Six Essential Elements of Story

Six Essential Elements of StoryThink of this as a writer’s cheat sheet: the six essential elements of story.

There are so many ways to define, deconstruct, breakdown and pick apart ‘story’, but I’ve found Anne Hawley’s six word prompts the most useful.

Desire

A protagonist pursues a singular desire: love, wealth, escape, career, wisdom, justice…

Stakes

The stakes for the protagonist have to be meaningful, worthwhile and non-trivial. And they have to escalate through the narrative right up to the climax.

Change

The protagonist has to undergo change so they are not the same person by the end. Change isn’t just skills or status or wealth but a new-found wisdom or sense of self in relation to the world. It’s the learning process.

Premise

The premise for the story has to be reflected in every scene. Even sub-plots, side-plots, excursions, diversions and tangents have to contribute to the overall premise in some way.

Emotion

Without emotional connection – what is is you want your audience to feel – you don’t have a story, just a sequence of things that happen.

Characters and Moments

Stories have a story type and/or genre, in which the audience expects to find certain character types; the teenage slacker, the gunfighter, the detective, the unfulfilled singleton. Playing opposite them should be the school teacher, the bandit, the criminal mastermind, the unobtainable object of desire. And helping out, the side-characters: the best friend, the sidekick, the bumbling policeman, the coterie of like-minded friends.

The story also needs to play out with some key moments; getting arrested, a shootout, the big reveal, the proposal and rejection.

Characters and moments can be skewed, subverted and flipped to provide unique takes but they better meet or exceed audience expectations; plot-twists and breaking conventions for the story type can be problematic.

These six word prompts are the check-list in my editing process for scenes, chapters and whole plots.

And the winner is…

Emotion is the one prompt that trumps all the others. Think of every Spielberg movie and Disney plot. They aren’t subtle but they hit the emotions every single time. Christopher Nolan does not.

Now think of Austen, Hemingway, Dickens; dripping with emotion (however repressed) in every scene. The best ‘functional’ detective fiction – Christie, Hammett – does the same. The best speculative fiction – Vonnegut, Bradbury – likewise.

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