There are eight elements of a story: theme, plot, characters, setting, conflict, point of view, tone, and style. But what do these elements involve? And how does each element fit into the story structure? Here we answer these questions and suggest some useful resources to help you teach this topic.
What are the elements of a story?
There are five basic elements of a story:
As well as these, every story also has three additional elements, which are considered more advanced:
- Point of view
Every story in the world has these eight elements in common, even though no two stories use them in the same ways.
Understanding the elements of a story
When understanding the elements of a story, the theme is often the best place to start. The theme of a story tells us what the story is actually about. It’s often why the author wrote the story in the first place – they want to make us understand a particular concept or moral idea.
Some common story themes include:
- Love. It is probably the most common theme, as most stories deal with the idea of love in some form. For example, we usually think of romantic love, as in Romeo and Juliet. However, stories can deal with many other types of love, such as the love between children and their parents or guardians (think of how Lily’s love saves Harry in the Harry Potter series). Other stories like Charlotte’s Web have the theme of friendship and love between companions.
- Good vs. evil. It is another common theme that runs through many stories. A story protagonist will often have to struggle against evil, whether this is coming from an external source or from within themselves. If we think of The Lord of the Rings, we can see that Frodo struggles with both. His ultimate objective is to defeat the external evil of Sauron. However, he also has to work against the constant allure of the One Ring, which represents his internal battle.
- Social or political commentary. Many stories are written with the underlying purpose of making an essential observation about society. Charles Dickens was particularly famous for this. He uses many of the situations and characters in his books to illustrate the theme of how bad conditions were for working-class people in Victorian England. Dickens’ most famous works, including Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, have these themes at their core.
The theme of a story isn’t always easy to spot initially, but it is often the foundation on which the whole story is built. Once we recognize the theme, we can look at all the different techniques the author has used to convey their message throughout the narrative. We also must be aware that a story can often have more than one theme. How many can you spot in the last book you read?
The plot of a story is made up of the main events within the narrative and the order in which they occur. There are five definite sections of a story plot:
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Resolution or denouement
By structuring the plot, an author can introduce a theme, settings, and characters we care about. They can then build suspense and tension leading up to the story’s main event before wrapping up the narrative satisfactorily.
The setting of the story is the location where the action takes place. Most stories have more than one setting. Settings can be places that exist or have existed in the past, fictionalized versions of real places with the names changed, or completely unbelievable.
Settings are essential for creating the mood and atmosphere of the story – for example, would Dracula be as creepy without his castle? However, settings often serve the additional purpose of illustrating the story’s theme. For example, the contrast between Longbourn and Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice reinforces one of the novel’s main themes: overcoming social class obstacles.
Of course, no story would work without compelling characters. These are the beings who drive the narrative. They create the action, and the story’s events happen to them. Characters can be based on real people – adults or children from any historical period, or the present day can realistically write them. They can also be unbelievable people, such as wizards or superheroes. Many stories have also been written with animals as the main characters. Your characters can be anyone or anything you choose as long as the reader can relate to them in some way.
Most stories contain certain character archetypes. These are:
- Protagonist – the main character who is the focus of the story. The protagonist usually has a conflict or dilemma to resolve.
- Antagonist – the villain of the story. The antagonist is often the source of the conflict.
- Foil – a character who contrasts directly to the protagonist through their traits and actions. The foil’s purpose is usually to help us understand the protagonist better.
- Love interest – as the title suggests, the love interest is a character whose main purpose is to fall in love with the protagonist.
- Supporting characters can be good or bad if they serve a purpose in the narrative and help keep the action moving forward.
The Harry Potter books illustrate this very well. The protagonist is Harry, with Voldemort as the antagonist. Draco Malfoy is the foil – he constantly contrasts Harry throughout the books. The love interest is Ginny Weasley, while the supporting characters are Ron, Hermione, the rest of Harry’s friends, and the professors, all of whom serve essential purposes within the books.
If an author wants to keep readers interested in the story, it’s essential to introduce an element of conflict. This conflict continues to progress the story, building suspense and tension until the climax, where the conflict is resolved.
The conflict of a story is often a fight between the protagonist and the antagonist. For example, it could represent the battle between good and evil or how two people reconcile their differences to fall in love. However, sometimes the conflict might be between the protagonist and nature or society. For example, if we think of Oliver Twist, Oliver isn’t just battling one particular villain – he has to overcome an entire set of terrible circumstances caused by his poverty.
Ultimately, we keep reading the story to find out how the conflict is resolved and what life will look like for the characters once the conflict is over.
Advanced elements of a story
In addition to the five main elements of a story we have just examined, three more elements are often thought of as more advanced. Therefore, these elements are usually studied later than the five main elements.
Point of view
Whose eyes do we see the story through? Most stories are written in the third person and told by an omniscient narrator, so we can see what all the characters are saying, doing, thinking, and feeling throughout the story. However, sometimes an author might choose to tell a story in the first person, from the point of view of just one character. It means there are elements that we can’t know until the character finds them out. So we also have to determine whether we can rely on the narrator to tell us the truth.
Some novels, particularly in the gothic genre, use a multi-first-person narrative. It allows several characters to be narrators at different points in the story. A good example is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written as diary entries and letters by other characters. This technique lets us gain different perspectives to see the whole picture gradually.
What is the overriding emotion that the story makes us feel? Is it happy, sad, nostalgic, or hopeful? This emotion is the tone of the story. An author can convey tone in many different ways, including through the story’s themes, vocabulary, imagery, and symbolism they use.
The tone dictates whether we think of the story as a comedy or a tragedy, dark and creepy or light and optimistic. It isn’t as clear-cut as a genre, but it helps us categorize a story more clearly.
Style refers to the way the author chooses to tell the story. For example, do they use complicated words and sentences? Do they use modern slang? Is their style ironic? Do they use devices such as simile and metaphor? Perhaps they even write in rhyme.
The author’s style is a major contributory factor to the tone of the story. It can also give us essential clues to the story’s themes, the period when it is set, and the characters’ positions within society.
Why are the elements of a story essential?
It’s almost impossible to believe that every story contains the same eight basic elements. But these elements are what make us recognize the text as a story. They keep the story flowing, make it engaging and encourage us to keep reading until the end of the book. If any one of these story elements were missing, the text wouldn’t work as a story.
It’s essential that we can recognize all the different elements of a story. It helps us to understand the story as a whole – we can gain insight into what the author intended when they wrote the story. We can also use the evidence presented by the different elements to interpret the text.
Once we recognize and understand a story’s elements, we can become much more accurate and analytical readers, vastly improving our reading comprehension skills. We also become better writers as we understand what to include in our stories and how to structure them.