We've talked before about the different parts of a book, a.k.a. your front matter, back matter, etc. But now let's talk about the different parts of the story, which is an entirely different subject.
Every story can be broken down into different parts, and if you don't have one of them, your story may feel out of sync.
For that reason, I've assembled 14 crucial elements to include in your story, and I've broken them down by category.
- What the different parts of the story are
- The function of each story element
- The four core elements of a story
- Five tonal elements of your story
- Five core elements of a plot
What Are the Different Parts of the Story?
Believe it or not, the Internet gives us wildly different results about the different parts of the story, and how many there are.
In researching this article, I looked at everything I could find, drew upon my own knowledge, and put together a total list of 14.
However, I believe we need to categorize these different parts, because some elements just don't mix with others. For that reason, I've broken it down into the following three categories:
- Tone or style
- Point of view
- Rising action
- Falling action
All of these together make up the different parts of the story.
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The Function of Each Story Element
But why do we even need to break down the different parts of the story into individual pieces like this? Why can't we just write the story and be done with it?
Well, having parts of the story fleshed out allows you to create a well-rounded novel. Without this, you are likely to feel stale in one area or another.
You can look at it like a journalist, asking themselves the basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Let's break each of those down:
- Who: this is your character and your point of view
- What: this is primarily your plot, but can also include conflict, theme, etc.
- When: part of your setting
- Where: also part of your setting
- Why: this is primarily associated with your theme, conflict, and morals
- How: this is part of your plot, especially the resolution and climax of your plot
The Four Core Elements of the Story
Now that we understand why we need parts of the story, let's break down each one, starting with the four most important:
Your plot is always going to be the underlying structure of a novel. While there are some literary novels that lean more on character or theme, ultimately a story needs structure to hold it up, and that comes from your plot.
A plot has five basic elements:
- Rising action
- Falling action
I talk about each of these in more depth below, but these steps are fundamental enough that you will find them in almost all successful storytelling.
There are, of course, variations in plot structure, which is why I recommend you visit our story structure hub for a variety of ways to tell your story.
Tips to tell a good plot:
- Outline your story ahead of time
- Make sure you have a character arc that mirrors the plot
- Inject conflict wherever you can
- Maintain mystery to keep your reader curious and turning pages
- Brainstorm multiple plot ideas
While most books rely on their plot, many would argue that character is even more important. Characters are the heart and soul of a book, and are the primary reason that people will become invested in a book.
To create dynamic characters, you want to have a character arc for your main character in most situations.
A character arc involves, at its most basic, moving that character from point A to point B, giving them growth.
Additionally, you often want to round out your characters with back stories, motivations, flaws, fears, etc.
Tips for creating awesome characters:
- Make sure their motivations are clear
- Make sure they have a fear and/or flaw that they must overcome
- Give them a backstory, even if you don't plan on using most of it
- Never have a “perfect” character
Setting is the third of the trifecta that is plot, character, and setting.
In many ways it is the most important, because it affects your plot and characters more than anything else.
Think about it. Simply changing the time period that your book is set in will have an immense effect on the backstory of your characters.
Setting can be any time or place, and it can even be a fantastical setting.
Coming up with your setting will usually involve a heavy amount of research (for real-world novels), or world building (for fantasy or science fiction).
Tips for designing a successful setting:
- Start with your setting first, before designing characters and plot
- Take a specific aspect of your setting that is most interesting, then determine how that feature will affect the entire rest of your world building
- Ask yourself how your setting affects your characters
- Ask yourself how the setting can influence the plot
- Ask yourself how the setting can create conflict
Conflict is the glue that holds plot, character, and setting together. While many people would put theme as the fourth core element of a story, I lump that in with tone.
Conflict, on the other hand, is one of the most needed elements of any story. Without conflict, you have a series of events, not a story.
When you are outlining and writing your novel, make sure that you have conflict in every scene, whether that is conflict between multiple characters, conflict with the setting (i.e. it's raining), or conflict from the main plot.
Here are seven types of conflict that you can use.
- Human versus human
- Human versus nature
- Human versus a group or society
- Human versus technology
- Human versus the fantastical or supernatural
- Human versus fate
- Human versus self
Every story should have small conflicts throughout, with one or two global conflicts as part of the overall plot.
Tips for having successful conflict:
- Make sure there is at least one form of conflict in every scene
- Know what the global conflict is before you write
- Ask yourself how your characters respond to that conflict
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Five Tonal Parts of the Story
In addition to the four core elements of the story that I have already outlined, there are multiple parts that are harder to pin down, but are just as important. I call these the “tonal” elements. They include:
Theme is possibly your most important tonal element, and many would lump it up with plot, character, and setting
However, a theme is often more subtle, almost nonexistent in some books, so I would not call it 100% necessary.
