The Five Elements Common to All Stories

July 26th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of telling stories. Simply for amusement or diversion, as the most cynical critics suggest? For education, as those in the ivory tower suggest? For enrichment of the soul, as the spiritually inclined might say?

I tried to break down the story into its most base elements. What are the ingredients that no story can possibly do without? Every time I tried to think of something that fit this description, I kept coming up with exceptions. Eventually the only things that remained were somewhat… metaphysical.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1. Change. We can argue about whether the classic Aristotelian concepts of storytelling (inciting action, rising action, climax, etc.) apply in every case. But in every story ever told, something happens. Characters move from place to place, characters grow in their understanding of something, characters fight and deal with conflict and come to decisions.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a story in which characters don’t change. Not every story has to end with our protagonist learning a Very Important Lesson, and it’s certainly possible for your protagonist to be the same stubborn, ignorant son-of-a-bitch in the story’s last sentence as he was in the first. But something has to happen in the interim, or it’s simply not a story — it’s a description.

2. Causality. Not only does something happen in every story ever written, but the cause-and-effect principle has to be present as well. If event B follows event A and there is absolutely no causal link between them — even a thematic one — then you haven’t written a story, you’ve written a series of descriptions.

Keep in mind that cause is a different thing than reason. A bolt of energy from the QX-5 dimension may strike your character dead for no apparent reason, but there is a cause-and-effect principle at work here.

3. Viewpoint. We are incapable of completely comprehending the universe in all its infinite complexity. Douglas Adams reminds us of this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with a torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex, which shows you the entirety of the universe with a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot marked “You Are Here.”

Every story ever told stakes out its own microscopic dot in the Total Perspective Vortex. For every word you write, there are several hundred thousand words you didn’t write. For every action you choose to describe, there are an infinite number of actions you didn’t describe. You as author are actively choosing to focus on this particular time and place.

4. Audience. There is an implied audience to every story, otherwise there would be no reason to use the medium of language to communicate it. Language by its very definition implies that there’s a listener. Beings with perfect mental telepathy wouldn’t need to tell stories.

So who is your audience? Is it the teenage MySpace crowd? Is it the Western SFF audience that grew up with Heinlein and Asimov? Is it the entirety of humanity? You don’t necessarily need to have a nice, neat spreadsheet of every person you’re trying to reach (although wouldn’t that make marketing so much easier?), but if you have at least a general idea, that helps.

Note that even if the intended audience for your story is just yourself, the author, you’ve still got an audience. You’re still filtering your thoughts through the medium of words and sentences. Otherwise, you’d simply be sitting and thinking to yourself.

5. The Human Experience. I suspect this point may prove controversial, but I’m going to state it anyway. The very act of telling a story is the act of filtering the universe into human terms. You can’t write a story that’s completely divorced from the human perspective. Your story might be a very distant satellite floating in a very distant orbit, but ultimately it’s still tethered to humanity.

Why? Because you’re using the medium of language, which (with a few exceptions) is inimical intrinsic to humans. You’re expressing the concepts of change, audience, and viewpoint, which plants and animals don’t understand.

And so, I would argue, every story ever written has the common elements of human experience as part of its backdrop: birth, growth, communication, longing, death.

So what have I missed?

28 Responses to “The Five Elements Common to All Stories”

  1. Constance Ashon 26 Jul 2006 at 2:12 pm

    You’re back from the con!

    An example of storytelling where the characters don’t change, are Wodehouse’s Jeeves tales.

    A lot of serials leave the principals exactly where they began, and the secondaries — i.e. the generators of the action in the first place, as in the Miss Marple mysteries — unchanged much of the time as well, just caught.

    Much sf, for instance, the characters are hardly characters at all — they are board counters moved about to provide info dumps about The Idea. Asimov in particularly, expressed quite contemptuous attitude regarding the importance of character.

    A really powerful generic example of a character remaining the same at the conclusion of the tale as at the start, is John Waynes’ in The Searcher. Ford used this to very great effect to tell us something about other changes. At the conclusion, when the reunification of family/community is in place, the final shots are from ‘inside’ to ‘outside’, to Wayne’s character, standing in shadow, on the other side of the threshold, when all others are inside, together, reunited, due to the efforts of this sociopath.

    Very powerful stuff.

    Love, C.

  2. Carl Caputoon 26 Jul 2006 at 5:39 pm

    A nit I’m picking: Language isn’t inimical to humans; it’s more likely intrinsic or instinctual or something.

    For the rest, it’s deeper than a copy-editing suggestion, so I’ll have to think a little more before I can say anything substantive.

