Do you remember Part 1? Hope so, ’cause here’s a pop quiz:

List the 5 bits of advice discussed in part 1.

(Bonus points for anyone that gets them all in the original order!)

And now for part 2 – the big 3.

In every story, no matter how long, these 3 elements are always present. They are essential and unavoidable. If you get them right, your story will work. It’s not a guarantee that your story will be published, be top seller, or be liked by your audience, but it will function as a story. If you get these 3 wrong, your story will be broken. It won’t matter how many interesting twists you throw in, or how catchy your title is, your story will not work, and will most likely fail to effectively capture your audience and allow them to enjoy or understand your work.

These 3 critical elements are:

– Character

– Plot

– Setting

Simply put, Character is the “who” of your story. You can have more than one character, most stories (but not all) do. Not all or any of your characters have to be human, or even sentient beings. But you must have at least one. They are the ones that move your Plot forward (or backward, or sideways, whatever direction it is you’re trying to go in).

The Plot is the action, the “what” of your story. I say action, but it doesn’t have to be high-speed car chases, fight scenes, and things blowing up. It can be thoughts, emotions, speaking, walking down a street. Anything any character does is action, and action is what moves your Plot from where you started to where you are ending.

The “where” and “when” is the Setting. This is the environment in which the characters act. The environment can be as vast as an entire universe or as small as the interior of a closet. The setting  isn’t only the location though. It includes the weather, the terrain, the time, the technology and/or magic that is used wherever the story is taking place, the customs and government of civilization (or lack thereof), and prejudices and fads of society. The setting isn’t necessarily a physical place either. A story’s setting can be inside the mind or heart of your character.

These 3 things are the 3 things no story can survive without.

“But wait!” you cry out. “You’re an idiot! There’s a lot more to a story than that!”

Of course! You are absolutely right. I am an idiot.

And yes, there is more to creating a story than Character, Plot and Setting. I’m not saying that all you need to worry about are these 3 things. These are very broad subjects, and there are a lot of details involved in creating a story. However, most of these details fit into at least one of these 3 categories. You can’t not have them, and have a complete story.

But it is up to you how you use them, as these 3 things can be emphasized differently, either equally or one more than the other.

There are stories that focus on the setting for example. Characters are there mostly for the purpose of exploring and discovering the world around them. The act of the characters exploring becomes the basis for the plot, or at least part of it. A lot of children’s stories are driven by characters exploring and discovering the world around them. Many stories use exploration as at least part of how the story is moved forward.

Other stories are based on the interactions between characters. They can fight each other, love each other, be friends or enemies. Often they go back and forth.  Soap operas tend to be character driven. The setting can be interchangeable, the actions only differ in the details. Another variant of a character driven story is the “self-discovery” stories. The ones all about a character or characters finding out about and testing themselves, who they are, their talents, their limits, their fears and so forth.

And then there are the stories where the characters find themselves in a situation, and have to survive, escape, solve a problem, or any other of many possibilities. They don’t put themselves in that situation, but are forced one way or the other by the circumstances of the world they live in. Fate, some call it. This is a Plot driven story. Ishmael, the main character of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, found himself in situations he had little control over. The story was largely driven by the Plot, the circumstances he found himself in. His fate was determined by the wind and the waves, by Captain Ahab, and by chance.

Now, all of these types of stories might focus on one of the 3 main elements, but they all include all three. They simply focus on one over the others, and mainly use one to drive the story.

Many stories use all three elements more or less equally. One example of that is the classic good vs evil fantasy tale. A character or characters that represents “evil”, often an oppressive emperor, wizard or combination with evil minions, vs a character or characters that represent “good”, usually one or few “underdogs” against many.

These stories often have the “good” person or group travel their world, exploring, finding old things long forgotten and/or discovering new things never before known. They fight their enemies, and sometimes (if in a group) fight with each other, and then usually put aside their differences to defeat the world destroying evil. And usually, they discover something about themselves along the way.

They also tend to find themselves in many tight spots, fights to the death, mysteries to solve, magic to learn, and a world to save, because they are the one fated by prophecy, the one whose birth was foretold centuries ago, or simply find themselves in possession of the one artifact that can end the evil overlords reign for good, or happen to be in the right spot at the right time.

There are innumerable ways to use various combinations of Character, Plot, and Setting to tell your story. If a story you’re working on doesn’t feel right, try changing the focus. Make sure you know which of these 3 elements are driving the story at any given time. You just need to figure out the best way to use them to move from where you want to start to where you want to end.

So that’s it, you say? I’m telling you these 3 elements are critical for every story, and that’s all I’ve got, you ask? Less than 1000 words on all 3? Well, first of all, you need to remember I don’t know what I’m doing. And second, no. Even I have more to say. There will be more posts delving deeper into these three storytelling components. Why? Because the more I write, the more I learn. And maybe somebody will come along and tell me what I’m doing wrong.


2 thoughts on “advice from someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about: part 2 – the big 3

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