Three basic elements expanded to seven essentials
The three basic elements of a short story is situation, plot and character. At the most basic level a short story gives an account of something, preferable something interesting, exciting or horrible, that happens. This is the situation. This situation plays itself out in time and is told with a beginning middle and end. This is the plot. And what happens in the situation happens to somebody. This is thecharacter.
The elements of a short story can be seen as the building blocks from which the story 'house' is constructed. Though the three basic elements are enough to make a story, a more interesting house can be build when a couple of more or less essential pieces are added. Here then is an expanded list of seven story elements:
- Point of view
- Theme or Premise
1. Story Setting
The setting is the time and place where the story takes place. Does it take place in contemporary time, now, in your home town? Or is it the setting a hundred years ago in a foreign country? Maybe the story happens sometime in the future on an alien world, or even on a fantasy world seperate from our conception of time? The setting will determine how the world in which the characters act and will have a big impact on who the characters are. How the setting is described influences the mood of the story.
The setting for H.G. Wells' story The Country of the Blind is set in an imaginary place:
"Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador's Andes, there lies that mysterious mountain valley, cut off from the world of men, the Country of the Blind."
2. Story Situation
The story situation is how and where the characters are when we find them at the beginning of the story. The situation should be provocative, holding opportunities for conflict. The story situation holds the seeds of the conflict which is developed through rising conflict in the plot. It sets the stage for a problem in the story that needs to be resolved.
The situation in Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace is this: "A young bride, poor but with a taste for luxury, borrows a diamond necklace from a friend."
A character is a person who acts in a short story. This person can be a human, an animal, a god or a talking piece of furniture. A character will perform a certain role in the story such as being the protagonist or antagonist. Characters, depending on how deeply they are developed, are described as rounded or flat.
Characterization is how the characters are described by the story and how their attitudes and emotions and especially character flaws impact on the story. Characterization is what the person is like, how we get to know them to be.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle starts some stories with extensive character studies. Although his style is outmoded his characterization is effective. See for example the description of Aloysius Lana in The Black Doctor.
The plot is the sequence of events through which the writer reveals what is happening, to whom, and why. The short story usually has only one plot. There are five essential parts of plot.
- Introduction - The beginning of the story where we find the characters in a situation and setting.
- Rising Conflict - The situation develops into a problem and one or more characters experience conflict.
- Climax - The conflict reaches a point of no return and the character must take an action or make a decision.
- Falling Action - The consequences of the characters action or decision plays out.
- Resolution or Denouement - The story is drawn to a close or a conclusion.
6. Theme or Premise
The theme or premis is the deeper message of the story. It can be seen as the moral of the story though it should not be diminished to a mere platitude. If the story can be seen as an argument then the theme or premise is the conclusion. Frequently the premise is only aluded to and not directly stated in the story.
7. Point of View
The point of view, or POV, is the as the position from which the story is told. Though there are finer distinctions the most common point of views used are first person and third person. The point of view determines how much we can see of the events in the story. Our understanding of events are coloured by the character whose point of view we share. An interesting exercise is to rewrite a story from another character's point of view.