Thirty-eight Elements of Story

Thirty-Eight Elements of StoryWhile I don’t use Fictionary‘s software tool itself, I’ve learned to construct the grandmother of spreadsheets to track their editing list of thirty-eight elements of story. It’s become a valuable check-list for planning and writing, way before the editing stage.

The editors at Fictionary specialise in structural and developmental edits for authors. Their proscribed editing method is a low level analysis of every scene in a novel – even if that means breaking every chapter down into scenes before they begin. Their critique against the thirty-eight story elements provides a rigorous (sometimes painful) edit list for the next draft by the author.

Thirty-eight may seem like a long list – it is. But if you can look at every scene in a novel and clearly answer the questions, then structurally and objectively the scene works. It should fit into the overall outline of the novel. There should be no muddled, inconclusive, or superfluous scenes; any that are need to be rewritten or cut.

My spreadsheet version is slightly old-school, but it’s working for Book One. I know how each scene contributes to the whole. I can also spot patterns in across all the scenes. Repetition of the same structure scene after scene can be tedious. There’s no worse sin than boring the reader.

My Version of the Thirty-eight

Character First

My version, ordered and annotated slightly differently from the source, starts with character items:

  1. Characters (Per Scene) – who is in our cast for this mini-epic?
  2. Point of View – through whose eyes are we seeing this scene?
  3. POV Character Goal (External) – what is the characters outward or surface goal?
  4. POV Character Goal (Internal) – what is their underlying or hidden goal, often related to their weakness or flaw?
  5. POV Goal Related to Plot – it has to intersect with the main or sub-plot somewhere or else why does the scene matter?
  6. Stakes – What happens if they fail to attain their goals?
  7. Scene Impact on POV Character
  8. Scene Impact on Protagonist (if not the same)
  9. POV character Knowledge Gained by the end
  10. Characters in Motion – are all the characters in the scene doing or contributing something? If not why are they present?

Plot and Structure

The next set is mostly about plot and structure:

  1. Scene Name (purpose, tracking, placeholder in outline)
  2. Scene place or contribution in story arc
  3. Scene Purpose – what are we showing here?
  4. Scene Opening Type (dialogue, action, description)
  5. Scene Closing Type (dialogue, action, description
  6. Scene Anchor (when, where, who, what, how)
  7. Scene Entry Hook
  8. Scene Exit Hook
  9. Tension – what creates tension in the scene?
  10. Conflict – what is the conflict, between which characters? Dos it relate back to goals and stakes
  11. Revelation – what do we (through the characters) find out that is a) new and b) impacts on the plot or perception of the characters?
  12. Backstory – does the scene add some backstory to characters and events?
  13. Flashback – do we wind back to an earlier time, episode or incident?
  14. Scene Middle – act two of the scene, if you will, moving the plot along
  15. Scene Climax – act three, the big finish
  16. Action / Sequel – action takes place OR the characters react to what just happened
  17. Reader Knowledge Gained – what does the reader find out in the course of the scene?

Not forgetting…

Last comes physical detail and some of the abstract aspects of the story:

  1. Location
  2. Date / Time
  3. Objects
  4. Sights
  5. Smells
  6. Sounds
  7. Tastes
  8. Touch
  9. Emotional Impact
  10. Weather
  11. Scene Split – is the scene self contained and complete or can it be split into multiple scenes?

I need to make a second pass of all the scenes in Book One to make sure they perform to specification in the working draft. Some additional edits and rewrites will come out of it.

Then I need to construct the same spreadsheet for books Two and Three. It’s a long road.

2 thoughts on “Thirty-eight Elements of Story”

    1. This is what the Fictionary folks advocate. I haven’t completed the whole 38 for a whole book but I do find the discipline useful in the early drafting of a project and when I am revising. And it is a discipline thing. If I worked on only one thing at a time, I’d go through the process more strictly.

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