The 8 essential elements of a story

by | Dec 10, 2019 | Writing Advice | 7 comments

Not only do I find editing novels and helping authors achieve their vision incredibly meaningful, it’s such an interesting exercise because it forces you to think very deeply about storytelling.

It’s a wonderful challenge to be forced to articulate what’s working and not working in a story and, most importantly, why it’s not working.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the essence of storytelling. What’s that essential framework that undergirds every good story? What are the core elements?

If you can’t readily identify each of these components in your novel… well, you have a big problem on your hands.

  1. Perspective
  2. Setting
  3. Inciting incident
  4. The protagonist’s big goal
  5. Obstacles in increasing intensity
  6. The protagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks
  7. The protagonist’s evolution
  8. The climax

Perspective

A perspective is the ultimate foundation of any story. It’s the lens through which everything happens. It is the point of view that contextualizes the reality of the novel.

You must know your novel’s perspective and keep it holy. Decide early, stick to it, and be consistent.

For further reading:

Setting

Stories take us places we’ve never been and force us to look at our own world in new ways.

But settings aren’t static places. There are things in motion and forces beyond your characters’ control. There are certain values that are ascendant and some that are under threat.

Be true to your setting, but as you’re writing, remember that you are telling a story to someone in our world, not your characters’ world. You need to provide context and exposition to help your reader understand what’s what and who’s who.

For further reading:

Inciting incident

Something happens early in a story that sets your protagonist’s life ajar. They’re knocked out of their comfort zone and nothing will ever be the same.

(Note: I’m going to keep referring to protagonist in the singular even though some books have multiple protagonists. The same principles still apply when there’s more than one protagonist).

This is called the premise, the inciting incident, or the call to adventure. It’s Luke Skywalker seeing Princess Leia’s hologram, it’s Harry Potter getting the invitation to Hogwarts.

If you take some time to show the protagonist in their element before you get to the inciting incident: give them a mini-quest, something they want and are going after before they start their real journey. Don’t just “set the scene” in a static way.

For further reading:

The protagonist’s big goal

The inciting incident inspires the protagonist to want something big, whether that’s to save their people, to find the truth, or to get out of a precarious situation intact.

This goal is so incredibly important.

It’s the biggest mystery (are they going to get what they want?), and it’s what inspires them to change and grow.

Every character in your novel should want at least one big thing and there should be many more proximate/temporary goals in pursuit of that bigger thing.

If your novel feels lost and aimless, 90% of the time it’s because your protagonist stopped actively going after the things they want.

For further reading:

Obstacles in increasing intensity

The protagonist’s big goal inspires them to go on a quest, whether that’s a literal journey or a more personal, introspective exploration.

As they go after the big goal, they encounter obstacles of increasing intensity along the way. These might be forces outside of the protagonist’s control, such as forces of nature or society, or the protagonist could come into conflict with other characters.

In particular, a villain is a powerful character who both stands in the way of the protagonist getting what they want and who also often represents a differing worldview.

The most power obstacle, the one that forces the protagonist to dig the deepest, should be the final hurdle.

For further reading:

The protagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks

As the protagonist tries to overcome these obstacles, they summon their strengths but also are forced to reckon with their weaknesses. And often, those weaknesses (recklessness, self-absorption) are the flip side of strengths (bravery, charisma).

Ultimately, characters are defined by how they use their unique characteristics and strengths to go about getting the things they want, and how they manage to overcome their weaknesses. We learn from their choices what really matters to them.

And we live for those little quirks and gestures that make a character unique.

For further reading:

The protagonist’s evolution

As your protagonist encounters obstacles, they are forced to change and evolve in order to overcome them. Their old way of being isn’t enough.

Sometimes the protagonist gains powers or learns skills, like the Force or martial arts, or they gain knowledge, self-awareness, or maturity.

The protagonist should have to summon these new powers or skills in order to surmount their final challenge.

The climax

In the end, the protagonist has to use what they’ve learned in order to overcome their most powerful obstacle of all. This is the climax, and it is often preceded by a nadir where all hope becomes lost.

The protagonist may or may not get what they want, but they emerge irrevocably changed. They may be able to go home after the climax, but they’re not the same person they were when they left.

For further reading:

See anything I missed? Have any advice to offer? Take to the comments!

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Art: Shōtei Takahashi: Snow on Ayase river

7 Comments

  1. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    Thank you. This is concise and specific. I’m comparing the stories I’ve written against this strategy for writing a novel.

    Reply
  2. SJ

    Fantastic advice, Nathan, and so specifically helpful. A lot of writing advice out there is frustratingly vague. The way you break this down and explain it in detail makes real, tangible sense.

    Reply
  3. Nathan Bransford

    Thanks, and sorry for the typos in the original post! I need to make that a New Years Resolution…

    Reply
    • Neil Larkins

      Speaking of typos, got your book, How to Publish a Book yesterday and have already found one. In section #2 of rule #3, on page 17 the text reads, “you then need a copyeditor who will spot typeoes…” I couldn’t help but smile. Not only was the error ironic, but it showed that no matter how much work goes into a book, glitches will pop up and sometimes in the worst possible places. Thanks for writing this book, Nathan, I’m already getting a lot out of it, including a chuckle or two, intended or not.

      Reply
      • Nathan Bransford

        Haha I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not but that “typos” was intentional! 😂 glad you’re enjoying it.

        Reply
        • Neil Larkins

          I thought you were seeing if we were paying attention with “typeoes” so I guess we’re even. Ha! Keep up the good work. I’ve learned so so very much in these years.

          Reply
  4. JOHN T. SHEA

    Good points, Nathan, but you left out some more core elements:-
    9 Explosions!
    10 Car chases!
    11 Rhetorical questions!
    12 More explosions!

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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