But every good story does have a theme, and yours should too.
But what is theme? A theme is the central takeaway of your book. You should essentially be asking yourself, what is the point?
You can include simple themes like coming-of-age, overcoming death, forgiving someone, etc. to something more overt like combating racism, dealing with climate change, learning to get along with others, etc.
The number of themes are virtually endless.
Some tips for a good theme include:
- Have multiple characters represent different viewpoints on your theme
- Make your theme support the story and not the other way around
- Don't get “preachy”
Tone or Style
While the tone may sound similar to the theme, it is actually quite different. It is also the hardest to influence, as your personal style will always be difficult to pin down.
Nevertheless, you probably have an idea of what tone feels like. For example, you might choose for a more whimsical or humorous tone in a middle grade level, as opposed to a darker, more mysterious tone in a mystery novel.
You create tone through a variety of tools, including:
- Word choice
- Varying sentence length
- Descriptions of your setting
- Character attitudes
- How high the stakes are
If you read up in your genre, chances are you will have an idea of the accepted tone for that genre. Take that and run with it.
Tips for successful tone:
- Find other books similar to your genre, and pay attention to the tone
- Practice writing the same scene in multiple tones
Point of view
Before you start a book, you want to establish what point of view you want to use, as this will hugely influence your story.
There are multiple types of point of view, including:
- First person point of view: anytime you have a character speaking from their own point of view (i.e. I, my, mine), this is first person point of view. Typically you will remain in one person's point of view for the entirety of your novel.
- Second person point of view: this is where you are addressing the reader directly (i.e. you, your, yours). This is less common in fiction, but is the primary point of view used in nonfiction.
- Third person limited point of view: this is one of the most common forms of point of view, where you are where the narrator relates what is happening from a third-person perspective, but can only get into the head of one person at a time.
- Third person omniscient point of view: this is similar to third person limited, in that the narrator is speaking in the third person (i.e. he, she, it), but with omniscient point of view, the narrator is able to see into the heads of all characters, and may even know the future of what is happening.
- Fourth person point of view: this is a less common point of view that involves the first person plural (i.e. we, our, etc.). While you will find it in some forms of nonfiction, it is not a point of view that you will write a whole book in.
Once you have a point of view that you will like, be sure to stick with it for the whole novel.
Tips for using point of view:
- Take one point of view and remain consistent
- Take a tense (i.e. past or present) and use that to enhance your tone
- Use first person to get deeper into someone's point of view
- Try to see the world through a character's eyes, we call this “deep point of view”
What is the moral of your story? While this may seem the same as a theme, and sometimes it is, it can be different.
The theme is typically what the character learns in the story. A moral is the take away you want the reader to have.
For example, you might have a tragic story where the character does not learn what they should, and we as the reader realize, through their failure, what they missed. Cautionary tales are a prime example of this.
Tips for having good morals in your book:
- Don't get too “preachy”
- Don't directly state any morals in your book
- Have your characters dwell on different sides of the moral, so you can see multiple angles
- Try to leave your reader in a thoughtful state
Symbolism is a literary device that can often add additional meaning to your story.
The classic version of a symbol is the character archetype, such as the mentor figure in the hero's journey.
A symbol can take any form, including a character, animal, object, etc.
Very often, symbols will relate to the real world in some way. But you can also establish a symbol as a having a certain meaning in your story, then use that symbol throughout to convey that meaning when appropriate
Tips for great symbols in your story:
- Use small symbols to add deeper meaning (i.e. an open window signifying freedom, or rain signifying sorrow)
- Have a recurring symbol that pairs with your theme
- Use sparingly
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The Five Core Elements of Plot
When someone asks you what the “parts of the story” are, they may be asking about plot elements instead of the broader subjects we covered already. If this is the case, here are the five basic elements of a plot.
Most of these are pulled from the three act structure, but are basic enough that they can be applied to most other story structures.
- Exposition: to start the story, we establish the characters and setting, and explain the starting situation. The step ends with an inciting incident.
- Rising action: rising action features the main character pursuing their goal while the stakes heighten.
- Climax: this is a moment towards the end of the story when everything comes to a head, and your character reaches the peak of their character growth.
- Falling action: in this section, we get the fallout from the climax, and the story rapidly winds down, tying up remaining loose ends.
- Resolution: where every loose end is finally resolved, the character has learned the lessons they were meant to learn, and has completed their character arc. Additionally, the plot officially ends.
Summary: 14 Story Elements
I hope this clarified a few things about the different parts of the story. Categorizing them like I have made it much easier for me to understand the different roles that each part plays.
If all of this is overwhelming for you, I recommend you start with the first four core elements. Once you've mastered those, you can pay more attention to adding theme and symbolism into your story.
Chances are, you're doing a lot of this already!