Writing for Fun! Essential Elements of a Story

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~Byron H., the Writing Whisperer

Welcome back to our series on how to write a short story! Perhaps by now some of the Whisperer’s followers have thought about some ideas, maybe jotted down a few notes about a story they had in mind. And for those who have just joined us at this stage, come along for the ride!

As I stated in the last blog, we are now going to delve into how a story is put together by learning about some essential elements – the backbone of a story. There are many topics to cover and so I will only mention a few and the rest you can research for yourselves in more depth!

When learning to write a story you as an author should be aware, or have at least some idea, how your story will unfold. The story will write itself when the ideas are flowing. To assist, you need to create a general mental, if not written, outline to keep track of all the action that will take place in your story. A way to do this is by identifying the separate parts of the story.

Each one usually has the following key elements: a plot, a setting and characters. All of these create the general mood, or tone, of the story.

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The plot is the sequence of events that take place in the story that lead the characters (the main and supplementary participants ranging from people, animals to inanimate objects who either tell the story are involved in it) through challenges and interactions with other characters in order for them to realize their full potential or gain some knowledge about the world around them.

The setting informs readers of the time and place of your story. Are we in a real world setting like a city or an imaginary world in outer space, Wonderland or Hogwarts? Are we in the ocean, a desert, a forest, an island, a hospital, a prison or in someone‘s house? And what time period are we in, the past, the present or the future?

Just based on location and time readers will know if people speak a different dialect or language, what clothes they are wearing and what outside events are happening that could influence the plot of the story or just be on the periphery of the action (e.g. wars, new inventions, a mysterious disappearance). These will help readers understand what different beliefs, rituals and practices are part of the environment the characters are living in as they all will influence the way of thinking and motivations behind what the characters do in the plot of the story.

The tone is determined by all of the previously mentioned factors of the plot, setting and characters which then creates the mood, the readers’ perception of what the author thinks or feels about his or her story. To illustrate, you could write about something light and positive describing a warm, sunny, clear blue sky day in a meadow full of flowers (this is a happy image for most people!). Or conversely, depending on how you want your characters to be feeling that day, could reveal a cynical point of view (the way the character or narrator (who tells the story) views life around them) dredging through a blazing inferno of empty skies with no end, the grass cutting through their legs like knaves and flowers that are seem superficially “perfect” but are in fact rotting away inside. (Yes tone can be quite intense!)

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It is very revealing and can be either in-your-face or otherwise subtle and seemingly undetected. This will set up the way the author wants you to view the story. For example, you could paint a nostalgic picture of small town Americana with all of its nosy neighbors and annual rituals but under the surface there may lie secrets, dark and sinister, that will be explored in the book by the main characters. (This relates to an element known as foreshadowing when events are merely hinted at but will later reveal themselves in the plot of a story for good or ill will but I am getting ahead of myself!).

Your story may include overarching themes (the most common we all know: good vs. evil, parent and child relationships, growing up, life and death, etc.) that help enhance the story. You may even include allusions (references from other stories, books, TV shows, movies or even history) that will allow readers to make sense of the action in the story by relating it to people, events and objects (real and imaginary) they may know already. For example, characters’ names might refer to ideas and themes (e.g. Mr. Summers, Mr. Graves) or other literary or historical figures (like Alice in Wonderland or the outspoken Puritan Anne Hutchinson).

Even the characters themselves might make a reference to something they have read or seen from our world (e.g. In science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury’s story “The Halloween Tree”, a group of trick or treaters on Halloween night approach a creepy, “haunted-looking” house and think that the large doorknocker is similar to the one that Ebenezer Scrooge had in Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” as its in the shape of a large ghostly head).

There is plenty more to discuss but I will leave you all, my dear readers, to that!

challenging talented mindsAnd now since you have a better idea of what goes into creating a story you can apply your newfound knowledge by reading a very well-known and chilling short story called “The Lottery” by famed author Shirley Jackson (known for writing “The Haunting of Hill House” which was made into the 1963 cult classic “The Haunting” as well as the 1999 remake. These films are not to be confused with “House on Haunted Hill” film starring Vincent Price or its remake!).

Here is a link to the story. You can also use the discussion questions included on the last page to get you thinking about the story as it relates to elements we were just talking about!

Let me know what you think by sending a message! I remember reading this in my freshman English honors class in high school and its stuck with me since then.

You can also check out this appropriate blog that reveals more information on plot, setting and character.

Happy Writings!

Tune in next time for some ideas on how to develop your story…