Stories of all lengths, formats, and in all types of media have three core areas that make them up:
The setting is the place and time in which a story takes place. It can be explained explicitly, or it can be inferred by context, but all stories take place in a where and a when. Even a fantastical story about a man trapped in oblivion has a place and a time.
The characters are the sapient or sentient beings (to be very broad) that act out the story. Most often, characters are people, but they could be animals (anthropomorphic or not), aliens, gods, or even objects if those objects are capable of acting. The characters live in the setting and arise from the setting, and their actions are what create the plot.
The plot is the event sequence of the story. Sometimes called the narrative (though I view that word as encompassing the whole story), it’s what transforms the author’s words from a list of things and people into something memorable and effective.
Things happen in a story, and they happen to characters and are done by characters, and those characters exist in a certain time and place.
For example, let’s take a very short story:
Bill went to the grocery store.
Yes, even a single sentence can be a story. It has all the elements we need to understand what has been done and by who, and even where. While “grocery store” is not very specific, we can infer that the story is taking place in some modern, western place where grocery stores exist and that Bill lives in that modern place, and that’s enough context for something so small. Let’s expand it.
Bill went to the grocery store. As he pulled up to the curb, the familiar store robot came to life, its glowing azure eyes pointing vaguely in his direction.
“Welcome back, William,” it said as he stepped out of his car. Bill watched his car disappear into the garage and, for a moment, wondered where it went. “Can I help you?” the robot continued, gesturing at the door with its shiny, three-fingered hands.
“Yeah, maybe,” Bill said, not looking at the automaton’s glowing uncanny human-like irises the way everyone else did.
With a few more sentences and some dialogue, we get a much bigger view of our three elements. We know the setting is futuristic because of the robot and the self-driving car, so perhaps this is a science fiction story. The robot also talks, so even though it is an object, it, too, can be considered a character. We also glean that Bill goes to this store regularly because the robot welcomed him back.
All of this is part of the exposition, which will receive more elaboration later, in which the author gives the reader information that is necessary to understand the context of the story. Information about the setting, characters, and story conflict is presented during the exposition. In the above example, we don’t get much in the way of a conflict or what I call a plot goal, but we do have a simple event sequence, and we are treated to some setting elements and a bit of characterization through the detail of Bill refusing to make eye contact with the robot.
Let’s continue and add even more plot:
“Any meat?” said Bill, sniffing at the heavy, black cloud overhead.
“We have just received a shipment of Tarsala’s Carne from—”
“So, just bugs.”
The robot clicked for a second, as if considering his statement, then said, “Tarsala’s Carne is made from a variety of sources, including insects of the—”
“I’ll just have a look around,” Bill interrupted.
“Meat replacement is good for the environment, and eight out of ten—”
The sound faded as Bill hurried inside, and the glass doors shut behind him. The stench of the store hit him like a wave, though nobody else seemed to notice it. Maybe they were all used to it or used to the smell of the bio cloud that smothered the city each day, which was perhaps even worse. This was the only food store within a reasonable drive, so there was nothing for it.
As he went through the sparsely stocked isles, throwing what packaged food he thought most edible into his cart, he began to feel a growing unease that was more than the discomfort of sorting through piles of plastic-wrapped bug cakes.
When the sense of dread had finally got to him, and he was ready to abandon his meager vittles and retrieve his car, he heard the sound of treads and knew it was too late.
The cold barrel of a gun pressed against his temple just as two robotic enforcers rolled into the frozen food aisle, their cold voices buzzing.
“William Blanding?” The voice was the heavy voice of a human, and Bill could just feel his hot breath on the back of his neck. “You are accused of conspiracy against the state. You have already been tried.”
All of Bill’s goals in the city flashed through his mind but were quickly replaced with a fleeting plan for escape. He knew his death was imminent.
With more exposition comes more of those essential building blocks. We gain a keener insight into Bill, our would-be hero, and we glean more information about the world. The story isn’t just set in the future; it is set in a polluted dystopian future where people eat cheap, gross food, and the store is still mostly empty. We get more plot in the form of more events, but the most important event is the sudden appearance of enforcers. Here is where we get the first taste of the overall conflict of the story—the problem the protagonist (hero) is trying to solve.
There is something big at stake, and the hero is already acting against the evil of the world, of which we have had a small taste. How will he get out of the deathly situation and continue his mission against tyranny?
I like to think of setting, characters, and plot as a kind of pyramid, where each thing is built on and depends on what is below it:
The setting determines what the characters are like, their attitudes, and their assumptions about the world. If you were writing a samurai novel, you wouldn’t include a character with libertarian political ideals as nobody in feudal Japan would have coherent thoughts about 19th and 20th-century philosophies.
