Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Elements: The Building Blocks of Everything

Last time, I wrote about what to do after you've got your story written. This time, I'd like to discuss what the basic building blocks are for a good story.

You've learned in school that the Universe is made up of elements. A story is built up from the same thing. It's more than just stringing words together. How you put them together will make the difference between whether anyone is going to be glad they read it.

First, a story contains a protagonist. This is the main character, the person whose point of view you're most concerned with. It's usually the good guy, but some books take the POV of the "bad guy" and make them the protagonist. For example, read Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The author does an excellent job of turning the story of The Wizard of Oz on its head and making the "bad guy" into the protagonist.
Second, the protagonist needs a goal. Your story is about how your hero or heroine gets the guy/girl, or makes their fortune, or takes the throne, or whatever.

The story needs an antagonist. This is the bad guy. The antagonist could be a situation, a force, some immaterial object or presence that works against the protagonist. In Moby Dick, the antagonist is a whale. In Robert Heinlein's book Friday, the antagonist is the human culture of the day. The heroine fights against enemy agents, but mostly the mindset of most of humanity against artificial persons. The antagonist, in a word, then, is the obstacle between the MC and their goal.

Now, with these two first elements established, there necessarily follows conflict. Without some kind of conflict, there is really nothing to write about, so why are you writing to begin with? Conflict doesn't have to be a direct fight between people, though in most of my writing so far, there is a lot of that sort of thing going on. There can be a conflict between your main character and a difficult test, for instance. You could write about the passage into manhood or womanhood of a young person in a fantasy story. The antagonist would be the trails and process of their passage, and the conflict is about how your MC overcomes the antagonist and achieves their goal.

Okay, we have a protagonist, a goal, the antagonist, and a conflict. You string them together by asking (and answering) three questions (Let's use my book Becoming NADIA):

1.     -- "What if…?" What if there was such a thing as a living weapon of mass destruction? You can make a "what if?" out of anything.
2.     -- "What then?" What if she was on the run from a nefarious organization? This is the largest part of the story, and is the step by step of the conflict.
3.     -- "So what?" What is the value of her life if she isn't even a human? This is the part where we care what happens.

So here are the elements of what makes a story:
  1. 1.      The protagonist
  2. 2.      The goal
  3. 3.      The antagonist
  4. 4.      The conflict
  5. 5.      "What if?"
  6. 6.      What then?"
  7. 7.      And "So what?"

When you put these together, you'll find a story that comes alive to your readers and pulls them into your world. You can do this with a short story, or a novel, and it works as well with any scenario you can make up.

Written by Cyrus Keith, author of Becoming NADIA. Available from MuseItUpPublishing.com.


Theresa Milstein said...

Good overview.

Les Edgerton's book Hooked was really helpful for me to sort out all of these elements.

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J Q Rose said...

Cyrus, You did an excellent job in pointing out the elements of a story. Thank you. I am going to use your info, and credit you of course, to teach creative writing to adults...