Story Elements: Core, World, Setting

C-3PO tells the story of the Rebellion to the Ewoks

After trying to get to the root of readers’ satisfaction with a story, I found that a better understanding of what a story is might be in order. On its face the answer to the question “what is a story?” is intuitive and straightforward, but pinpointing what exactly separates a story from a bunch of sentences slapped together is not so easy. Obviously, “character,” “plot” and “theme” are necessary. However, a story must have other ingredients, both as its building blocks and as forces that tie it together. In the following, are notes on the subject, compiled from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!, Gwen Hayes’s Romancing The Beat, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, and Dwight. V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Story Core: All stories are about desire vs. danger, what one did to get what he wanted and why. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what cost he’ll have to pay along the way.

Simplistically, it can be deconstructed as:

  • A Character who is affected by and reacting to external events, and fights against danger.
  • A backdrop of troubles that forces the character to act.
  • A Desire, because a character without desire cannot be endangered.
  • An Opponent who fights back. The opponent personifies the obstacles the character has to overcome.
  • A Disaster, the character must face before s/he is off the hook.

Once a character has a desire, the story “walks” on two legs: acting and learning. A character in a pursuit of a desire takes actions to get what s/he wants. In the process, the character learns new information about better ways to get it. New information causes the character to make a decision and change the course of their action.

Everything about the character’s journey can be a part of the story, but to make it at least somewhat entertaining, a storyteller must select, connect and build a series of intense moments, so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. What tools, beside innate talent, a storyteller has?

Theme is the story’s unifying concept. It tells us something about the storyteller’s outlook on the world, or on human behavior, about right and wrong actions and what those actions do to person’s life. Story characters, be they opponents or allies of the hero, deal with the same moral problems, but they do it in different ways. Whenever a character uses some means to reach an end, there is a moral predicament, a question of right action, an argument about how best to live.

Story world is life as we imagine it could be, life condensed and heightened. It is everything surrounding the characters all at once, representing simultaneous elements and actions. The story world is usually a physical expression of who the hero is and how he develops. Different kinds of worlds embody, highlight or accentuate the hero’s needs, values, desires (both good and bad) and the obstacles he faces. A world of slavery often expresses or even exacerbates the hero’s great weakness. In fantasy, the hero starts in a mundane world, where his psychological or moral weakness is set. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of who he can be.

Setting: Natural setting carries a multitude of meanings because locations such as island, mountain, forest, plain, have an inherent symbolic power. Mountains, for example, are often associated with greatness, whereas a forest brings to mind a frightening place where people get lost. Man-made spaces can be a microcosm of the hero and the society in which he lives. The House, for example, is a nest, the home of the family, a place for intimacy. The warm house is a big, cozy and diverse shelter, infused with memories of childhood. The terrifying house, on the other hand, is not a cocoon. It might be a prison, a cramped pressure cooker, an outgrowth of hero’s great weakness, a manifestation of his biggest fear.

Passageways Between Worlds is a popular story technique to move characters between extremely different sub-worlds (like a passage from the mundane world to the fantastic). A passageway literary gets the character from one place to another, but it’s also a kind of decompression chamber, that prepares the listeners to a big change in the story world rules between one place to another.

Technology magnifies the character’s power, tools allow him to manipulate the world and maneuver through it. In science fiction, specific technology highlights those elements of society that the story is set to explore.

Arena marks physical boundaries of the story world. It’s a single unified place surrounded by some kind of wall, with everything inside that space is part of the drama and everything outside it isn’t part of the story.

Some stories start with a large umbrella, which a storyteller then crosscuts and condenses. The largest scope is usually described somewhere near the beginning, and as the story progresses, the focus shifts to the smaller worlds within the arena. Alternatively, characters journey through generally the same area.
In a “fish out of water” stories, the hero jumps from one world to another world. The character starts in one arena, where he shows his special talents, then jumps – without traveling – to second arena where the main story takes place.

Foto Ennevi/Fondazione Arena di Verona
The Verona Arena is a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century AD. It is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind, still in use today for the large-scale performances.

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