Have you ever been told your story is lacking? Perhaps the one telling you something is missing is the voice inside your head. You know something isn’t quite right, but you’re just not sure what.
Well, if so, pull back the covers and expose the inner workings of your story. Ask yourself if you’re missing one of these four absolutely, positively must-have story elements.
Surprisingly, it’s quite simple to break it all down once you think about it because no story is complete without answering four basic questions.
1) Who is telling the story, or who is it about? CHARACTER(S)
2) When and where does the story take place? SETTING
3) What happens in this story? PLOT
4) Why did all this happen? THEME
Whether your story is character-driven or plot-driven doesn’t matter, and whether fiction or non-fiction, whoever’s voice is telling this story must be believable. It must be a character the readers will want to follow, a voice they will want to listen to and hear what they have to say.
If the readers can’t identify with your characters, if they don’t feel some connection and get the sense that the characters and the story are real, they’re unlikely to get pulled into the pages of your book. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story or an epic novel; if the main character does not draw the reader to them in some way, that reader is not going to bother to keep turning the page.
Whether hero/heroine or villain, protagonist or antagonist or even simply the narrator, that character’s voice must be compelling in a way that calls to the reader.
If a hero/heroine/protagonist is your MC, are they relatable? Are they likable? If not, you’ve got a problem because if we don’t care if the MC succeeds in their goal (and they must have an ultimate goal), then we aren’t going to bother following their story.
If the MC in your story is the villain/antagonist, the author’s goal shifts slightly, but not as much as you might think. There should still be something about the MC that the reader can relate to, although they don’t have to be likable.
Think Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Hannibal Lecter was by no means a likable character. But he sure was one who had the reader turning the pages. He was compelling, and we wanted to see Clarice Starling (his opposition) break him. The author gave us a reason to keep turning those pages.
There’s so much more to say on this subject, but I’ll end with this:
Whatever role your main character(s) plays, be sure they are a fully developed, four-dimensional character who fits the story you’re building around them.
And again, even if your story is considered plot-driven, your character’s voice, even if it’s simply a narrator, must have a compelling voice that pulls the reader through from beginning to end.
Where and when is your story taking place? Do your readers even care or need to know?
Oh, yeah. They most definitely do. Well, if you want them to be pulled into your story, that is.
If you want your readers to stick with your story from beginning to end, to be pulled inside, riveted, and compelled, or even simply interested in what you have to say, they need to see it, feel it, experience it. And they can’t do that if you don’t provide them with an understanding of where and when your story takes place.
Does your story take place in the past, present or future? In this world or another? Are the characters traversing a city, suburb, or rural setting? Perhaps it’s none of those. But how will your readers know if you don’t provide them with the necessary information to orient themselves?
What’s the climate, culture, infrastructure…? This is all part of world-building, yes, and information the reader simply must be given.
When you’re talking about writing fiction, and you hear the term World-Building, many of us automatically think of fantasy or science fiction. I know I did when I first started writing fiction. And since I write contemporary fiction, it never occurred to me that I still needed to world build or that I was already doing just that.
I mean, think about it. If you’re writing fiction, you’re not just creating the storyline and the characters, but you’re also creating the world around those characters. And how can your readers see it, feel it, experience it right along with those characters if they can’t even visualize where and when the characters are?
Also, keep in mind that not only do your readers need to have an understanding of where and when your story takes place, but they need those visual clues as well so they can see it right in front of them.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. The majority of readers are visual readers. And as a visual reader myself, I can tell you that we need to be able to visualize the scene and the characters in our heads. Otherwise, we can’t get pulled inside, and if we can’t get right in there with the characters, you may possibly lose us well before the last page. And never forget, it’s the author’s job to make sure we have the tools to do that.
Those few who are not visual readers will simply skip over or ignore some of those descriptions you provide and keep reading. No harm, no foul. (Of course, that’s as long as you don’t go overboard.) But if these visual clues are not there at all, you’ve done yourself and your story a huge disfavor as you’ll more than likely be losing a good number of readers within those first few pages.
What’s so important about plot when it comes to your story or any story for that matter?
Do you even need to have a defined plot?
Well, yes, Virginia, you do. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a children’s book, young adult, new adult, romance, fantasy, drama, whatever. Every story, yes, every story, needs a plot. Without it, your story is simply incomplete. I can’t stress this enough.
