Story Elements: An Overview

To understand the purpose of this post and the notations in these diagrams, please read the Introduction.

A Story involves 1 or more Characters who face 1 or more Challenges. Each Character has Motivations (minor Characters may have none); and each Motivation may give that Character a reason to face some Challenges.

A simple Story has 1 Timeline consisting of 1 or more Events, with each Event potentially involving a Challenge. A more complex Story may have multiple Timelines, especially if it is a fantasy or science fiction Story involving time travel. Every Event involves at least one Character.

Figure 1. Overview of Story Elements

A Story can be structured into 1 or more Acts, which represent major divisions of the action. (A Story not formally broken into Acts can be considered a 1 Act Story.) Three classical Story structures are One Act, Three Act, and Five Act:

One Act Structure

In a short story, there may be only one brief, direct story following Characters through a small number of Events and a small number of Challenges. The Characters and Challenges are introduced through the resolution of the Events.

Three Act Structure

  • Act I:Introduce the main Characters and a major Challenge. This might be the primary Challenge, or it might be a contributing or concealing Challenge.
  • Act II:The Characters struggle to overcome the Challenges. Though they have some successes, Act II ends with them at their weakest and facing their biggest Challenge.
  • Act III: The Characters find a way to overcome their weaknesses and triumph over the Challenges. Alternatively, they fail at the Challenges, and we see the consequences.

Figure 2. Three Act Structure

Five Act Structure

  • Act I: Exposition.Introduce the main Characters and a major Challenge.
  • Act II: Rising Action.The Characters struggle to overcome the Challenges. Though they have some successes, Act II ends with them at their weakest and facing their biggest Challenge.
  • Act III: Climax (Turning Point).The Characters find a way to overcome their weaknesses and triumph over the Challenges; or they realize they’re outmatched.
  • Act IV: Falling Action.The Characters successfully deal with remaining Challenges; or the remaining Challenges overcome them, and they try to escape.
  • Act V: Denouement (Resolution). The final wrap-up of the Story.

Figure 3. Five Act Structure

A Story isn’t restricted to these classical structures; but critics, reviewers, and editors may assume the Story has some recognizable Act structure, and may disapprove if it rambles with no clear Acts. Notice also that Acts are somewhat in the eye of the beholder: different readers or viewers may not agree where the Act breaks are, and the author may have different ideas where the Act breaks are as well. (In a larger work broken into chapters, it’s very likely that the Act breaks fall on chapter breaks; but one Act may consist of multiple chapters.)

Each Act consists of 1 or more Scenes, where a Scene depicts 1 or more Events occurring at a given Location. A Scene is told from one Point of View, though the Point of View may change from Scene to Scene. Occasionally you may see the same Scene told from the Points of View of different Characters; but it’s simpler to treat each Point of View change as a new Scene. Some authors like to structure Scenes much as they do Acts: 1 Scene, 3 Scenes, 5 Scenes, etc. Others are more free-form.

The Scenes tell the Events of the Story, but not necessarily in the order those Events occur in a Timeline. For instance, one common method to get readers interested quickly is to tell a story in media res (Latin: in the middle of things). Rather than tell the reader a lot of introductory details, you jump straight to “the good stuff”. But that may leave details that the reader will need to know later; so through flashbacks, recollections, and other techniques, you fill those details in when you need them. Thus, the Scenes may play out of order from the Timeline. Sometimes you can tell a really interesting story simply by telling the scenes completely out of order based on the timeline, perhaps even omitting scenes and just implying their Events. A Timeline can be important to the author in order to understand and organize the Story; and the reader may form a mental Timeline to help understand the Events; but the Timeline itself is typically not a part of the Story.

It’s not required for a Story to have a Theme, but it’s common. The Theme is a point or lesson the author conveys through the Story. Again, the Theme is subjective, and authors and readers may not always agree what the Theme is.

We’ll explore each of these elements in more detail in later posts.

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2 Responses to Story Elements: An Overview

  1. Editor Bill says:

    I am confused by the inclusion of both a “timeline” class an the “act” class. It seems redundant and the attributes of the timeline class could probably be folded into that of act.

  2. admin says:

    Good question; and I actually have an answer, so that makes it an even better question.

    The Timeline is the chronological order that the events happened in; the Acts and Scenes are the order in which the story is told, which may or may not be chronological order. There may be flashbacks or other ways that events are shuffled around in the story; but implicitly there is a chronological order in the reality of the story, even if it’s not on the page. The Timeline is more for the author to think through than for the reader to see; but an astute reader may discern the underlying timeline even for complex asychronous stories.

    Note that Timeline is 1..*, both because of the dreaded time travel stories and also because sometimes it can be useful for the author to maintain separate parallel timelines for separate characters or groups. That way each character/group can pursue its goals and go through its daily life, and the author can lay them out side-by-side (can you say “swimlanes”?) and see where they might interact.

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