There are seven basic elements to any good story. As you read through these elements, think of your favorite stories (books, movies, etc.) and how they embody each one.

1. Theme or moral

You should be able to describe your story in one sentence. Theme isn’t the same as plot. It’s not about what happens next, it’s about what your story means, why the reader should care. It’s the idea that unifies all the other elements of the story, like character, plot, setting, etc. Some examples of themes include the effects of the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck), the destructiveness of war (Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut), and corruption of the American Dream (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

You don’t necessarily have to have a theme in mind when you begin writing your story, but by the time you begin revisions you should have a solid theme. Be careful not to beat your reader over the head with your theme. You don’t need to make it obvious, but when you revise your story, your theme should be in the back of your mind, guiding your edits.

2. Engaging and entertaining

People are entertained by different things, but if a story doesn’t grab them in some way, they won’t stick with it. If your descriptions are too long and involved, or your characters take a page and a half to move from the door to the chair across the room, chances are you’ll lose your reader’s attention.

3. Purpose

When you write a story, you should intend to create a certain reaction in your reader. Your story should make people feel amused, inspired, uplifted, scared, etc. This isn’t to say that you have to know your purpose exactly when you sit down to write, but it should quickly become clear what direction your story is taking, and then you can continue with purpose.

4. Characters

Make your characters real and believable. You want your reader to identify with them in some way. They should have flaws, like real people do. If they are too perfect, your reader won’t care what happens to them and won’t engage with the story.

Your story should have at least two prominent characters: a Protagonist and an Antagonist. The Protagonist is the main character. He must have a goal or objective that he is trying to achieve as the story progresses. The effort to reach this goal should make him change or grow in some way over the course of the story.

The Antagonist can be a person, place, thing, event, or set of circumstances—something that works against the Protagonist, trying to prevent him from achieving his goal. The Antagonist usually does not change or transform over the course of the story.

5. Setting

This is the location of your story. Setting includes the physical geography, but also the time period, political system, level of technology, economic system, modes of transportation and dress, and speech patterns and mannerisms.

NOTE: Be careful of using dialects in your work; this is very difficult to pull off successfully. If you use too much, your reader has trouble following along. Pick a few key words or phrases that provide an idea of how the character speaks, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A couple of examples include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and J. K. Rowling’s Hagrid in the Harry Potter series.

6. Plot

This is the chain of events that lead the reader through the story. It is the basic structure of the story. Plot requires your Protagonist to want something (not just a need, but a deep, driving desire). Plot involves the action the Protagonist takes to try to achieve his need, and the actions of the Antagonist to prevent that need. This struggle creates the necessary tension to pull your reader into and through the story.

7. Climax

The events of the plot build to this final confrontation between the Protagonist and Antagonist, which occurs near the end of the story. Tension should build through the plot to this point. This is the final moment of tension and then release. Loose ends should be resolved after this event.

Exercise 1

Pick a movie or book that you know well. Write about how it meets each one of the seven elements of a good story.

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