  3. David Louis Edelmanon 26 Jul 2006 at 5:50 pm

    Quite right, quite right, Carl! I’ve fixed this. I think intrinsic was the word I was reaching for, but my brain grabbed the other one.

    Constance: I’m not sure if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with my point about change. Take three hypotheticals:

    1. “He was sitting.”
    2. “He was sitting. Then he stood up.”
    3. “He was sitting. Then he stood up. Then he sat down again.”

    #1 isn’t a story, because there’s no change. #2 and #3 both involve change, even if one of them ends up in precisely the same place it began.

  4. Constance Ashon 26 Jul 2006 at 9:20 pm

    Well, I wasn’t doing either, re storytelling. I was speaking to your statement that for the sake of making a story, a character must change, but then you thought maybe that wasn’t actually necessary in all cases.

    John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS is a character that does not change in the course a long series of events, some of which he is instrumental as the cause. He’s among other characters, whose relationship to him do not change either. They need him for his sociopathologies, and he performs what is needed, but they still cannot allow him into the community because he is what he is. He himself, does not change. He is not ‘redeemed.’

    “Sitting, standing, sitting again,” — isn’t that more of a description than a story?  Or perhaps that’s the plot, the reduction.  A story is what he does or thinks while sitting (a hospital waiting room going over all the the medical tests he’s been going through for days).  Who (his team of doctors) came into the room that got him to stand up .  What that person(s) said to make him fall back into his chair again and know that he’d never get out of that chair alive (diagnosis of a poison that was killing him right this minute).

    Love, C.

  5. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jul 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I think you only missed out Point–but then I don’t want to tread, no, fumble into structuralism or narratology. Not that I don’t think those subjects interesting. I do. But it’s so blasted hot I just can’t think clearly, and so all the subtleties about story vs. discourse, narrative intents of seduction vs. alienation, etc, etc, are floating round my sweaty head like fireflies that I can see but can’t quite catch.

    Good subject, though, I hope better thinkers than I step up to the plate and take a swing.

  6. Kate Elliotton 27 Jul 2006 at 5:22 am

    But even if John Wayne doesn’t change, the question is whether people around him do. Isn’t it?

    I would put the Human Experience first, because I think everything else is subsumed under it. When we tell stories we are talking about ourselves, as humans.

  7. Erin Underwoodon 27 Jul 2006 at 6:38 am

    Kate, I agree that the Human Experience should be put first and that everything else should be subsumed beneath it.

    The art of storytelling began as a verbal tradition that preserved histories of people and imparted knowledge from generation to generation. I believe that story is primarily about relating human experience to others in a way that helps us to understand our place in the universe. Although the storytelling tradition has expanded in the number of forms that it can take, the underlying principal of relating human experience(s) to others has always remained.

    I hadn’t given much thought to this particular movie in a long time, but Constance’s reference to it has got me thinking. In The Searcher, John Wayne’s character seems to be the agent that affects change, although he himself doesn’t change. Would that make this movie really a story about the reunification of the family/community? Or is the movie about the poignant emotions associated with living life on the outside of the group? Does John Wayne’s character really need to change for us to understand his story and what it’s like living life on the edge of society?

  8. Constance Ashon 27 Jul 2006 at 11:40 am

    Sherwood — You really must be heat blasted, for I could not understand a thing in that post of yours!.

    May it cool off soon!

    I think that is one of the possibilities in ‘reading’ The Searchers, and an important one — that in certain circumstances a community / family, in order to survive must call upon the assistance of the outsiders, even, sometimes: slaves, women, killers. Which in a way says that everyone has a role to play — like Gollum, famously.

    Shane too understood that after providing the service he was capable of providing, had to ride off into the sunset.

    This is a character and story that is truly beloved by Americans, it seems.

    Love, C.

  9. Erin Underwoodon 27 Jul 2006 at 1:19 pm

    This is a character and story that is truly beloved by Americans, it seems.

    Do you think that part of the reason for this response is because the viewer/reader experiences the change, not the main character? If so, would it be safe to say that if the viewer/reader experiences a change, even if the character does not, it is a story and not a description?

  10. Constance Ashon 27 Jul 2006 at 2:32 pm

    This is a character and story that is truly beloved by Americans, it seems.

    Do you think that part of the reason for this response is because the viewer/reader experiences the change, not the main character?

    I apologize for not being clear. What I was referring to in the “beloved by Americans,” is the Romance of the Outsider / Outlaw / Loner, the cowboy who rides off into the sunset once the tale (action) is concluded.

