The critical elements of a story are similar to the ingredients in a recipe. Each adds something critical to the final dish. Story is the magic you get when you mix ingredients like character and conflict, each in exactly the right proportion. Story is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s take a high-level look at the critical ingredients of story souffle.
Plot is what happens in the story. It is composed of related events that take the reader from the beginning through the middle to the end. The plot usually begins when something *happens* that poses a story question. The plot ends when that story question is resolved.
A murder mystery most often begins with either a murder or the discovery of a body. The story question is “Who murdered this person and why?” The plot ends when the murderer and his motivation are revealed.
A plot-driven story is one in which external events play a major role in determining the actions of the characters and the direction of the story itself. An earthquake strands a group of people and repeated tremors complicate their escape. A security malfunction frees zoo animals from their cages — with a group of school children locked in the zoo.
Characters are the actors in your story. They make choices that drive the plot and story forward. They act, and they react. They feel, and the readers feel with them. There are protagonists and antagonists, main characters and supporting characters, round characters and flat characters. Each has its place and purpose.
A character-driven story is one in which the characters’ choices and actions determine the plot. In Bridges of Madison County, Francesca chooses to involve herself with Robert Kincaid. She chooses to help him when they meet. She chooses to return there the next day. She chooses to invite him to dinner. And so on. The story is an exploration of her motivations and actions and the emotional consequences of those choices.
It is sometimes said that genre stories are plot-driven and literary stories are character-driven. It’s not that simple. Although some may be purely one or the other, those are outliers on a continuum. Most stories in all genres are a mix of plot- and character-driven.
Conflict, tension, stakes. These are what keeps people turning the page. Readers do not buy novels to read about happy people living happy, easy lives, getting everything they want. Readers want a perplexing problem and a creative solution.
The idea of conflict is sometimes misinterpreted to mean people fighting and arguing. (That would indeed get tiresome!) Although that is one kind of conflict, conflict and tension in a novel is much more. It is unanswered questions and the feeling of “what happens next” that keeps readers engaged. It is also what those characters stand to lose if they fail.
Theme is the “universal truth” within your story. Theme is what readers *relate* to. Very few people can relate to a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizard school. But everyone can relate to the themes of feeling out of place and making a place in the world where you fit in. Not everyone has had an affair like Francesca in Bridges of Madison County, but everyone can relate with the desire to, even just for a short time, throw off all of the responsibility in the world and follow your heart.
Theme and the way that theme resonates with readers is a key ingredient in making a story that people remember long after they put the book down.
Genre & Audience
It may seem odd to include genre and audience as key ingredients in a story. However, knowing where your book will be shelved in the bookstore and who will be reading it is critical information for a writer. Nothing could be more frustrating than getting to the stage where you’re looking for an agent or publisher and being told the story is well-written, but they’re just not sure where it fits. The more you identify up front, the less you have to rework on the back end.
This was just a high-level overview. I’ll delve into each of these critical ingredients in more detail in later posts.