My mother passed along to me this book by a well-known author. I’d never read one of this author’s books before, and I have to say I was more than disappointed. In fact, I was flabbergasted that a well-known author, her literary agent, and a top publisher actually put a book out there that had no storyline whatsoever.
Now, let me tell you, I was determined to get through this book, so every couple of days, I would pick it back up and read another chapter or two. And every time I did, I would put the book back down, completely and utterly frustrated to find that still, the author hadn’t gotten to the point.
What was the point of the story? I have no friggin’ idea. Eventually, finally, I reached the end, and still, there was no point. No message, no theme, no plot, no conflict. No anything! And I swear, if I ever wanted to throw a book across the room or burn it, that was the time.
So, always keep in mind that every story needs a purpose, a point, just as every story needs conflict and opposing forces (these are elements of your plot) and not simply a series of events.
Our plot (or plot points) are the events that make up our story. And every plot point should have a chain of connection—an order in which each plot point occurs and how each relates to the other.
As you’re creating your storyline, keep in mind two words: Cause and Effect. You, as the author, should understand the reasoning behind all of it. What’s the cause, and what’s the effect of your character(s) actions?
Everything happens for a reason. And just as in real life, every plot point in your story must happen for a reason. As the author, you alone have the responsibility to make absolutely certain there’s a reason behind everything and that every cause and effect leads to the next.
At the same time, everything should make sense and be in keeping with the character. Coincidence doesn’t work in a fiction novel. All that does is cause your readers to assume you just threw in whatever doesn’t connect or make sense simply because you wanted to. So again, always make sure that every plot twist or plot point makes sense. That it has a reason for being there.
Everything should happen for a plausible, logical reason for both the character(s) and the story. And don’t forget: Nothing should be out of character simply for the sake of sticking it in.
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave the rest for my workshops and move on to the last of our four essential elements, and that is…
What do we mean when we ask what the theme of your story is and why is that so important?
Well, the simplest definition is that your theme is the universal idea, lesson, or message explored throughout your story. This not only applies to the specific characters and events of your story but also broader truths about human experience that readers can apply to their own lives.
All works of literature—essays, novels, poems, whatever—have at least one theme, and more often than not, that same work will have multiple themes.
Understanding the theme of your work is vital to understanding the work’s significance. Otherwise, how do you market it, whether to a potential agent or publisher or to an audience? How do you come up with a story tag, write a back cover blurb, your book description, your query letter, and so on? How do you choose what your book cover should look like, the colors, the font, etc.?
Think of it this way. In essence, the theme of your story is the crux of your story. It’s the basis of the answer you’ll give when someone asks, “What’s your story about?”
Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve likely decided on your theme or at least have a hint as to what your main theme might be before you begin writing. Then again, if you don’t know or at least have some idea before you begin, you really should.
During the pre-planning stage of writing my next story, I first decide on at least one specific genre my book will fit into. I say at least one because, more than likely, my story and yours will fit into several. And if you’re an avid reader of fiction, and you’ve decided to write a fictional story, I’d say you probably have a specific genre in mind, even if you don’t realize it.
The reason this is so important to know before you begin is that the genre you choose will largely dictate the way you go about writing your story. And this brings me back to the theme, which is just as important as identifying your genre because the theme dictates how you go about getting that message to the reader.
As I mentioned above, somewhere in your story idea lies a theme, even if you might not realize it. And as I also explained, your theme is the kind of message you want to send or the lesson you want the reader to learn. The moral of the story.
Now, it’s very possible that your theme may not be clearly defined in your head at the pre-planning stage, but you should at a minimum at least have the premise of a theme in mind before you begin writing. Although, keep in mind that it is quite common your theme or themes (because, again, you could very well have more than one) may change once you start writing and really get into the story, and that’s perfectly fine. Because, no matter how much pre-planning you do, even if it’s going as far as completing your story structure and creating an entire outline from start to finish, you should never stifle your creativity by not allowing your characters to take you off script.
As with each of the above story elements, there is so much more to this topic, but I hope I’ve given you enough here to press the importance a theme plays in your story because with the lack of any theme whatsoever, it’s quite possible your characters and your story itself have no purpose at all.
So, there you have it. The four absolutely, positively, must-have story elements.
If you would like to learn more about each of these story elements and many others, I hope you’ll check out my writing workshops, where I pack a ton of writing tips and knowledge into two full hours of learning.
Until next time, go forth and create, you awesome writers!