government conspiracies.

3.1.2. Substance of Content

  • People, things, etc. as pre-processed by cultural codes: This refers to how storytellers infuse characters, objects, or events in their stories with meanings derived from their own cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. Essentially, the author’s cultural lens shapes the narrative, making certain elements resonate with specific cultural or societal references.
    • Example: In Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” the stories of Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers are deeply influenced by Chinese culture, traditions, and the generational gap between them. The game of Mahjong, which is central to the narrative, isn’t just a game; it symbolizes cultural traditions, relationships, and the strategic moves the women make in their lives. Tan’s portrayal of these characters and their struggles is deeply rooted in the cultural codes of both Chinese and American societies.

3.2. Discourse (i.e. Expression)

3.2.1. Form of Expression

  • Structure of narrative transmission (i.e. Design): The framework or method by which a story is conveyed to the audience. Example: “Pulp Fiction” by Quentin Tarantino uses a non-linear design, where events are not presented in chronological order, but rather jump back and forth in time.
    • Tone: The mood or emotional atmosphere of a story, often established through word choice and narrative voice. Example: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger has a tone of disillusionment and teenage angst, conveyed through the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s narrative.
    • Point of View: The perspective from which a story is told. Example: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald is told from Nick Carraway’s point of view, giving readers an outsider’s perspective on Jay Gatsby’s life.
    • Imagery & Description: Vivid and descriptive language used to create mental pictures for the reader. Example: In “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis, the imagery of the lamppost in the snowy woods creates a vivid picture of Narnia’s magical landscape.
    • Time Management: How time is handled in the narrative, including pacing, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. Example: In the TV show “Breaking Bad,” flash-forward sequences show glimpses of future events, creating curiosity and tension.
    • Suspense: The intense feeling that an audience goes through while waiting for the outcome of certain events. Example: In “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, the constant chase and unraveling of historical mysteries keep readers on the edge of their seats.
    • Symbolism: The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. Example: In “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, the conch shell symbolizes law, order, and civilization.
    • Theme: The central idea or message of a story. Example: In “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, one of the central themes is the moral nature of human beings, exploring the coexistence of good and evil.

3.2.2. Substance of Expression

  • Manifestation (Verbal, Cinematic, Balletic, Pantomimic, etc.): This refers to the medium or mode through which a story is conveyed or expressed. The manifestation determines how the narrative elements are presented to the audience.
    • Examples:
      • Verbal: This is the use of words to convey a story. An example is “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, where the narrative unfolds through written prose, dialogue, and description.
      • Cinematic: This is the representation of a story through film. For instance, “Inception” directed by Christopher Nolan uses visual effects, sound, and cinematography to convey a complex narrative about dreams within dreams.
      • Balletic: This is the expression of a story through dance, typically without words. Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet tells a tragic love story through choreographed dance movements, music, and costumes.
      • Pantomimic: This is the portrayal of a story using gestures and body movements without spoken word. The classic pantomime performances, often seen in theaters around Christmas in the UK, convey narratives through exaggerated actions, facial expressions, and music, with minimal or no dialogue.

Questions and Comments

If you have a question about this list, or disagree with the approach, let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you feel like you have a good grasp on these elements but still find it difficult to craft a story, you might want to check out my guide on how to start a story.

Useful books you should read

This post is a synthesis of thoughts based on information and analysis from two great books you should go buy from your favorite book store (or borrow from your local library): Story and Discourse by Seymour Chatman and Narrative Design by Madison Smart Bell. (BTW I don’t get paid if you click through these links and buy, but you will support MY local book store, which is cool, too.)