    That seems to be part of our dna as part of this country. The rugged individualist, yanno? You find it in our earliest literature — James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in the Leatherstocking Tales. This character is related to the Competent Man, so beloved in Science Fiction, for example, as well as in the Western and other sorts of genre fiction, especially detective fiction, like James Lee Burke’s Detective Dave Robicheaux. A lot happens to this kind of figure, and this kind of principal also does a great deal, but other than perhaps, as in the case of Robicheaux, getting older, their essential character remains the same.

    As far as

    the viewer/reader experiences a change, even if the character does not, it is a story and not a description?

    well, this reader, at least, would think so!

    This sort of character is fundamental to most series, whether on the page or on the screen. We, the audience, want and expect the comfort of the principal remaining the same, though the context (the story) changes.

    But that’s the series that isn’t an an arc series. Kit’s Deverry, for instance, is an arc series, as are Kate’s series. Characters do a great deal, a great deal happens to them, but they, generally are affected by what happens to them and what they do.

    Love, C.

  11. David Louis Edelmanon 27 Jul 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Sherwood: I’d be curious to know what the definition of Point is.

    Kate and Erin: Yes, I suppose the Human Experience does sort of trump the rest. I feel like there’s a larger point I was reaching for with that one, but it’s still slipping just out of reach. Here’s something of an inside baseball follow-up question: could a theoretical sentient alien capable of numbers 1 through 4 still tell stories as we define them?

    Constance: Can you believe that I’ve never seen The Searchers? (hangs head in shame)

    And as for the question of whether it’s a story if it causes change in the viewer… I don’t think so. Photos and paintings can cause profound change in the viewer, but they’re not stories. (Not usually.)

    FWIW, I was conceiving of “change” in a much more abstract sense. As far as I’m concerned, any change will do to make it a story. Time passing. Walking from one place to another. Growing older. Note that this isn’t a recipe for an especially good story, just the bare minimum to meet the definition.

  12. Richard Joseph McKenzieon 27 Jul 2006 at 8:07 pm

    The John Wayne/Searchers character seems to be, based on the description, a catalyst (I have not seen the film). Perhaps J. Wayne is meant to be a cinematic mirror, an alternate viewpoint, reflecting and showing the changes that happen to regular people due to his actions.
    Questions of means vs. ends are separated into distinct characters.

  13. Constance Ashon 27 Jul 2006 at 9:13 pm

    Well, Wayne-Ethan Edwards is the catalyst in the sense that without him the girl, Debbie, captured by the Commanch (sic), would never have been found. He’s also a mirror that reflect the attitudes of the times about Native Americans (1868 + 10 more years, that is the time-period of the film — unusual in movies) and about women and about women and sexual ‘spoilage.’ He’s a racist, the extreme sort of racist — that a ‘white’ woman, with any sort of sexual connection to an Indian, whether or not against her will — is so spoiled and ruined she should be killed. “Put out of her misery,” he says at one point.

    He changes in a sense, that, unlike the novel on which the film is based, he doesn’t in the end kill her — but he hasn’t changed fundamentally — he scalps and murders without shame and with utter brutality. And the real rescue of Debbie is actually accomplished by another man — who has some Cherokee blood in him — who Wayne-Ethan sneers at for that for most of the movie. Martin cannot be ‘family” (for Ford films are almost always about family and community) because of it. That changes too. But the change is really that Ethan cannot be ‘family’ for he’s too brutal.

    This is really an epic, of course, with some of the most wonderful cinematography ever.

    Love, C.

  14. [...] 3 – The Five Elements Common to All Stories David Louis Edelman strikes again. Good food for thought, especially for a wannabe story-writer like myself. (tags: advice discussion structure elements stories literature writing) [...]

  15. A.R.Yngveon 28 Jul 2006 at 10:23 am

    I strongly recommend you see the movie THE MISSING(http://imdb.com/title/tt0338188/) from 2003.

    Underrated at its premiere, it is clearly both a “remake” of THE SEARCHERS and a “comment” on it.

    I suspect that THE MISSING got an unfair reception because it didn’t fit the familiar stereotypes of Western films (old OR new ones), and wasn’t sufficiently “patriotic” in the post-9/11 climate.

  16. Constance Ashon 28 Jul 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you for recommending the The Missing.

    At this time I’m kinda looking mostly at what I call “progrenitor” genre works because that’s part of my personal definition of Deep Genre, which is, as you have noticed, not necessarily what others here think of as Deep Genre (which is o.k.!).

    The thing about Ford, and The Searchers, and other of his films, is that his partner (on The Searchers he was Associate Producer) is Meriam C. Cooper, he who created — cue trumpets — Kong.

    This is part of an essay I’m trying to work up!

    Love C.

