Post #2: The 14 Elements of Story

“What are the essential elements of a good book?”

Two years ago, if I’d been asked that, I would have babbled the following example of rapier wit: “Uh, conflict? Characters? Oh, plot too! And a strong theme.” (I would’ve tacked on theme to sound extra knowledgeable and impressive.)

“And why are they essential? What do those terms mean? How do you create them? What makes them essential?”

To this, I would’ve responded by ripping up my notebook, throwing it into the air, then vanishing in a cloud of crappy writing.

I knew the terms. But I didn’t have a clue what they meant. I somehow believed that knowing them was enough. This is ludicrous to say, but it didn’t feel ludicrous. While reading a book or watching a movie, we instinctively know what’s good and what’s bad; consuming stories is as natural as breathing. So learning that we don’t understand why they work seems kind of strange. You don’t think about how breathing works, yet you’re doing it right now. Reading is like that.

Writing is more like creating something that can breathe on its own. Stories have an anatomy, like humans. Both have a list of essential parts, and a specific way those parts need to function. Take out one of the parts, or leave a part to work incorrectly, and it’s not going to operate at top capacity.
Like if I decided this guy didn’t need lungs.


Or thought his lungs would work better when filled with jellybeans:


You need to know the organs and functions of story, before you can successfully put one together and have it fulfill its purpose. But while anatomy is a perfect visual, it’s also pretty disgusting to think about. Here’s the visual I go with: The science of story breaks down into little boxes.


Picture these:

In fact, picture 14 of them.

Yes I know there are 36 here. When I think “lots of boxes” this pops in my head.

Okay, now imagine these words on the lids.

  • HERO

Some of these names are evident, some will only make sense when they’re explained. But these boxes are the essential elements of a good book. Inside these boxes are smaller boxes, which are too numerous to list. These act as your parts list.

Like a Lego.
Billy bookcase instructions
Or this thing from Ikea.

The best stories fill every single one, big and small. Once you know what goes in them, it’s surprisingly easy to create their contents.

So here’s the plan: I’ll go through, small box by small box, and explain what I’ve discovered about each. If anybody on the internet is interested, they can read it. Heck, if anyone has a little glimmer of an idea — one that might have story potential — you can start developing it alongside the posts. And we’ll see what happens.

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