Story Elements

Story Elements: Characters, Setting, Plot, and Theme

I love creative writing. I love world building and exploring the adventures of my characters. This is not true for many people, especially many of the students I have taught over the years. A lot of people struggle with creative writing, and in fact, a lot of students are downright afraid of it. Even when students are comfortable with writing, they often prefer academic writing, since academic writing has a structure and format that is predetermined and predictable. In theory, you can do anything in creative writing, and that seeming lack of structure can be uncomfortable and frightening.

Why Do Story Elements Matter?

Luckily, that stereotype of creative writing is wrong. Creative writing does have a structure, even if it is not immediately apparent. Creative writing is structured through story elements: such as character, setting, plot, and theme. These story elements help you, the writer, determine what is happening in your story, when it is happening, who it is happening to, and why it is happening. These story elements take the place of the detail paragraphs in a an academic essay’s traditional five paragraph structure.


In some ways, the characters are the most important element in a story. The characters are who we, the readers, identify with. We follow their adventures, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. Characters are more than their physical descriptions, although many inexperienced writers tend to focus on what a character looks like more than anything else about them. A strong story, or narrative, is built from the choices and actions of the characters, especially the main character, the protagonist, and the antagonist, the character who is the main obstacle to the protagonist.

An interesting and appealing character is one who has a full life, or backstory, behind them. Good characters have history, which explains why they are the way they are. And don’t be confused: a good character can be a bad guy. Villains, a popular type of antagonist, should be as complex and interesting as the protagonist. Characters should always have a reason why they do the things they do, based on who they are and what they want.


The setting represents when and when the story takes place. Setting has an enormous impact on the story, particularly in potentially placing limitations on the characters. A story set in the Mediterranean in the Classical period means that the characters will likely not have access to cel phones or bicycles. Setting affects the way characters speak, what language they use, how they dress, their history, their choices, and their relationships.

Of course, an experienced writer can always use the concept of anachronism as a tool for telling the story. Popular television show Dickinson, streaming on AppleTV+, tells the story of the early creative years of 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson using modern language and music set against historically accurate physical locations and props to make a commentary on how ahead of her time Dickinson was as a poet.


In a typical story, the plot is the sequence of events that occur to the characters. The problem for most inexperienced writers is that they focus on the things that happen, but not why they are happening. Plot only matters when it derives from the choices and actions of the characters. Think about the stories you like best. Things only occur because the characters make a choice or take an action. Now, think about a low-budget action movie or poorly written fan fiction. Things happen because the writer wants something to happen regardless of whether or not the characters are motivated to take those actions or make those choices.

Sometimes, when you are writing a story, you may find yourself stuck. Your main character reaches a point where they have no reason to go to the next plot point, event, or location you have planned. What do you do? This is where an outside event can occur or another character can take an action that spurs your protagonist forward. So long as your plot is motivated by the choices and actions of the characters, your audience will go along for the ride with you.


Very few writers or readers even know what the story element theme means. The theme of a story is the central point or message of the story. In other words, the theme is the big idea behind the story. One important theme in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, is that even the least powerful person can have a huge effect on the events of the world. The main theme of the comic books starring the character Spider-Man is that those with great power have a responsibility to use that power for good. Often a theme can be summed up in a single word, such as the theme of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is revenge.

The more complex a story, and the more people care about it, the more audiences will debate the theme. Casual fans of Star Wars movies may see them as merely exciting action romps with a simple theme of good versus evil, but for many, more serious, fans of the franchise, Star Wars is seen as an anti-fascist allegory to political events of the 20th and 21st Century here on Earth. Don’t be afraid of your audience debating what theme or themes are contained in your writing, even if they don’t seem to get what you thought you were saying.

These are not the only story elements that exist, but are the most common ones that result in questions to us from students and parents. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of these story elements and how to incorporate them into your creative writing. One last bit of advice: please take a little time to plan out your story. Create biographies of your main characters. Research the setting. Map out the general plot. And explore your theme; discover what you want to say with your writing. The more you put into your writing, the more audiences will get out of it.



Author: Jason Breitkopf