All the Must-Have Parts of a Story: A Guide for New Writers
Storytelling comes naturally to humans. It’s how we connect to one another. It’s how we communicate our life experiences, share joy and sadness, and offer concrete explanations for abstract concepts.
You’ve been telling stories since you could form full sentences. We all have. That’s why most first-time writers expect crafting a story to be a no-brainer process.
But then they come to the realization—as we all must—that writing stories gets a lot more complicated when the goal isn’t just to express yourself but to engage readers. Now there are new questions.
What are the key elements of a story? How do they work together? How do you know if your story structure is any good? What’s the process for writing a main character readers will care about?
If you could use a clear rundown of the must-have story elements, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go over the essential components of any story, you’ll get a ton of links for further learning, and we’ll close with some tips for applying these concepts as you embark on your writerly journey.
Let’s start by zooming out and looking at the most basic parts of a story.
Core Story Elements
It will probably come as no shock to you that your story needs a setting, plot structure, characters, and conflict.
But if you’re new to writing fiction—or narrative nonfiction, for that matter—you’ll want to really dig into these key elements and discover how they work together to form an unforgettable story.
Now, we’re only going to skim the surface here, but as we go, you’ll see loads of links that will take you to more in-depth articles and resources.
We tend to think of a story’s setting as a physical location, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Time period is a major aspect of the setting. So are the social, cultural, and political aspects of your characters’ world.
What are the values and customs that influence their identities and daily lives? How do the cultural norms of their time, place, and community help them thrive or hold them back? How might the landscape or shifting political system mirror or exacerbate the central conflict?
A great setting isn’t just the location where things happen. It’s a participant in the story.
Plot refers to the order of events in your story. There’s an art to laying out these events in a way that keeps the reader engaged and eager to learn what happens next. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
There are several popular story structures out there—frameworks that’ll help you plot a story that builds tension, surprises your audience, and leaves them with a satisfying resolution.
You’ll find that almost every plot structure involves five basic elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. These happen to be the exact components of the five-act structure, but you’ll find them in most other formats, sometimes under different names.
Here’s a quick look at how these story elements function in your narrative:
The exposition is the reader’s introduction to the setting and protagonist. This is where you, the author, clarify:
- Who the main character is
- What they want
- Why they don’t already have it
- What their life looks like at the beginning of the story
- The inciting incident that forces the protagonist to step outside their normal routine to pursue a goal
Rising action is all the fun stuff that happens when the protagonist ventures beyond their zone of comfort to pursue their goal.
In this phase, they make new friends, encounter new adversaries, and come across obstacles that force them to confront their own weaknesses.
The climax is what all the rising action is building towards. This is when tension is at its peak. The protagonist rises again after a devastating defeat and chooses to fight the battle that will force them to overcome their greatest fears.
Of course, you can take the term “battle” figuratively. In a romance, the grand gesture is the battle scene.
After all that drama, you have falling action. The protagonist has conquered the big threat (or succumbed to it, if it’s that kind of book). Now you show your readers how the pieces of the old, shattered reality settle into a new reality.
Your characters reflect on who they want to be going forward and begin rebuilding their lives.
This is when your readers get to see the results of your characters’ journey. In the exposition, you showed them your protagonist’s old normal; now you show them the new one. The detective closes the case file, the lovers kiss, the rebel finally takes a nap… whatever makes sense for your story.
You can’t write a good story without good characters. It’s through your characters that the reader connects with the story on an emotional level.
To pull that off, you need to dream up fictional people who aren’t just interesting but also realistic and relatable. That means going deeper than surface-level traits to understand their unique perspectives, vulnerabilities, ambitions, and fears.
Types of Characters
There are three types of characters.
Protagonist - Also known as a main character or primary character, this person is the driving force behind your story. Their goals and actions are the reason the central conflict exists. And while other characters might have their own conflicts, those subplots either connect to or reflect the primary plot line.
Secondary characters - These folks show up frequently in the story and contribute significantly to the plot. Secondary characters often include the protagonist’s close friends/family, mentors, and antagonists—the characters who get in the way of the main character’s goals.
Like the protagonist, secondary characters should have depth and complexity.
Tertiary characters - You might think of them as background characters. These are the folks who show up maybe one to three times in a story just to deliver information, provide comic relief, or create a sense of place.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we read a story to find out how the character is going to engage with the conflict. This includes not only the choices they make but how they change (or refuse to change) as a result of their journey.
Will Barbie still prefer the blissful ignorance of an existence that centers on her when she learns what it means to be human? Will Walter White get a little too comfortable with the drug lord life? So Sherlock Holmes is just always going to be like that, huh?
This journey of transformation is called a character arc. There are basically three types:
Positive arc - The character changes for the better.
Negative arc - The character changes for the worse.
Flat arc - The character doesn’t change.
It’s up to you which arc is most appropriate for which character.
Conflict is one of the most essential elements of a story because it creates the situation that drives the overall plot. It also gives the reader something to worry about, and that angst is the reason they keep reading.
Conflict happens when an obstacle prevents a character from getting what they want. Your story’s plot will include one major conflict involving the protagonist. You’ll also have other smaller battles that might exacerbate the primary conflict or relate to subplots that center on supporting characters.