The plot is dependent upon the capacities of the characters as well as the possibilities the setting makes available. A story that takes place in medieval Europe will necessarily have a different plot than the dystopian sci-fi example, even if both stories are about fighting tyranny. The setting includes the “rules of the game,” and the characters must act within those rules as well as within the personal capacities determined by that setting.
If we use Harry Potter as an example, the setting is a fantasy setting with magic and many characters capable of performing magic. This expands the possibilities for plot, but at the same time, J.K. Rowling uses characters that are children and thus have limited knowledge of how magic works in the world. They can’t simply magic themselves to their goals; they have to work with what they already know or do some growing to achieve what they want. The choice of characters has a big impact on the plot.
This, by the way, is part of why I think the Fantastic Beasts movies fall flat: they are about adults. This makes the magic in the setting seem too fluid. The rules of the game become uncertain, and thus the subtle game of getting the audience to mispredict future plot events falters.
News stories (which are stories) also include these elements. Who (characters), what (plot), when (setting), where (setting), and why (characters). Even in non-fiction, we communicate by telling stories and by telling them in certain ways.
Whenever I pontificate on things like this, I will get a few people who ask something along the lines of, “Can I make a story with no setting or no characters?” This was a common starting place for creative ideas in the post-modern periods, similar to “Can I make music without notes?” (when it comes to post-modern music, chances are that John Cage already did it), or “Can I make a movie without images?” (also already done).
The answer is you can certainly try, but the real question is why you want to write a story with no setting details and who you think is going to enjoy it. Chances are somebody will enjoy the creative exercise, but don’t be surprised if your book of tag-less dialogue with no prose (this has already been done, by the way) isn’t a best seller. Stories since time immemorial have had these three essential elements for good reason.
If you want to take your creative process to the next level (or establish one that works), consider buying my creativity book:
You can also check out some of my fiction:
Stuie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful non-fiction book on storytelling…
It actually is – get it here free first.
Personally, I think I’d actually put “characters” above “setting.” I know, you’re not really going to have a story without setting. . . but then, you’re not going to have one without characters of some sort either. I would far prefer to read a 200-word paragraph about a character than a place.
I’m developing an idea recently about how, if you want your story to feel like it has a lot “going on”—and I’m now realizing that American TV series, Japanese cartoons, and urban fantasy books like the Dresden Files, all do this with fantastic skill—is that you start with a character who already has stuff going on in his life, especially things that are related to the conflict that is going to occur.
Then, when the conflict occurs, instead of the audience thinking, “Oh, huh, I see something is going on,” they think, “Oh, no, this is exactly what he was worried about/what he didn’t want to happen/this is going to completely mess with his plans/oh, snap, they don’t know he’s a secret agent!”
If the audience cannot relate to the conflict to anything, if the main character has no bias already developed from the beginning; if the main character’s reaction to things amounts to “Well, how would you react?” then that’s BORING, no matter how conceptually fascinating and wild the plot elements are.
Your example above is CONCEPTUALLY perfect. I like every idea you presented. . . but I wasn’t invested. I know you weren’t trying to make it great or anything, it was probably something you thought of off the top of your head, so this isn’t a questioning of your writing skills, but I think it’s important to understand that despite how every single element of your example was good, if it were intended to be a serious piece it would have failed.
I’ve got a guy, I’ve got robots, I’ve got a gun to the head, we’ve got references to current political agendas, and yet I’m over here yawning as the gun is pointed to the guy’s head: “Gee, is anything going to happen in this story?”
It’s because the one thing that isn’t there is characterization.
I’ve seen stories that have you hooked within the first two sentences, and they do this by having strong characterization, both in the narration itself (which is primal, in my opinion) and in the characters, and characterization is more than just the personality of the character, it’s also the context of his life at the time.
For instance, in my real life right now, my girlfriend is coming to visit in 3 weeks from Commiefornia, I’ve got a hole in a cylinder in my car’s engine so I can’t get an inspection sticker, my bank account is the lowest it’s been in over a year, and I’ve gotta drive all the way to the New Orleans airport. If I don’t get my engine fixed within three weeks, I am liable to get flagged by a police and ticketed for money I don’t have, but I’m EXTREMELY averse to actually going out and searching for a mechanic to fix my car. The closer the visiting date gets, a day that should be a very happy one, the more anxious I become.
Alright, NOW I get embroiled in a plot with my best friend, who needs me to help him out by giving him a ride and giving him $1,000.
Now we have a plot that the audience cares about, because my situation in life makes the plot with my friend a HUGE inconvenience, never mind the absurdity of the situation itself. I now have a lot of feelings about this situation beyond the simple fact of the situation’s strangeness.
That is the “secret sauce” I think a lot of people, especially newbies (and me, who has been writing for 6+ years and only just truly has begun to understand this) just don’t get.