4 Elements Your Story Needs
Just getting started on a new project? Or ready to start editing the latest draft of your current project? Have a read of my checklist for the four core elements you need if you're serious about your writing.
A strong plot
I thought we'd start with the obvious. Having a strong plot doesn't necessarily mean writing the most groundbreaking story ever told. In fact, most stories can be categorised under the seven basic types (Glen Strathy breaks them down beautifully here). What makes them still so engaging is the variations of the reimagining: new characters, locations etc. Your own perspective and experiences will also form a unique take on the type, which is absolutely worth hearing. A strong plot should ultimately be consolidated by its purpose. What is achieved by going on the journey? Why is it necessary? If your world and characters are relatively unchanged by the end, you might consider rethinking your moments of conflict, call to action and motivations. More on that below.
It goes without saying that your characters are the driving force of your story. They are central to guiding your reader through your plot points and great characters do this seamlessly. We join them on the journey because we are curious to know what has or will happen to them – often because we identify with some element of their personality or experience. Some great ways to ensure this are:
Have an initial hook moment. Blake Snyder calls this "Saving The Cat"; your audience/reader identifies with your protagonist when they do something good or relatable, like a fire-fighter rescuing a cat in a tree. What a good person. We like that person. We are now emotionally invested in them and curious to see what they will do after their life is turned upside down by your trigger moment. Think about some intrinsic human fears that we all recognise; loss, loneliness, societal obligation. How can you show this impacting your character to ultimately connect them to your reader?
Give them internal and external goals. This will make it much easier to figure out your plot points, if they're based on character motivations. It'll also help avoid some clichés if you stay true to your character's desires and reactions. If they want a slice of cheese, they go to the fridge. If they don't want to admit to their roommate that they just finished the block of cheese, they may run out the back door... and so it goes on. Also, your antagonist's internal and external goals should definitely be in conflict with your protagonist's (more on this below)!
Give them flaws. No one needs to see another Mary Sue or James Bond, and watching someone repeatedly succeed completely denounces some all-important tension and suspense. Characters who struggle, who are forced out of their comfort zones and into intense periods of growth make for utterly thrilling stories. No one is perfect and reminding your readers of that within your characters will once again make them all the more relatable.
These of course can apply to all of your characters. The more developed they are, the more convincing and inciting your story will be. But do ensure you pay extra attention to your protagonist, antagonist and sidekick/partners.
A clear sense of place
The world of your story is the anchor to your story. It's also a great place to start if you're unsure of your entire character list or ideas for your plot. The location of your story acts like lore, it decides what can authentically happen within the space. If it's set in a school, you already know what roles your characters may be – students, parents, teachers. If it's set in a haunted house, you already know that dark little room at the top of the stairs is going to go OFF at some point. If you're writing a sci-fi about robots who talk, you probably need some advanced technology embedded in the laboratory or home of your characters, to show your audience this is normal this is real in your world. Solidifying your setting will bring your story to life by immersing your reader in your imagined reality.
Conflict, conflict and then, oh yeah, moaaar conflict
Have I mentioned conflict yet? I think I forgot. Okay seriously, conflict creates story. There is no story without it. Your initial trigger moment – the thing that kicks the whole journey off – is a key example of this. The world or circumstances of your protagonist must change and push them out of their comfort zone for us to care to join them. One great example:
Prim being called in the reaping in The Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers in her place and leaves home to fight for her life in a deadly gameshow. First, Katniss is risking her life = conflict. Who in district 12 ever wants to play the games. But she does it to protect her sister, #relatable. Which leads us to our second point of conflict, Katniss must leave her family and her entire life to win the appraisal of the capital, to ultimately increase her chances of winning the right to keep her life. And Katniss isn't even a people-person, let alone a trained killer = conflict.
The Hunger Games is a great example because already we can see how Katniss's personality, goals, motivations, relatability and struggles amalgamate with the plot to produce a thrilling story. That's not even considering how Katniss's external goal of survival conflicts with the internal goal of rebellion. And how the goals of rebellion and survival conflict with her antagonist, President Snow, who wants his reign of subservience and 'peace' to remain. Spoilers: it doesn't because S T O R Y. In a nutshell, the more you have your characters manoeuvring and clashing like chess pieces, the better your story will be.
If you found this useful, don't forget to drop me a message or comment below. You can also follow me on Instagram for more hints and tips, @holliegodwin!