What are the Elements of a Story?

It’s elementary, my dear Watson!

So, what are the elements of a story? Think about a story you loved. It can be a short piece of fiction or a whole novel. What comes to mind first? Probably the characters or what happened to them. Think a little longer. Other parts of that fictional world will come to mind. Where the story took place, maybe. When it took place. The difficulties the characters faced. All of these different aspects of the story come together to shape the fictional world in your mind as you read. These are the “story elements.”

What are story elements?

Think of story elements like the building materials that go into constructing a house. If you’ve ever driven by a building site, then you’ve seen the piles of materials near by: boards, piping, shingles. They’re just heaps of raw materials at first, but a talented craftsman – the carpenter – takes all of these, shapes them to fit the unique needs of this specific project, and then uses them to create a solid, useful structure.

The same is true when an author creates a story. All stories – from the simplest picture book up to a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – start with the same basic building blocks. The author takes the basic story elements that all stories must have, makes them unique and then uses them as scaffolding to hold up the story she’s trying to tell.

Why does it matter?

Children are often well aware of the characters in their favorite books and the events that happened to them. But, to really understand a story, with all its nuances and depth, we need to look deeper. Just as the many different parts of that house our carpenter is building add dimension and even beauty, the elements of a story add dimension, as well. Story elements let us feel what our favorite characters are going through, help us understand why those characters make the choices they do, and allow us to enter the story world, pulling us into its unique place and time.

The six basic story elements

Some lists of story elements only include five of these, other lists have seven or eight, but the following story elements are the most fundamental.

  • Characters – Characters are the main players in any story. They can be people, of course, but also animals, spirits, even trees – think Lord of the Rings. Any actor in the story who has thoughts and motivation and takes actions is a character.
  • Setting – This is simply where the story takes place, both physically and in time. Some stories have a single setting: a room or a city or outer space. Others move from one setting to another as the characters move through time and space.
  • Plot – The plot of a story is simply the events that take place. They don’t always take place in order, and sometimes we see them from different points of view, but they are the events the characters live through and take part in, driving them – and the story – to its conclusion.
  • Conflict – In a story, conflict is the struggle that goes on between opposing forces. Conflict can be external: Lucy pulling that football away from Charlie Brown.  Conflict can be internal: Charlie Brown trying to decide if he really wants to trust Lucy this time. But either way, it’s the conflict that makes the story interesting. Think about it. Just how interesting would it be if Lucy just held that ball still and Charlie successfully kicked it every time?
  • Resolution – The resolution of a story is more than just its ending. It’s the tying up of all the loose ends we followed as we read along. The treasure is found. The friends reunite. The lost dog comes home. A satisfying resolution is the reward we get for reading a story through to the end.
  • Theme – The theme of a story is a little harder for younger kids to understand simply because it is more abstract. The theme of a story is the main idea the author is trying to get across. It’s the basic “truth” the story is designed to illustrate.

Activities for teaching

Understanding what story elements are, and how to spot them, can help your child get more out of the stories she reads. Here are a few simple activities to help her identify the story elements in some of her favorite books.

  • Build a story framework – Using the carpenter analogy from this post, explain to your child that she’s going to build a house from what she knows about the story she just read. Give her construction paper and let her cut out building materials for the house, like flooring, windows and walls. As she builds the house, have her label the story elements. The floor can represent the theme, for instance, the walls can represent the setting, the windows, the resolution. Once the house is complete, she can even cut out the main characters and place them inside.
  • Become an investigative reporter – Every reporter knows the five W’s of good reporting: who, what, where, when and why. Let your child put on a journalist’s hat and “investigate” a story she’s just read, answering the questions the five W’s ask. Once she’s done that, show her how they translate into story elements. Who did it? The characters, of course. What did they do? That’s the plot. Where and when did the story take place? You guessed it, setting. And why? That’s our conflict, because conflict is what drives the characters to make the choices they do.
  • Puzzle it out – Purchase – or make! – a blank puzzle with five or six large pieces. Label each piece with the story elements you plan to discuss, then explain to your child that like all good puzzles, the elements of a story fit neatly together to make a whole. Now have her write some details from a story she’s read on each piece. On the “character” piece, she can put the names of the main characters. On the “setting” piece, she can write a few words to describe where the story took place. Once she has written something on each piece, she can put the puzzle together, and you can emphasize how all of the pieces were needed. If even one were missing, the puzzle would not be complete.