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Story Elements

Whether you’re going to join in with us in NaNoWriMo or you’re working on a short story you need to include the basic story elements in your work.

1. Setting: Include the place, time of day or night, what country, season, inside or outside, year or decade. These can be stated if they are important or weave it in your opening scene. For example, suspense novels sometimes have a date stamp at the beginning of each chapter (12:15 am, January 13th). Another way to indicate when your story takes place could be” Jane’s calf length suit skirt caught on her leg as she ran to a phone booth. Her white gloved fingers jammed a dime into the pay phone and she looked over her shoulder.

  2. Plot: If nothing is happening to your protagonist then you don’t have a story. In the first few paragraphs you have to grab your reader’s attention or they won’t purchase your book. Something has to happen or  be in motion to get things rolling.

3. Conflict: Without some type of conflict and challenge, the character has nothing to react to or to solve. The conflict can be internal or external. It can be a combination of both. An internal conflict could be a crisis of conscience or beliefs. External conflicts come from outside the protagonist. External circumstances or actions can be man versus man, man versus circumstances beyond the character’s control, and man versus society or social issue.

4. Characters: Your key characters are the protagonist (hero or heroin) and an antagonist. Also, develop the secondary and incidental characters who are included in the story. Leave out any character who does not have a reason for appearing in the story or furthers the action. Give your characters a personality, background, physical features, and quirks. Remember that even your antagonist needs at least one redeeming quality.

5. Point of View: Decide which character’s point of view the story represents. Either write it in 1st person or 3rd person.

I like to add a 6th element: Theme: This is the main idea or central insight behind the story. It helps you stay focused on the direction and meaning you want to give the reader.


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Learning from other Authors

One of the best ideas I’ve picked up from articles online and from writer’s magazines is to study other people’s writing. You’ve heard it before, but we can learn from the classics and from the New York Times Best Sellers. Most of you probably won’t want to mark up your fiction books. The answer is to purchase paperbacks at thrift stores or garage sales. Use them to analyze the writing. You can make notes in the margins and circle or underline. My favorite is a combination of notes in margins and color coding what I mark. If it sounds daunting to do that through a whole novel, then do it with the first chapter and select a few others that include the last chapter.

When I’m reading one of my favorite authors, I get involved in the story. For any analysis, I have to go back and read it from a writer’s point of view. I keep in mind character development, what hooks me as a reader, how an author develops suspense, voice, point of view, and how to write plot elements. These will get you started, but there are more you’ll probably think about. I use a different colored pencil for each aspect I’m studying. Try it and I’d love to hear back from you what you think of the method or share how you learn writing skills from other fiction books.