8 Common Elements in Stories
Whether you are reading aloud from a picture book, performing a story with gestures and multiple voices, or assigning children roles to play, stories shared in a classroom typically follow a classic structure that includes the following 8 key elements:
Characters – generally people or animals
Locations - scenes, places, and time
Plot – series of actions or narrative story line with consequences
Conflict – problems, challenges, or obstacle that must be resolved
Decisions – characters must decide to act
Plot Resolution - outcomes or consequences based on actions
Point of View – typically told from either 1st person or 3rd person
Theme – what the message of the story is about
Most characters in children’s stories are animals or people, while the characters in scary stories might include spirits, ghosts, or monsters. Characters are introduced through their actions in the story. Typically, a story includes the protagonist, or the main character who moves the story forward based on his or her actions. The antagonist is often a villain who provides the challenge or conflict with the main character. The antagonist’s actions generally contrast with the protagonist and help differentiate the decisions and actions of the main character.
It’s important to keep in mind that when children care about or relate to the protagonist, they are more likely to care about the outcome of the story. When kids make an emotional connection to a character, they internalize the story, making it more meaningful. Children who are more emotionally engaged with a character, are more likely to remember key details about the story.
2. Location & Time
Every story needs a location for the characters to act in a specific place and time. For example, a story may take place in an ancient kingdom, an imaginary place that never existed, a historic, relatively recent time, a contemporary venue, or even a place in a future. Another significant element is the time of day and season of the year. The location details of place and time help determine the actions of the characters.
Story locations could be urban, rural, village, farmland, woods, mountains, rain forest, desert, ocean, plains, valleys, etc. The choice of location will also evoke certain emotions (like fear, excitement, loneliness, pride, etc.). These location details give greater meaning to the context of the actions in the plotline.
Plot is the action or a series of actions that move the narrative story line forward. A plot is the organized sequence of events that tell the story through the actions of the protagonist, or main character. The antagonist or villain generally opposes the main character by creating obstacles and challenges that force the protagonist to make decisions. The decisions and follow up actions taken by the main character will either resolve a problem or take the challenge to the next level of difficulty in the storyline. This series of actions and decisions to solve a problem create the narrative story. It’s important to keep in mind that children tend to stay more engaged with the story when the character’s actions are plausible and make sense.
A plot needs conflict, a challenge or problem that the main character must resolve through his or her actions. The conflict may be a challenge between a trickster and powerful adversaries who stand in the way of the hero getting home. The conflict could be a simple misunderstanding or a challenge between two friends who can’t agree on a solution. In other stories, the conflict could be a battle between two mortal enemies. Resolving the conflict or solving the problem (or series of challenges) forms the sequence of actions for the plot. Without a conflict there is no tension in the story. If there is no suspense about resolving the conflict, then kids won’t remain interested in the action or invested in how the outcome is resolved.
To resolve the conflict, the protagonist must make positive or well-informed decisions that lead to positive outcomes. If the protagonist makes poor decisions, or acts impulsively, then the conflict escalates, and the challenges become more difficult. Sometimes the antagonist contributes to the difficulty for the protagonist making a positive or well-informed decision. The character’s decisions lead to actions with consequences and the sequencing of the plot.
It’s important to emphasize the role that decision making contributes to a learning environment. This decision-making aspect of stories combined with the consequences of decisions, provide a significant role model for kids that they can internalize in their lives outside of the classroom.
6. Plot Resolutions
In a classroom, storytelling can be used to teach valuable life lessons as characters learn from their mistakes. When the protagonist makes well-informed decisions and takes responsible actions to resolve a conflict, they enjoy positive consequences that lead to resolving the conflict and the story is completed. The converse is also true, when characters make poor decisions and take actions that are ill-informed, or impulsive, they suffer consequences that lead to unwanted or negative outcomes. In this case, the plot is extended, or the story ends with a negative outcome. How the protagonist resolves the conflict or fails to resolve the central conflict determines how the plot is resolved, positively or negatively.
7. Point of View
Finally, stories are told from a distinct point of view that is independent of the place or time of the story. Although stories told in 3rd person are typically about events that have already happened, stories told from a 1st person point of view could also apply to a series of events that have already occurred. The teller’s point of view is definitely related to and interdependent with the other elements of the story.
There are three different points of view: 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person. Almost all stories are told from a 3rd person or a 1st person point of view. A story told in 1st person means that the teller or author is telling the story from their personal perspective. Pronouns like I, me, or we will frequently be used throughout the story. In 1st person point of view, the teller speaks from a unique, personal experience and is an active participant in the action or plot. The personal experience in this first-person point of view, can make the story more intense and sometimes more subjective. A 1st person point of view may have more limited information or a unique perspective about the range of actions, compared to a 3rd person telling of a story.
A story told from a 3rd person point of view is told from an observer’s point of view who is not actively or personally involved in the plotline of the story. Pronouns like he, she, they, or them are common. Sometimes this point of view has an all-knowing perspective, and the story is told from a historical perspective with a lot of contextual information. In other words, the events of the story have already taken place and the 3rd party point of view is a retelling of a story. Myths or epic tales about a hero are typically told from the 3rd person point of view. When a story is told from the 3rd person point of view, it may appear more objective and less passionate, but this is not necessarily the case.
The theme of a story is the underlying message or universal concept that is behind the story. The theme is what the story is really about, so it defines every aspect of the story. Every element of the story depends on the theme from the nature of the characters (their personalities and motivation), to how the plot sequence is organized, to the specific details of a scene, etc. A well-crafted story doesn’t just happen, it is the product of many retellings and revisions to make sure that the elements unify the story by reinforcing and clarifying the underlying theme. If the story elements distract from the theme, then the story is probably too complex or sophisticated for kids and may lead to confusion. The theme of a story is typically unsaid, it is left to the individual to determine what the story is about and what it means.
There is a wide range of opinions about story elements and the importance of the contributions made by any one element. In general, most of the stories told in a classroom setting will include most of these 8 interdependent elements, although they may be defined differently or combined with different headings.