A story has many elements. Depending on the complexity, a story can range from a single character to a hundred, or more. It can have the main plot or it can have several with plenty of side stories in-between. Yet, there are some elements that every story needs, five to be exact. A writer needs only to develop these five and they have a story!
Let’s talk about the core of a good plot!
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1. The Protagonist and Their Role
The first element that most writers start developing is the main character. People often inspire stories, which is why writers often picture some heroic figure or captivating expression that can inspire an idea. An idea that can be developed into a character, a character that can be the centre of the story.
The protagonist in most fiction is a mostly-competent person with a few flaws they need to overcome. The protagonist has a dream, a deep desire which propels them forward in the story.
Some protagonists are out to save someone they love, some are trying to make good money, and some are simply trying to survive the situation they find themselves in. The role they play is a simple one; they are the vessel for the reader to place themselves. The reader looks through their eyes, understands their emotions and silently cheers for them when a conflict of any kind arises.
The protagonist can come in many forms, be it a singular character that is the focus of the story, or many with various personalities for the reader to enjoy. Their roles in the story are also defined, but most importantly, their interactions with each other, direct or indirect, are presented well to the reader.
If your story has a protagonist and you have defined their role in the story well, then you have an important element sorted.
2. The Antagonist/The Obstacle
The antagonist can be a person, a creature, an intangible force, a mental or physical barrier, an emotional trauma, you name it.
Conflict is the foundation of any good story. The protagonist can only be a protagonist if there is an antagonist. There cannot be day without night, light without shadow. Your protagonist needs something to battle, to overcome. Without some kind of conflict, the story will not gain interest.
The most popular form of antagonist is tangible. It could be a terrible knight donned in menacing armour leading an army of monstrous creatures in a campaign to conquer peaceful lands. It could be an elusive killer who is always one step ahead. It can be a terrible force of evil that needs to be dispelled through the power of friendship if that’s the kind of story you want to tell.
On the other side of this spectrum, we have more realistic obstacles. It could be a character that struggles to achieve some task, such as opening a bakery or making it into a prestigious university. There are many things a person can desire that require overcoming some personal obstacle.
It could be the protagonist struggles with learning a new field, it could be they constantly battle a mental disorder. It could be a physical barrier they struggle to overcome, or perhaps they struggle to win the affection of someone they have a crush on.
These are more realistic obstacles because most of us have encountered them. We struggle every day to achieve something, which makes the story so captivating and enjoyable.
If you have your antagonist/obstacle, then you have another important element of your story sorted!
3. The Development of Skills/Power/Personality
While conflict is the foundation of any good story, the only way a protagonist can overcome the conflict is through development.
Your character could learn new skills. In that example of the bakery, the protagonist can learn fundamental business skills, baking skills and people skills. In the example of the protagonist facing a fearsome monster or army, the protagonist can gain more strength, be it through themselves or by creating an army of their own.
If a protagonist is trying to gain the affection of their crush, perhaps they learn to accept they can’t achieve their goal by forcing a fake personality. The protagonist develops by developing their personality and becoming a better version of themself.
Usually, this development will span most of the story. The protagonist will encounter many smaller conflicts, growing smarter, stronger or wiser. Perhaps they gain good friends who help them on their journey. As it is the bulk of the story, you will tell the story of these various events and demonstrate their effects in future chapters.
As a side note; I don’t want to do a bad job of conveying the importance of this element. Development should be considered whenever you introduce conflict. Throughout life, we learn small lessons that stick with us for the rest of our lives. We learn to not touch fire by burning ourselves when we naively bring our hand too close to the candle flame.
Some lessons take time to teach, and some lessons are difficult to learn, but ultimately, they need to be learnt before the results of one’s ignorance cost them greatly.
If you know your characters, who they are at the beginning and how they are different by the end and have plans to implement these changes in believable ways, then you have a very important element sorted.
4. A Final Conflict
A final conflict is when the culmination of all the protagonist's efforts is put to the final test. Usually, this final conflict is expected, being established early in the story or at least expected to happen, even though not said aloud.
The final conflict is when the protagonist faces their greatest antagonist, or their work is measured, or they overcome their final obstacle.
In novels with a physical antagonist, this is when the protagonist captures or defeats the antagonist. It could be in a medieval fight with swords and shields, a gunfight, bare hands or perhaps the protagonist outsmarts the antagonist, trapping them. Either way, the antagonist has been defeated and nobody has to fear them again.
In more realistic stories, this is when the efforts of the protagonist are finally tested. They overcome an important hurdle when it comes to their social anxiety, they run a successful restaurant, they gain the affection of their crush, you get the idea.
Note: It is common for writers to imagine the conclusion to the final conflict before any other aspect of their story. This is most likely due to the scene being an emotional high that inspires writers to create a story that leads up to it.
The final conflict is also important to the reader. A reader who is interested in the protagonist and their problems, who watches them develop over a series of chapters, is anxious to see if they finally overcome their major obstacle or if they succumb to it. It’s a question that needs to be answered, no matter what the answer is.
If you have a final conflict and its outcome planned out, that’s another important element of your story sorted!
5. The Ending
Many writers like to end their novels the moment the conflict ends. The moment the bad guy stops breathing, the moment they win a trophy, the moment the main plot has come to an end.
It’s a legitimate method for ending a novel, because it leaves a lot of expected scenes to transpire in the reader’s imagination. It also serves to keep the word count down to fit a specific market, it gives the writer more time to focus on the main plot rather than what comes after.
Of course, a writer can choose to talk about what comes after, explaining where the characters go from there or skipping forward in time to establish where their characters are now. It depends on how conclusive the writer wants the story to be. Usually, this is done when the characters are still in a situation where it needs to be explained how they got out of it.
The ending is an important element of your story as it can help establish for your reader the result of smaller conflicts, it can establish the emotions of the characters about where they are and it can also be used to hint at a future sequel. The ending is an opportunity to tie off loose ends and if the writer wishes, it can also be used to set up the next novel if they have an idea for the next novel in mind.
Taking the time to consider your ending, whether it be a final statement or an entire chapter, is an important part of writing any good story. If you have an ending planned out, then you have the final element of your story sorted!
I can only speak from experience and my experience with my students. A lot of beginner writers struggle with simplifying their story, which in turn makes it difficult for them to create a logical structure for their story.
You can have so many characters and elements in your story, but if it lacks structure, it’s like a person without bones; it can’t stand up on its own two feet.
Another important point to take from this post is that your story doesn’t need so many details and elements to make it interesting. If you can maintain these elements throughout, you can create a simple story that interests the reader. Like most professions, if you struggle with the basics, you will struggle to do everything else.
Of course, this is my interpretation of the elements that make up a good plot. You might have your own, and if you do, be sure to let me know what they are in the comments below. I am keen to hear what you think about when creating a story!
I hope you found this post useful and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!