Types of Conflict
All conflict falls into one of two categories:
External conflict - A character is at odds with someone or something outside themselves, whether it’s another person, natural forces, technology, or any other external entity.
Internal conflict - A character fights a battle within themselves. This can include a crisis of identity, morality, faith, or any other issue that might tear a person apart from the inside.
In most stories, the protagonist fights an internal battle and external battle at the same time. These two conflicts are linked, and as each one escalates, the other does, too.
How Conflict Works With All the Other Parts of a Story
You always want the central conflict to get worse as the story progresses. This means you have to build your plot with an eye toward raising the stakes and heightening the obstacles.
As we’ve discussed, your setting should also play a role in this. Explore how the world of your novel can create more roadblocks for your protagonist.
And then, of course, there are the characters themselves. Be ruthless and create a conflict that targets your character’s weaknesses, attacks them with their worst fears, and forces them to “change or die.”
Next-Level Story Elements
Now you know the most basic elements of a story. But those components alone are not enough to help you write a bestseller.
Let’s go beyond the core elements to explore the key aspects of an engaging story. I’m talking about things like…
A Strong Hook
A hook is the thing that grabs your reader’s attention and reels them into the story. I use the vague term “thing” purposely; a hook might refer to an opening line, the first scene, the first chapter, or even an intriguing premise.
The important thing is that the reader immediately encounters something in your story that makes them want to keep reading.
Strategic Narrative Elements
Never underestimate the importance of your narrative style. Even if you’re writing stories in third-person omniscient—meaning you use third-person pronouns and can tell the tale from every character’s perspective—your writing should still have the same distinctive qualities as a human voice.
So as you write your novel, make deliberate choices about:
Point of View (POV) - Point of view refers to the narrator’s perspective. If you write in first-person point of view, you tell the story through the voice of a character in the story speaking in first-person pronouns.
For third-person limited point of view, you’d write in third-person but filter all the narration through one character’s perspective.
In third-person omniscient, your all-knowing narrator can share any character’s thoughts and feelings.
Tone - This refers to the narrator’s attitude about the story they’re telling. Do they find it amusing? Inspiring? Heartbreaking? Eerie? That’s tone, and you can convey it with your diction, sentence structure, and context. The tone you create will influence the way your reader feels.
Voice - Even a nameless third-person narrator needs a distinctive voice. That basically just means you need to create a sense of personality in the way you write. Word choice, rhythm, and tone all contribute to the narrative voice.
A great story is always about something beyond the central conflict. It offers a perspective on deeper issues like the price of progress or what it means to be family.
This next-level messaging is called a theme, and a well-crafted one reverberates through readers’ souls for days, weeks, or even years after they’ve finished the last page.
A Memorable Ending
Finally, all great stories are remembered as great because they have solid endings. The perfect conclusion ties up loose ends and shows the reader what life is like for the characters now that they’re on the other side of the conflict. This is also a good time to reinforce the central theme of your story.
The ultimate goal is to deliver the emotional experience your reader expects to have when they pick up a book in your genre, whether that means the satisfaction of a good swoon or profound dread and devastation.
How to Write Incredible Stories
Now that you know all the parts of a story—the most basic elements, anyway—it’s time to begin the rather challenging job of turning these concepts into a literary masterpiece. Or at least a first draft with potential.
As you might guess, this is going to take a decent amount of time and a lot of practice. Here are some of my best tips for making sure you’re always moving in the right direction:
Read a Ton
Reading is absolutely essential for building your skills as a writer. Doesn’t sound too painful, does it?
The catch, however, is that you have to read with an analytical eye. Notice how the author handles all parts of a story, from organizing the plot structure to establishing a point of view.
It’s also important that you read books in your genre. Each genre and subgenre handles storytelling a little differently. Get familiar with the approaches your readers will be looking for.
Be a Proactive Learner
The best way to get better at writing is by doing it. Even so, you’ll make faster progress if you proactively learn as you go.
That doesn’t mean you have to run right out and get a degree in creative writing. You can easily design your own free or low-cost education with a combination of books, articles, workshops, and more. In fact, I can recommend several free resources right now.
You’ll find absolute buckets of guidance in DabbleU and it won’t cost you a dime. You can also sign up for Dabble’s newsletter to get instruction and story prompts delivered to your inbox weekly. We even have a free ebook that walks you through the entire process of writing a novel. Just click this link to download it.
Connect With Other Writers
Build your writer community. This ensures you’ll have the moral support of people who understand the challenges you run into in your writing. It’s also how you find critique partners who will be happy to read your early drafts and give feedback that will help you grow in your craft.
So what about the actual writing part? You’ve probably picked up on the fact that there’s a lot to juggle in a single story. How can your brain hold it all?
It doesn’t. Every author depends on some sort of notetaking system, and recent technology has made it much easier to get and stay organized as you write your story.
Try not to be too shocked when I tell you my favorite writing program is Dabble. That was true even before I wrote for Dabble. It’s just the perfect blend of built-in structure and customization options, with features like Story Notes, character profiles, and the famous Plot Grid.
Not to mention, you can do everything in Dabble, from brainstorming and plotting to drafting and formatting.
If you want to check it out for yourself, follow this link to start a 14-day free trial. You don’t need to enter a credit card. Just sign up and start exploring.
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