The Five Basic Story Elements

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

The Key Elements Needed Before the Novel is Written

In order to craft a more cohesive story, writers should make sure they have these five elements in mind before they start or very soon after they begin writing.

There are many different ways to write a story, and no one way is the “only way.” Some writers write as the story comes to them. Some plot out each step before they start writing. Some do a combination of both.

But there are five main elements of a commercial story that are crucial for ensuring a strong storyline. Writers should try to nail these elements down before they get too far into the novel. If they don’t, they might end up writing themselves into a hole, or the story might end up being very aimless and episodic.

1. Introduce the Main Character

Make sure there is a focal character or hero.

Even if there are two main characters, there is always one who is more important to the story, or whose journey is slightly more important or urgent than the other.

2. Establish the Situation of Danger

There should be an element of trouble or danger that the character is working in.

If there isn’t any trouble, then there isn’t anything forcing the hero to act.

The trouble and the action doesn’t need to be something like Dr. Doom blowing up the world. It can be something as gentle as a mother’s erratic behavior and her years-old secret impacting her daughter’s plans for college.

3. Define the Character’s External Goal

Here is where the writer clearly establishes what the character is going to be working toward for the entire novel. This is the prize or purpose the character is pursuing as he journeys into the unknown (The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersby Christopher Vogler).

Here is where what the character wants (External Goal) and why he wants it (Motivation) is defined in order to round out the character’s personality (GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflictby Debra Dixon).

4. Introduce the Opponent

This is not necessarily a villain. This could be a natural disaster or a group or anything actively working against the character.

A good antagonist is usually better defined rather than something more vague. A natural disaster or villain is defined. But a “town who doesn’t really like the hero” isn’t a defined antagonist.

Make a specific, defined opponent to the hero.

5. Build to a Specific Climax

Before the story is written, it’s always best to know what the climax will be. This enables the writer to build toward it. It gives the story a mountain top to reach for. It provides a focus point for the story.

The climax should be a Disaster in every sense of the word. Something absolutely terrible that boxes the character in until there is no where left to go. This creates more emotional tension in the reader, and also enables the writer to build tension toward that climax.

Put the Five Elements Together

Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) suggests putting the elements into two sentences. This is good because it forces the writer to be succinct and targeted in their story elements.

(Character) is in (Situation) and must accomplish (External Goal).
But can (Character) defeat (Opponent) when (Climax happens)?

The first sentence defines the story premise.
The yes-no question simplifies the story for the writer and reader toward that emotional crux.

Your turn

While this is mainly a story writing device, writers can also use this to write their 10-second elevator pitch, which can come in handy at writer’s conferences.


  1. Camy, I'm learning so much for the craft articles you're writing around the blogosphere.

    I've awarded you the I LOVE YOUR BLOG award. See here.

  2. Great article, Camy! I'm going to bookmark it and refer to it as I write.


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