  17. Sherwood Smithon 29 Jul 2006 at 2:47 pm

    David: I don’t want to get into all the arguments of narratology, though your five elements immediately brought that particular branch of study to mind. But for point what I mean is that a story, a narrative, even a discourse, has to be about something. It can also be called the thing that relates the storyteller and the audience in an act of communication.

    Hope that’s a tad clearer.

  18. Katharine Kerron 29 Jul 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Constance, I agree that the “Outsider/Loner” theme is very important in American culture — have you read Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER, in fact, a monograph on just that which is probably o.p.

    The Big Joke about a stellar example of same in Hollywood film was “Shane, come back, Shane! Mommy’s pregnant.”

  19. Molly Newmanon 29 Jul 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Sherwood, would you say then that “point” relates to “theme?” (just read a great column about “theme” by Steven Grant at comicbookresources.com and so it’s heavy on my mind.)

  20. Sherwood Smithon 29 Jul 2006 at 10:22 pm

    That’s an interesting article, Molly, thanks for the link. I think theme is too limited: he says, rightly, “What do you want the story to say?” but what the author wants it to say is not necessarily what it says to the readers now–or the readers in ten years–or in a hundred. I like ‘point’ better because it’s broad, it stays between the creator and the reader, whereas theme, at least as stated here (and elsewhere) is something the writer is endeavoring to impose.

  21. Molly Newmanon 30 Jul 2006 at 12:30 am

    Mmmm, you have a “point,” Sherwood. I like your broadened definition.

  22. Constance Ashon 30 Jul 2006 at 12:49 pm

    Kit, I did read Wilson’s The Outsider back when I was an undergrad. Since it seemed, as I grew more experienced in the great big side world that there were so many of Wilson’s very personal issues, including fantasy wishs fulfillment in Wilson’s perspective on the outsider as to devalue the book as a whole for me, and it has dropped out of my references entirely. That ex-monster, er h/u/s/b/a/n/d swore by that book and some others no doubt had something to do with that.

    Did you ever read his very silly sex books, such as The Origins of the Sexual Impulse? These can really be barf-inducing, especially the risible writing itself.

    Love, C.

  23. Constance Ashon 30 Jul 2006 at 12:57 pm

    When it comes to theme, much of the time that emerges unconsciously.

    Conscious, intentional writing’to theme’ tends not to work, at least in print fiction. It is the unconscious that develops that, with the emblems, symbols, repetitions, image clusters that enforce the theme (and characters too, often). Personally I cannot see how anyone could do that intentionally as a first draft, at least.

    When you have the entire map of the work laid out in front of your eyes, and you go over it from beginning to end to begin the revising, rewriting, and so on, you — at least I am — are so surprised to see what is there. Then you can punch it up or delete it or whatever seems best to you in the rewriting and editing processes.

    It seems theme can work on an intentional level very successfully though, in an arc television program, for instance.

    That Ford continues throughout his career to make movies that have a theme of family and community is not what he did consciously, from everything those who knew him say, yet the concerns of family and community worked very powerfully within him, and those concerns emerged again and again in the movies he directed.

    Love, C.

  24. David Louis Edelmanon 30 Jul 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Sherwood: I really like that point about point. I wonder if it’s implied by audience, though. In other words, if there’s always a storyteller and always an audience, then by necessity there’s some relationship between them. But then again, as others have pointed out, everything could be considered a subset of The Human Experience anyway. It’s probably just a question of semantics.

  25. Sherwood Smithon 30 Jul 2006 at 2:37 pm

    Molly: hey! I felt that! *g*

    David: you’re probably right…though i tend to think of audience at one end of the spectrum, and writer at the other, and point in the middle–but then we can change all the terms around and reinterpret them as you say.

    The Human Experience really is the number one.

  26. Erin Underwoodon 31 Jul 2006 at 5:01 pm

    David: Where does Point of View fit into the 5 elements that you’ve listed? A few of the elements touch on POV and some of the comments also loosely address POV. However, it seems like the choice that the narrator makes in how to tell the story has a dramatic impact on the story itself. For example, the same story told in either first or third person would be vastly different than a story told in second person. How do you think POV fits into the 5 elements?

  27. David Louis Edelmanon 31 Jul 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Erin: I think maybe Point of View is encompassed in my #3, Viewpoint. After all, your choice of POV is really just one more filter you put on the universe, not too much different in a way from the filter of time and place, right?

    Kind of funny that I called it Viewpoint without really thinking about the relation to POV.

  28. [...] Posted in Storytelling, Fantasy, Science Fiction at 12:25 pm By David Louis Edelman Related Posts: The Five Elements Common to All Stories | Why Are We Here? | View 2: “Deep Genre” & “Genre” |  [...]

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