All stories are composed of five basic elements: Characters, Setting, Conflict, Plot, and Theme. Even though Conflict, Characters, and Setting are story elements in their own right, they also appear in the Plot. Each of my Story Charts includes these five elements of literature.
The people in the story are known as the characters. The author reveals the personality of the characters by showing and telling what the characters are like. We can see their actions, hear their conversations, and sometimes we may even know what they are thinking.
The most important characters are:
- The Protagonist: The main character of the story. Frodo in Lord of the Rings is an example of this character. The Protagonist may be, but does not have to be, a hero. In fact, the Protagonist could be a criminal!
- The Antagonist: The person or force who opposes the Protagonist. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is an example of this character.
Other important characters often found in stories:
- The Loyal Supporter/Assistant: The person who helps the Protagonist. Sam in Lord of the Rings is an example of this character.
- The Henchman: The person who carries out the commands of the Antagonist. Gollum in Lord of the Rings is an example of this character.
- The Ideal: Often a lady (such as Lady Galadriel in Lord of the Rings), a monarch, or other powerful person for whom the Protagonist is consciously performing, even if the Ideal is not physically present in the story.
The setting describes all the details of where and when a story takes place. A setting can be a real time and place or an imaginary one.
- When: This may include the time of day, the month or season. It could be a historical period. Lord of the Rings is set at the end of a fantasy time period known as The Third Age, the last time period before the New Age [of Men].
- Where: Describes the location of a story. Geography may be mentioned, such as a forest or desert. In Lord of the Rings, the place is a fantasy world known as Middle Earth.
- Atmosphere: Describes the “feeling” of the story, such as a sense of mystery, foreboding, despair, or expectancy.
- Symbols: Sometimes stories include objects that stand for, or symbolize, an idea. The One Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings is such a symbol; it stands for evil and oppression.
The conflict is the main problem of the story, in which the main character(s) is obstructed from achieving his goal by some kind of opposing force. The energy of a story comes from the Conflict: the more significant, distressing, or dangerous a problem is, the more energy the story will have. The story moves forward and the tension of the story increases as the character(s) tries to solve the problem.
The main characters in stories always fight against some kind of opposing force. The conflict in any story can be classified as one or more of the following types:
- Man against man
- Man against society
- Man against himself
- Man against God or Fate
- Man against nature
The conflict can also be stated as a question: Will (Protagonist) be able to (accomplish the goal)?
The PLOT of a story is what happens in the story. It is the course that the story follows. The story follows an arc path. It moves from low energy, to a peak, and falls back down to low energy by the end of the story, much like the natural path that a projectile fired from cannon would take. Whether the story is a short children’s book or a novel hundreds of pages long, these stages will always be present: Exposition, Conflict & Rising Action, Climax, Denouement, and Conclusion.
- Plot Stage 1 – The Exposition: The Exposition is the introduction of a story. The author has created a world, and he invites the reader into his world through the Exposition. The Exposition is like the beginning of a play, where the curtains open and the audience sees the set and the actors in the play. In a book, of course, the “world” is created with words. In the Exposition, the reader is familiarized with the world of the story, such as who the characters are, and various details about where and when the story happens.
- Plot Stage 2 – The Conflict and Rising Action: Once the reader has entered the world of the story, the Protagonist runs into some sort of problem, which is the Conflict. As soon as the Conflict is introduced, the Rising Action begins, as the character begins to take action to try to solve the problem. The action and energy increase in intensity as the character(s) works to achieve the solution to the problem.
- Plot Stage 3 – The Climax: Finally the action reaches its highest point, called the Climax, where the characters will either succeed or fail in solving the problem. Either way, the Conflict is over and the story begins a downward movement.
- Plot Stage 4 – The Denouement: The events after the Climax are known as the Denouement, a French word which means “the unknotting.“ Once the outcome is decided, the tension or energy in the story starts to fall. In these closing scenes the author may explain mysteries or clear up misunderstandings between the characters.
- Plot Stage 5 – The Conclusion: In the Conclusion, the author may tell what happens after the story is finished, or he may explain, in some way, the meaning of the story. Here he brings a “finish” to the story. An effective author will bring the story in for a smooth and satisfying landing, rather than dropping the reader rudely on the runway. Also, a considerate author will not leave the reader hanging, wondering, “And then what happened?” at the end of a story! An effective conclusion makes that question unnecessary.
The theme of a story is the central idea or insight of the story. The theme shows what the author believes about human nature, relationships, life. As Thomas Arp says, “Good writers…write stories to bring alive some segment of human existence…Themes arise naturally out of what they have written.”
Finding the theme of a story can be challenging. One way of discovering the theme is to ask, “In what way has the main character changed, and what, if anything, has he learned before the end of the story?” Sometimes, the conflict and its outcome may point to the theme. The title may also give clues. A relatively small number of common themes run through the vast body of literature. Some examples are:
However, the aspect of the particular theme can vary widely. For instance, although the theme for both “The Little Mermaid” and “Christmas Day in the Morning” is The Nature of Love, the particular aspect of love shown in each story is different. In “The Little Mermaid,” the theme would be more fully stated as, “Real love desires the best for the one loved”, while the theme of “Christmas Day in the Morning” would be completely stated as, “Only love can waken love.”
Now you are ready to practice analyzing literature! Read one of the books listed on the Story Chart page. It is always best to start with one of the shorter or simpler books at first. After reading the book, study the parts of the story using the Story Chart!